Let’s Talk About Twitter

Twitter, apparently, got bought out this week by someone who had enough money laying around for that kind of weird flex.

I think this was a foolish idea but from the standpoint of a developer. I’m going to come out swinging with some bold claims and, as always, I’m perfectly open to being argued out of my position.

Twitter Isn’t Hard To Build

Let’s ignore their various algorithms for suggesting content for a moment; I will get to those later. Instead, let’s consider just what kind of thing Twitter is at the most basic, abstracted level possible. It’s a service that allows a user to post data. In this case, the data we’re talking about is aimed at other users, so it’s hypertext and all that entails. Think videos, images, text, links, etc….

The most basic, boneheaded approach could have a roughly similar platform done by the end of the day. Creating a list of posts ordered by date, identified by users, and displayed on a web page isn’t profoundly difficult. Neither is creating the necessary interface to make posts and upload them somewhere. Neither is creating the infrastructure to allow a user to make an account and profile, and edit those same things. These are all problems that other developers have solved and a nontrivial portion of them have blogged about it, creating all manner of useful resources to guide you.

I’ll argue that one of the criteria that makes something valuable is the difficulty with which that something is created. If it’s really, really hard, then not a lot of people are going to be capable of doing it. Whatever they create will be necessarily limited and if enough people want that limited thing it will be more valuable. I’m pretty sure that isn’t a contentious claim.

In fact, it’s not difficult to build a reasonably workable version of most social media platforms. All of them riff on the idea that your users will make posts that other users might like to see. There is some degree of difficulty in scaling them such that they’re fit for purpose, though. But that’s a hardware problem, I’m a developer. Also, there is another reason that you shouldn’t worry about that overmuch if you decide to create your own social media platform.

But first….

Those Who Came Before

Just in case you’re not completely convinced that social media is a pretty straightforward concept for an application, I’m going to dredge up examples that preceded Twitter, mostly from memory. It’s easy to do if you’ve been hanging out on the internet long enough.

The earliest things I can think of that may be termed “social media” were things like GeoCities, Tripod, and Angelfire. The plan was, I presume, to reduce the barrier to entry for creating your own websites. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I seem to recall nearly every other page I visited in the late 90s springing from one of those services. There are likely some that I’ve completely forgotten, even. This may have been the era when achieving something resembling social media may have been difficult.

From there we can move on to LiveJournal and Xanga. It’s probably best we don’t dwell overmuch on those.

However, the first thing that really looked like social media, as we know it today, is MySpace. Roughly contemporary with the blogging platforms mentioned above, it provided an experience that the platforms that would follow it would riff on.

So how about I abandon a chronological order and fire off some other competing social media sites? The definition might get a bit loose, here, but the whole idea is that the users are generating the bulk of the content. We’ve had Tumblr, Facebook, TikTok, Discord, YouTube, Google+, Instagram, Flickr, Photobucket, and some I’m likely forgetting. We could even count WordPress among social media companies if you do enough violence to the definition! These all experienced some degree of success (in the case of Google+, “some success” is defined as “none”) and most are around in some form today.

The point of this is to illustrate that creating a service to allow users to make public posts and various other features isn’t special enough to warrant any degree of attention. Again, the value is not found within the software itself.

This also serves as a reminder that whatever social media giant is currently dominating isn’t guaranteed to dominate well into the future.

The Algorithm

I will now concede that the various algorithms these sites use to suggest content and make connections where users might find such things valuable are probably intensely difficult to produce. Presumably, the search features and categorization features are pretty involved as well. I’ve never produced or worked on one of these things, though, so the best I can do is guess from the hazy distance.

Those algorithms, taken in a vacuum, also don’t have any value. This is because if there aren’t enough users on your platform, there isn’t much to suggest. After all, nobody is making content. Creating and refining one of these algorithms devoid of an ocean of content is sort of akin to having a Formula One engine and no car to use it.

So What Has Value?

I hope I’ve successfully argued that you’re not buying some cutting-edge, monumentally involved software when you buy up a social media company. There must be something, then, that has enough value to warrant an incredible price tag, right?

The only thing that I can reasonably point to as being valuable is the user base. The algorithms that sort and recommend and curate content only work when there is an enormous amount of content being produced. The application is only attractive if there are enough people using it that you’re guaranteed to find something to talk about or share. The incredible infrastructure that serves Twitter up to you is only useful if there are enough users that you needed that infrastructure in the first place.

No matter how large you are, or how rich you are, you can’t buy all those users. Google+ provides you with all the example you should need.

Why Do I Think This Is Foolish?

At first glance, Twitter has a ton of users, so in this case, you’re likely buying into a pretty valuable resource, correct?

Well, yes and no. It’s valuable now, of course. But my impression of social media, an impression earned through experience as a user, is that you’re always just on the edge of introducing a change that will drive users away. Or, if you’re content to leave your application static for fear of driving anyone off, someone else is adding features that will attract a bunch of your users instead. The only way I feel like you could successfully navigate this situation is if you possess nearly perfect clairvoyance and you can predict how best to balance things.

But even with all these users, you still won’t necessarily make money. Since an app of this nature really isn’t much of a product (that is, nobody’s paying for access), the product must be something else. It’s likely an open secret at this point: the data of the users are the product. Ideally, you generate enough users to make advertising on your platform worthwhile.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet that advertisers don’t much care what platform they’re advertising on, as long as a heck of a lot of eyeballs were present. Ideally, attached (in some manner) to credit cards. Also, as long as it wouldn’t potentially negatively impact their brand’s image. Without them, you don’t have many options for income, unless you plan to charge users. Good luck!

It’s this volatile nature that makes me feel like it’s foolish, though. All one has to do, at this point, is look at the meteoric rise of TikTok and the precipitous decline of MySpace. There’s nothing that says you can only use one social media app at a time. Eventually, though, one is going to win out. It’s likely to be a new and interesting one that you haven’t heard of, yet.

Published by Joe

I'm a software developer from Minnesota. I also ride bikes!

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