After another chaotic week of mass departures and policy changes, Twitter’s future seems highly uncertain as users – and everyone else – increasingly ask themselves one question: what would a world without the so-called bird app even look like?
With around 237 million daily visitors at the last count in late June, Twitter’s user base is still smaller than Facebook’s nearly two billion, TikTok’s over one billion, and even Snapchat’s 363 million.
But in the 15 years of Twitter’s existence, the platform has become the dominant communication channel for politicians and leaders, corporations, brands, celebrities and the news media.
Some, like New York entrepreneur Steve Cohn, are convinced that the Twitterverse is just an artificial microcosm of the real world, with limited actual meaning.
Twitter is “in no way ‘material,'” Cohn explained — from his own Twitter account. “The world functions well without Twitter.”
Few people actually tweeted, he continued. “Almost all tweets come from (the) 1%. Most normal people never log into Twitter.”
But for others, including Karen North, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the site is indispensable for shedding light on little-known conversations.
“People without celebrity tend not to be heard,” she said. But on Twitter, “there’s an opportunity to announce things.”
In situations of conflict, social movements or crackdowns, “I think Twitter has become the central platform to spread the truth and the reality on the ground,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told AFP.
Like most other social networks, Twitter is used to spread propaganda and misinformation, and the company has developed moderation tools to try and limit the worst.
However, their ability to keep up with the demands of such a task has been called into question after more than two-thirds of those teams have left since Elon Musk’s controversial takeover.
A 2018 study found that false information circulates faster than fact-checked posts.
“It’s an unrealistic expectation to imagine a platform where misinformation and disinformation is impossible,” Lister warned.
But “to see good information and bad information disappear,” with the possible disappearance of Twitter, “is by definition a bad thing,” Lister said.
“Autocrats and anyone who doesn’t want information to be widely shared would potentially benefit from Twitter being gone,” added Mark Hass, a professor at Arizona State University (ASU).
A Twitter outage could have a devastating impact on journalism, experts say.
“Twitter… really isn’t a social network,” North explained. “It’s a network of news and information.”
“It’s the place, the central hub, where journalists go to get an overview or an idea for a story, a headline, a source or a quote,” she said.
As newsroom staff and budgets shrink, the resources simply aren’t there, even at the best-funded news outlets, “to find sources in the world,” North lamented.
Twitter, she said, is where much of that work can be done.
Another knock-on effect of a possible collapse of the platform, according to North, is that without Twitter, the world’s rich and powerful stars and politicians will still be able to garner media attention, while those less in the spotlight seek attention will fight .
“With Twitter, anyone can announce a story,” she said.
The website serves to exchange information in real time.
“Twitter has been a vital source for information, networking, guidance, real-time updates, community mutual aid and more during hurricanes, wildfires, wars, outbreaks, terrorist attacks, mass shootings…etc,” tweeted University of Maryland researcher Caroline Orr .
“It’s not something that can be replaced by existing platforms.”
At the moment, the solution for a potential Twitter alternative isn’t obvious.
“Facebook is valuable, but I think it’s almost a bit dated,” Lister said.
Smaller Twitter competitors are likely to siphon users, including Mastodon, which has grown in popularity since Musk bought Twitter.
“But these are likely to remain niche, and none of them will become the public space that Twitter is trying to create,” said ASU’s Hass.
He and North both listed Reddit as possible replacements, although North said the forums-based network is limited by its fragmented and cluttered design, which fails to replicate Twitter’s user experience.
Could a replacement arise? “Of course,” Lister added, but he noted that such ingenuity takes tremendous resources and time.
“It doesn’t just happen overnight.”