The evolution of Twitter/X and what it means for users...
Twitter (or ‘twttr’): a tool for sharing news and ideas in posts of up to 140 characters. Facilitates connections and communication.
X: a digital town square run by a free-speech absolutist. Ambitions to become an ‘everything app’.
What a difference a name makes! Twitter has been around since 2006 and over the course of its history has broken major news stories, enabled revolutions, fuelled conspiracy theories and made – and broken – reputations and romances. However, the most significant chapter of Twitter’s history has arguably been the most recent one. Here, we take a quick look at the social media platform, the changes introduced since Elon Musk’s takeover and what they mean for its users.
From humble beginnings to revolutionaries
Jack Dorsey launched Twitter with a humble post – ‘just setting up my twttr’ – in March 2006. In the early days it was used as an internal service for the firm Odeo, before its release to the public in July 2006. Users were able to update their contacts with real-time posts and messaging. Businesses quickly jumped on-board, interacting with their customers and using the platform for marketing and building brand awareness. It wasn’t long before politicians, celebrities, NGOs, news organisations, governments and everything in between signed up.
The platform was uncomplicated; it didn’t have a ton of features and it presented something of a level playing field. And we went wild for it. Major news stories started to break on Twitter first, rather than via traditional news outlets. Citizen journalists shared updates from the field and revolutionaries embraced it as a tool for organising action; the Arab Spring of 2010 is one such example. In 2021 Twitter’s global revenue was over $5 billion and by 2022 the number of global users had reached just shy of 400 million.
However, 2022 was also the year of perhaps the most revolutionary moment in Twitter’s history. Enter Elon Musk. On 5th April Musk revealed he’d purchased shares in Twitter, and then made an offer to buy the company for around $44 billion. He invested in Twitter, he wrote in a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, ‘as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.’
Does free speech equal freedom for all?
Free speech – and who has the right to criticise/offend/speak ‘freely’ about whom – is a hotly contested issue, especially when it comes to social media. On one side is the argument that platforms are open territories and users have a right to say what they want about whomever they want. On the other is the argument that these platforms and their owners have the responsibility to protect users from hateful and offensive commentary (although, of course, the interpretation of these things will differ depending on who you ask!). Upon his takeover, Musk posted a Tweet which seemed to signify a kind of backhanded attempt to placate both sides: ‘For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.’
This did little to reassure many of its users: hundreds of thousands closed their accounts, including notable left-leaning figures. Meanwhile, some right-wing figures saw an increase in follower numbers after Musk’s takeover, as new users joined the site. In October last year, Twitter even admitted a “statistically significant difference favouring the political right wing” due to an algorithm that amplifies content from some sources over others.
Five changes to note
Musk’s Twitter takeover has done much to fuel the debate around social media and free speech, and is perhaps the most impactful change to have occurred. However, it’s an overarching change and one that many users will not actively consider in their day-to-day engagement with the platform. It’s also one that has occupied the media amidst a number of other changes (current, future, positive and negative) that do – or will – impact the day-to-day user experience. Here are five that you should know about:
1. Paid verification: The blue check mark was a hallmark feature of Twitter, indicating that accounts met a certain criteria. The legacy verification programme was replaced earlier this year and only those who subscribed to the X Premium service and meet X’s eligibility criteria would be able to keep their check mark. Of course, this comes at a cost: £11 a month in the UK.
2. Removal of a ‘blocking’ feature: It’s not been introduced yet, but last month Musk announced that a feature which currently allows users to block other accounts will be removed. In a post, he said that the feature “makes no sense”. Users will still be allowed to block users from sending them direct messages and be able to ‘mute’ other accounts. The response has been mixed, with some speculating that the move could violate the terms and conditions of Google Play and Apple’s App Store.
3. Changes to ad revenue sharing: A seemingly good news move for those looking to make money via Twitter came when Musk announced that it would lower requirements for its creator payment programme. Creators used to have to have 15 million impressions within three months before they were eligible for ad revenue sharing; this has been lowered to five million. They’ll also be able to withdraw as little as $10, rather than $50.
4. Video calling is coming: Last month Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X, revealed the upcoming feature in an interview with CNBC, saying, “soon you’ll be able to make video chat calls without having to give your phone number to anyone on the platform.” This was one of a number of examples she gave which demonstrate X’s evolution to “the everything app.”
5. Erasing history? Rounding off the top five is a change that was definitely not one to shout about to the media. X made headlines (again) last month when users noticed that tweets posted before December 2014 did not display correctly. Photos (including an Oscars selfie that became the platform’s most retweeted image) were deleted and media and links to other sites were replaced by broken short links. Some reports included suggestions that this was an intentional move to save costs on storage data. This speculation is given some credibility considering a report earlier this year that noted Twitter has lost almost half of its advertising revenue since Musk’s takeover.
The user is everything
The transformation of X into an ‘everything app’ is in motion. Some aspects of the platform will likely remain – its role in the debate around free speech being one of them – while we’ll also continue to see the roll-out of new features. As with all of Musk’s business and personal moves, there are also likely to be a few surprises in the pipeline.
At Appdrawn, we place the user and the client at the centre of any application or business system we design and build. This is critical to the user experience, both in terms of functionality and retaining excellent client and user relations. The fluctuations in X’s user numbers and the brand’s reputation mean that this is something Musk should not lose sight of when considering changes to the platform in the months to come.