“Always aim for a monopoly,” says Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and billionaire venture capitalist. Thiel’s dictum is more than a characteristically grandiose proclamation from someone whose resume—Ayn Rand true believer, seasteader, determined to live forever—shades the line between “industry icon” and “possible super-villain.” The drive for monopoly has become the de facto goal for most venture-backed tech companies, which, because they largely give away their products for free, must scale relentlessly, attracting as many users and as much data as possible. That has led to the rise of massive platforms and a few major consumer-product retailers (the big five of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, plus a handful of others), who, as long as they continue to swallow up insurgent competitors and sell enough ads, should reign supreme for some time.
The crisis consuming Twitter shows what happens when a company fails in this quest for monopoly. Although it’s growing internationally, Twitter’s user numbers in the U.S. are flat, the company is hemorrhaging more than $100 million per quarter, and Jack Dorsey, the company’s co-founder recently restored to the CEO chair, may be unable to stem the bleeding.
It’s not for lack of trying. Twitter recently introduced Moments—essentially, curated collections of tweets surrounding major events, designed especially to appeal to casual users and media partners. This week, Twitter announced that its favorite button would become a heart-shaped like button. In shedding one of their signature features (albeit one that was really the same as the Facebook Like and other similar approval mechanisms), Twitter offered some of the sentimental, anthropology-inflected humanitarianism that has become part of the industry vernacular. “The heart,” Twitter wrote in a press release, “is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people.”
People liked the heart, the company added. As The Verge reported, “tests showed that people who had hearts enabled on their accounts used them more often.” That’s key. Twitter desperately needs to grow but also to better monetize their existing users, and one way to do that is to get them to be more active.
Social networks monetize their users by collecting data about who they are, what they like, and what they do, and then selling that information and using it to target ads. Twitter has simply never been as good at this as Facebook or Google, much less LinkedIn. The accounting varies, but compared to Twitter, Facebook earns about twice as much ad revenue per user (Google, thanks to its lucrative dominance in search advertising, is in a whole other echelon).
Ironically, this business challenge reflects some of Twitter’s virtues. Although it’s a mostly public network—sometimes far too public, for anyone who’s experienced harassment—Twitter doesn’t require users to fill out expansive profiles or verify their identities. Twitter the corporation also has a record of fighting for user privacy, and its role as a protest and organizing tool is well chronicled. In an Internet landscape that tends to be highly filtered and manicured, especially wherever Facebook and Google are concerned, Twitter offered a simple, chronological feed.
But Twitter’s rigid simplicity has also been a liability, from the 140-character restriction (a box Twitter has seemingly been fighting its way out of ever since) to its bumbling responses to harassment. Twitter’s barrier to entry has always been low, but this also makes it easier to leave, which has created ample room for bots and abusive accounts to operate. This unbounded quality has, I think, contributed to a widespread feeling of overexposure, which stifles any sense of intimacy and inhibits conversation. Tweets are supposed to feel like ephemeral bits of speech, but they are often parsed, as Robinson Meyer argues, with the kind of seriousness, permanence, and intention afforded to printed text. Other social networks, for all of their flaws, allow a user to feel as if he or she is speaking to a smaller, more cultivated, and likely more welcoming audience.
That’s why some Facebook users got upset when the company recently announced that more posts would start appearing in searches. This applied to posts marked public—there are more than two trillion of them—but Facebook users didn’t consider their posts that public, i.e. discoverable by anyone. To many of them, “public” meant their Facebook friends. But clearly making more posts searchable would increase engagement, provide a welcome data trove for advertisers, and make Facebook more of a force in search, especially about breaking news, where Twitter may hold a rare advantage. Facebook has also become adept at a particular routine: introduce a feature that surfaces more user data; withstand the inevitable privacy backlash; establish a new status quo of less privacy and more Internet surveillance; profit handsomely.
Were Twitter a different kind of company, it might have followed a different path. The flat, pseudo-democratic nature of Twitter has long granted it the air of a public space, something the company has cultivated. But it remains, at heart, a standard venture-backed-turned-publicly traded corporation, with all of the attendant requirements for growth and steadily increasing revenues. Like practically every other Silicon Valley firm, then, its business is data collection, surveillance, and ads. As long as those are Twitter’s guiding concerns, its subsequent transformations—new ad products, changed response buttons, more filtered and curated feeds—will cause it to mimic the industry monopolies, namely Facebook and Google. Whatever once made Twitter useful, even great, seems likely to be subsumed in this search for viability.
Twitter reflects the challenges of what’s been called “surveillance capitalism.” Everyone is competing for the same sources of attention, to become a massive platform sucking in as much data as possible. The winners are distinguished by having the biggest user bases, the most expansive records of human behavior, and by constantly experimenting on their customers, finding new behaviors to track or subtly increasing engagement by a percentage point or two. (These are the monopolies lionized by Peter Thiel, who was Facebook’s most important early investor.) Users act as both workers and customers, producing and consuming information at once, while submitting to total surveillance—an arrangement that’s far less empowering than tech industry dogma would have you believe.
Could Twitter have flown against the prevailing winds of surveillance capitalism? Counterfactuals are tough, and it’s difficult to believe that, in this attenuated economy, a tech company could become so big without essentially giving away its product. The appeal of the monopoly—and the cultural and market supremacy that come with it—is strong. And yet it seems pathetic, if not downright bizarre, that a company with hundreds of millions of dedicated users, that has helped to pioneer novel forms of communication, can be such a mess. But that’s where we are, as Twitter stumbles toward its putative death spiral, which ends with bankruptcy, acquisition, or (most boringly of all) the service becoming a cheap amalgam of Snapchat and Facebook. Would people pay for Twitter, or something like it, if it meant affirming user privacy, not kowtowing to advertisers, and crafting features that improve one’s experience, rather than one’s utility as a data producer? Perhaps more important, would Twitter even think to ask?