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Psychology : Applied

Twitter Thrives on Community, Not Innovation: Why Twitter Persists Despite Elon Musk

While Musk continues to throw grenades at his own social network – the vast majority of its users remain. Why?

Old Twitter Logo

It seems to be generally agreed that Elon Musk has made some weird choices since taking over Twitter. His most recent, dropping the globally recognised logo and name and rebrandingj is as “X”. By some estimates this has devalued Twitter’s brand equity by $4 billion; the trademark’s worth had already collapsed an estimated 32% ($5.7 billion) since his takeover last year. Musk’s own brand as a business wizard has taken a substantial hit as well, with Twitter’s revenue having halved since he’s taken the helm. Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson of the Financial Times notes that these numbers imply that Musk “may have trashed an asset worth anything between 9 percent and 45 percent of what he paid for Twitter.”

The loss of the much beloved bird logo, rendering the whole language of Twitter redundant (how does an X tweet?), is only the most recent of a raft of decisions that have aggravated users since Musk officially took over in late 2022. Let’s just look at a few of those:

  • He sacked nearly 80% of Twitter’s staff, creating a tsunami of ill-will while undermining Twitter’s capacity to moderate tweets and operate efficiently.

  • He re-instated Donald Trump’s account (which he as fortunately neglected to use) as well as many others who were banned for their hate-speech.

  • He made it easier for the spread of mis-information in the name of “free speech”.

  • He disbanded “blue tick” verification and replaced it with subscription-only “Twitter-Blue”:

    • Infuriating Twitter's most influential users, many of whom left the platform.

    • Many who stayed and refused to pay for Twitter Blue found themselves mysteriously re-verified.

    • Immediately the new verification system was shown to be a sham with scam verified accounts being opened almost immediately.

    • Despite being a “free speech absolutist” he banned accounts of those who disagreed with him.

  • His own Twitter thread is erratic, impulsive, and divisive including the poll on his own leadership which he lost (twice) and has still failed to step down (though he has now appointed someone).

Each and every occasion upon which Musk has poked his nearly 400 million user base has provoked threats of a mass exodus from the platform. And yet, most of these threats have not turned into action. Despite blow after blow, Twitter’s user base is only estimated to drop by just under 4% by the end of 2023. True, up until Musk’s takeover, its user base has only grown, but considering how pissed off users appear to be, it’s a pretty low attrition rate.

Arrow pointing down

Despite the stickiness of its user numbers, the financial ramifications for Twitter are more severe. Insider Intelligence is predicting a loss of 32.7 million users by the end of 2024 and Datareportal notes that Twitter’s advertising audience has collapsed by nearly 20%. So while users may be sticking around, advertisers appear to be more wary. If Musk cannot leverage his subscription service, Twitter’s financials will only get worse.

Why Users Stick Around While Threatening Not To

Twitter users have had ample opportunity to jump ship and move over to other platforms – but nothing really seems to catch. Shortly after Musk’s takeover there were threats of a mass exodus over to Mastodon that never happened. While it’s true that Mastodon’s de-centralised structure made it difficult, that’s not the only reason. The recent launch of Meta’s Threads proves this point clearly. It took less than a week for Threads to attract 100 million new users, an achievement that took Facebook over two years. This was due to it being so easy to set up an account for those already on Instagram. However, usage of this new social network has dropped off precipitously since. Why?

The strongest case for the staying power of Twitter are the solid social links that people have made on it since it launched in 2006. Over the years people have built up and invested in their social connections across this network, and these links do not break easily. Despite being continually aggravated by Musk’s behaviour and the changes he’s made to the platform, Twitter users are at least aggravated together. Even those who lost their much coveted “legacy verification tick” retained their followings – their social capital trumped their little blue tick.

When the first users attempted to move over to Mastodon, they quickly realised that many of their followers weren’t following suit. A similar situation is happening with Threads. When you’ve built a comfortable house for yourself in one location, and you already know all your neighbours, it’s hard to pack up and build a new elsewhere – even if the local governor is more up your street, the air is cleaner, and the views are better. People are more attached to their social connections than the local climate, and it’s the same with Twitter.

The Rebrand: Musk Thinks He’s Innovating a Product He Owns: Only He's Presiding Over a Community He Doesn’t

Musk has repeatedly related to Twitter as if it were just a product, like a Tesla, when it is so much more than that. He clearly gets irritated when many of its users get aggravated with the changes he’s unilaterally imposed, taking a defensive and righteous public stance in response to their complaints. Rather than listening to members of a community of users, he is ramming “innovations” down their throats. The thing is, Twitter is not like a new model car that’s released with new bells and whistles that consumers can decide whether they want or not.

The re-brand from Twitter to “X” is the perfect exemplar of this bad leadership. Sure, you can re-brand a “thing”, it happens all the time, but rebranding a community is not so easily done. That’s because you need to bring your community onboard to do so well. Community members aren’t just users or customers, they are stakeholders. Musk deeply misunderstands the symbolic meaning the little bird had for Twitter users, an icon that is associated with the connections that have been made there. The new “X”, for many, feels like an interloper, as if their virtual community has been occupied by an unwanted invader.

Virtual communities, like real ones, require nuanced leadership and guidance – leadership that relies on continued collaboration and incorporation of its membership, not rule by fiat.

Less of a Car, More Like a Highway System

The sudden dropping of a new logo and name, without adequate consultation with users or understanding the importance of symbolic value illustrates Musk’s product-centred approach perfectly. Innovating Twitter is not like launching a new model Tesla. Unlike a new car, Twitter is more like an intensely populated highway network that requires to continuous maintenance and improvement.

A highway junction

Nobody likes roadworks that interrupt their trips, but they do hope that such works will improve their journeys in the future. But even when roadworks make things worse, people simply can’t just shift over to a whole new highway system. We need our transportation networks to get to work and see their friends. Musk, however, doesn’t see it this way. Instead:

Musk like the owner of a prized toy he’s forced to share with people he doesn’t like.

The fact of the matter is that Twitter users like myself have stayed there despite Musk. Most of us have built connections there with others across the globe that matter to us. We know that if we move, those connections cannot simply be reproduced elsewhere, so we are highly reluctant to relinquish them. It is human nature to retain our interpersonal connections – even if some those connections cause us pain.

Perhaps what’s most ironic about all of this is that in addition to our friends, Twitter is a notoriously nasty place: let’s not kid ourselves. As I’ve written elsewhere, the platform contributes to diminished social cohesion by splitting users into disparate groups and pitting them against each other instead of encouraging broader connections based on what we share. And while this continues to be a seriously problematic issue, the comfort we find there and connections we make within those smaller groups makes it worth the trouble. An improved leadership at Twitter could diminish intergroup rancour while maintaining the closer connections within its myriad smaller communities that keeps it going.

Why Twitter Persists Despite Elon Musk

Whether Musk’s ego can take it or not, Twitter is bigger than him. It remains a player despite him, not because of him. In some ways, you could say that there’s an interesting level of social karma playing out here in that:

The strength of the communities that have been built on Twitter is now costing Musk billions.

No matter how much he tries to innovate the product in ways that run contrary to the wishes of many of its users, neither its users nor its advertisers are buying it. Literally. In a way you can see this as a big win for communities. The resilience of the communities mediated across Twitter has made it very difficult to break it despite what appear to be his repeated attempts to do so.

It may very well be that one day he does. He’d accomplish this by continuing to create roadworks that serve to hinder what people have come there do until they can’t do it anymore. But by doing this he would essentially be cutting off his nose to spite his face. The best thing for all of us would be for him to raise up a white flag and back off so that someone who understands community can come along and run it properly; hopefully before it's too late.



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