A year ago “Twitter” was taken private through an acquisition by Elon Musk for $44 billion. Was it worth it? What’s happening with it? And, what should we expect? I’ll make the argument that Twitter is in fact a priceless asset in the new Gen AI driven data economy and the entrepreneur who is always three-steps ahead with any new industry he enters, is just on step-one of what’s to come … on what might just change everything in how we think about social and media. The same way we might argue he once did with peer-to-peer money movement, electric vehicles, satellite connectivity, cars that drive themselves and rockets that land themselves.
Change is uncomfortable, evolution is necessary. When speaking on digital transformation, it’s typically in present or past-tense; something we’ve just gone through or are currently in the middle-of. While transformation at any organization of any size is daunting, exhausting, and expensive – if done correctly, it should be a constant. As they say, the only constant is change. There’s only one guarantee; that at the end of whatever digital transformation you're in the midst of, it is inevitably the start of your next. If change is uncomfortable and change is a constant, I might suggest we have to become comfortable with uncomfortability.
Moving at the speed of uncomfortability
As for a case study that we can experience in real-time, Twitter is going through an interesting transformation right now; or I should say “X”, case-in-point. This however is an incredible opportunity to relax the mental-models that constrain us and use hindsight as a mechanism to drive foresight. We don’t like change and we most certainly don’t appreciate change from the things we’ve grown to love that have given us a sense of communal ownership. And, for those that love Twitter, there’s certainly a sense of ownership loss driving pessimism in predictions where opportunity might be shining with optimism.
The question that needs to be asked:
Is Twitter changing, or, does Twitter need to change? Twitter isn’t the start-up we remember; it is now a 17-year old publicly traded company that’s been taken private again … it is now a large, aging, institution. Several folks have been asking me about my personal thoughts on Twitter since Musk bought the company, more so since he rebranded to X; and, everyone seemingly has an opinion on the concept of a “super-app”. Candidly, I’m probably told what Twitter’s fate is more than I’m asked. I did have the unique fortune of selling my first start-up to Twitter early; back when it was still 140 characters and before it IPOed. People forget that there was a time when Twitter didn’t even have its own mobile app, when a Tweet didn’t have the ability to have video or even photos – it was a wild time; many would argue, it was a better time. I’ve been Tweeting for 17-years, had a peek under-the-hood as an employee, and it’s clear that the opportunities ahead are plentiful; the best times might still be ahead of us.
It’s not a ‘Super-App’, it’s a Better App (experience)
Pre-existing mental models are powerful, they can help us better understand what is, but they are often a distraction to what isn’t but could be. The opportunity for Twitter to successfully navigate its own transformation doesn’t exist within the pre-existing super-apps that are made popular throughout the Asian market – this isn’t about posting selfies, doing laundry, and booking travel all-in-one app. This is about an opportunity to evaluate the unnecessary redundancies in our ecosystem, address the neglected core features and leapfrog the user experience from the past decade-and-a-half to the next.
This is the (potential) opportunity, IMO:
To modernize in-app direct messaging – making it significantly more secure and much more conversational.
To fundamentally rearchitect the in-app browser – for a more seamless and secure transition between transaction and conversation.
To rethink P2P money-movement – bringing in a new era of interaction between users and themselves, the creators they follow, and the brands they transact with.
To unlock the massive potential of Twitter’s data – unleashing one of the world’s most scarce assets into an ever-growing Generative AI powered protocol.
Slide into my DMs, safely
In 2023, let’s start by asking ourselves: why do we have Signal and Telegram as apps? Why do these apps even exist? What happened in the market that necessitated their existence? They’re certainly more secure than the alternatives and offer a handful of group messaging capabilities lacking elsewhere – but, why is that unique to these stand-alone apps? In 2023, why is something like an in-app direct message in Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram not more secure? How is this a unique selling proposition and not the status-quo?
The first two steps in a super-app consolidation are:
Take the best of those stand-alone messaging apps and bring them into the next evolution of in-app direct messaging.
Remove those, now unnecessary, stand-alone apps.
The flashlight app on iOS was a bright light, literally, on the creativity that a single developer could unlock exposing a clever solution to a pervasive problem – a solution that ultimately should have just been built-into the iPhone, not requiring a stand-alone app; as was its eventual fate.
X is a protocol, the browser is the platform
Since the dawn of the Apple AppStore, developers world-wide seemingly have all decided that the singular piece of functionality they would all collectively dial-it-in for … would be the in-app browser; a clunky hurdle that borders on barrier between the application we’re in and the entirety of the world-wide-web. This blacksheep is a constant across almost every major platform from LinkedIn to Instagram to Facebook. Some app developers have made a mini-leap in making reading specific articles from the web a better, more integrated experience in-app … but in-app browsing is universally a broken experience. This is Web3’s shining moment; one of that movement’s greatest contributions to the future of how we experience the web.
What we’re really talking about is the potential within dApps that is exposed within a more secure and connected browser. When the browser is more closely tied to your identity, it affords a more persistent experience. Your X credentials within a secure X eco-system becomes both an authentication mechanism (perhaps displacing Authy as another app to remove from your unnecessary list of stand-alone apps) as well as a holder of stored-value – anything from digital currency to concert tickets to your college diploma. And while the future doesn’t have to necessarily be “decentralized”, the spirit of the dApp within the web3 wallet could provide a more open, fair, and robust “marketplace” that rivals even the Apple AppStore.
In 2023 and beyond, the web-based mobile application is at, or near, parity with their native app counterparts. Outside of the convenience of having a button on your homescreen, the only true advantage of a native app is the access to some of the hardware components – which you might ask yourself if the hardware manufacturer who also profits from their own AppStore might have an economic incentive that creates a potential conflict of interest? That’s the decentralization that might be worthy of consideration. Many pontificate on whether X would ever launch its own phone, the question is, when will X launch its own browser?
The Most Transformative Movement Might be Money-Movement
There’s an opportunity for a better mobile browsing experience, one that is less focused on browsing and more on interacting, one that truly treats the next generation of websites more like webapps. Imagine visiting Geico within an modern in-app browser and being able to sign-up for a car insurance policy simply by securely sharing your authenticated and verified KYC information, paying for that policy through in-app money-movement (with your stored-value of choice), and accessing the policy from the same connected experience – even sharing it privately in the event of a car accident. This is not a super-app, this is a platform for a better mobile app experience. This is more of a “passport” than a “wallet”. This opportunity is one that includes the future of website authentication, embedded payments, micro-transactions, and even consumer loyalty through airdrops.
Start-ups like BOLT and Fast could never survive as stand-alone companies, because it’s not a business, it’s a deficiency in the modern browser. It’s worth remembering that Google Chrome is now 15 years old and Apple’s Safari is 20 years old! How many disparate stand-alone apps do we need for splitting the bill, tipping the dog walker, or getting your buy-in to the neighborhood poker game?
The ‘Thread’ that never went viral
Many want Twitter to remain stagnant, a copy of its past self that doesn’t make us uncomfortable because it never changes. Nothing survives without change, that’s the basis of evolution (and the result of extinction), Twitter is no different. Change is a constant, change is inevitable … in the words of The Mandalorian, “this is the way”. It’s also the driving factor behind the biggest misstep that was Meta’s “Threads”. All that Threads was successful in doing was showing that a $780B company could replicate a social feed from 17-years ago in a relatively short period of time – and when they did it, I was most surprised that you were surprised. From MySpace to Facebook to Twitter to SnapChat to Instagram and TikTok, they all entered the scene with something net-new – a copy of what came before it with a take we’d had not previously experienced that took the world by storm. Threads launched as just a copy and brought nothing net-new to the literal conversation. This is important to the conversation as it’s living proof that Twitter must reinvent itself; the world is losing interest in what it once was and this is the opportunity to figure out what it will be.
44 billion reasons Twitter is priceless
I realized I’ve spent much time talking about the Twitter product … what if that wasn’t the conversation worth having? GitHub sent a shocking revelation through the product community when it launched CoPilot two years ago – we had to ask, what if the data behind GitHub was now more valuable than the product of GitHub itself? Which in turn introduced yet another “feedback loop” for product managers everywhere, the data feedback loop. While many are looking at the price paid for the Twitter product, there’s been little discussion about the value of the Twitter data; especially in the context of an ever-growing LLM dependent world.
In this world where there are ironically a small number of (useful) large language models – significantly large data sources of structured and unstructured data become extremely valuable, extremely rare. When looking around at some of the world’s largest and most compelling data sources to train an LLM, such as GPT, on – the world gets really small, really fast, and very closed. GitHub was acquired by Microsoft in 2018, LinkedIn was acquired by Microsoft two years prior, Meta inherently owns Facebook, Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2012, TikTok is infamously a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese technology firm ByteDance, and many forget that Reddit was acquired by Condé Nast in 2006! Also, Snap, perhaps now regrettably, was designed from inception to delete its user’s content from the servers after 30-days – a unique value-prop in 2011, arguably a missed opportunity going into 2021. And of course, most recently, a personal appeal from Jimmy Wales has made it abundantly clear that “Wikipedia is not for sale”! If you really wanted to understand the nuances of human discourse at scale, what’s left that’s available that has almost two-decades of conversation from 350M users including every recent U.S. President to the largest brands in the world?
For better or worse, it became very clear that much of ChatGPT was trained on Twitter data. Over the past 17-years, Twitter has changed its CEO 5 times, and since its IPO in 2013, the stock had been almost as stagnant as the product. When Dorsey stepped down as CEO and shareholders were losing confidence in Twitter, there was a unique opportunity for someone to acquire one of the only remaining available significant data sets in the entire world – $44B is a steal for what some might consider a priceless asset. Despite how you feel about the person individually, Elon Musk is typically three-steps (if not more) ahead; he did co-found OpenAI eight years ago, long before most of us ever heard the term “Generative AI”. And today, it’s worth remembering that Musk has recently launched his competitor to OpenAI through the newly launched xAI – which notably reclaimed the domain name “ai.com” from OpenAI. xAI, trained on Twitter's data, is already worth more than Twitter itself. There’s a seismic shift coming.
However, for the Data Feedback Loop to work, the core product becomes less valuable than the data it produces over-time, but that data needs to keep feeding the core product to ensure it maintains enough value to keep generating data – so, what is that value to the user that will feed that engine? That’s the only question to ask of Twitter going forward. Sorry, I mean “X”.
Change is uncomfortable, evolution is necessary.
I’ve been Tweeting for 17-years, had a peek under-the-hood as an employee, and it’s clear that the opportunities ahead are plentiful; the best times might still be ahead of us.