OPINION | Twitter vs. TikTok: The new social media turf wars

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Twitter is about to be radically disrupted, and maybe it's about time, says Noah Smith.

After about a decade of stasis, big things are afoot in the world of social media.

Audio chat app Clubhouse, newsletter platform Substack, and video-sharing app TikTok, among others, are giving rise to an explosion of new conversations and building large followings for the early adopters. But even more importantly, the new platforms are partially unbundling Twitter, threatening to make that platform less pivotal to public discussion.

For about a decade, Twitter has been the place to go for news, public discussions and thinking on current affairs. Its radically open structure — you can just tweet directly to anyone on the platform at any time, and everyone can see it — and its encouragement of extreme virality mean that news and ideas fly faster and farther on Twitter than anywhere else. That allowed users to hear and see lots of things that the old media ecosystem wasn’t good at transmitting — for example, police brutality videos.

But that same virality and openness, along with the option of anonymity and the inherent lack of community moderation, created huge downsides to Twitter.

A great incentive not to change

A research team found in 2014 that rage travels faster than any other emotion on the platform. Harassment of women on the platform became so notorious that international human rights organisations took note. In 2018 three MIT scholars found that falsehoods travel faster on Twitter than real news. And as former US president Donald Trump showed before he was permanently banned, Twitter can easily be leveraged by bad actors to stir up anger and hatred that turns to violence. All of this drove user engagement, which gave the company an incentive not to change things.

What’s really amazing is how long this unpleasant equilibrium endured. Now, finally, entrepreneurs have found ways to chip off pieces of the public discussion from that one central . And that promises to at least partially liberate the discourse from the downsides of that single platform.

Substack is one example, along with its competitors like Ghost. Blogging isn’t new, nor are newsletters, but by packaging both in an easy-to-use standardised format and facilitating subscriber payments, the new blogging platforms have managed to incentivise article-writing in a way that free services like Medium and Blogger didn’t. As a result, people are going back to blogging (disclosure: I write a Substack blog on the side). Article writing has distinct advantages over Twitter threads — it allows you to go on at length with less risk of boring people, makes it harder to selectively quote pieces of an idea out of context, and in general creates a much richer intellectual experience than slicing your thoughts into 280-character chunks.

TikTok, the video sharing app, might be another example. Though it competes more with YouTube than Twitter, it has become a place where young people can share their thoughts on politics and current affairs without fear of immediate attack.

But the real game-changer is Clubhouse. The audio chat app, where people can create and moderate their own discussion rooms or drift from room to room, is seeing a worldwide explosion of interest:

Though Clubhouse is far from the only audio discussion app around — Discord is another great one — its slick and intuitive user interface makes it incredibly easy to use, while the openness of its discussions (at least, to those who own an iPhone and get an invite) approaches that of Twitter. You can follow anyone or wander into any discussion.

But Clubhouse discussions couldn’t be less Twitter-like in their tone and format. Voice adds a warm, human element that text simply lacks, pushing people toward give and take instead of denunciation and insults. Host moderation of rooms allows bad actors to be ejected quickly and smoothly. People use their real names. And unlike Twitter with its quote-tweet feature (or “dunk”, as it’s known), Clubhouse simply has no way for antagonistic people to summon angry mobs on someone they don’t like. In fact, somewhat hilariously, critics of Clubhouse and its financial backers have turned to Twitter to issue their denunciations of the platform, only to find out that unrecorded audio is harder to dunk on.

Thus, just as Substack and other newsletter platforms are unbundling long-form writing from Twitter, Clubhouse and other audio apps are unbundling discussion. Twitter, roused from the long torpor enabled by its strong network effect, is racing to copy its new competitors, with a newsletter platform and a Clubhouse competitor. But given the difficulty that big companies often have in addressing new markets — a phenomenon documented by business guru Clay Christensen — it seems unlikely that Twitter will manage to bring the entire world of public discussion back within its corporate  . That means public exchanges need no longer be closely tied to Twitter’s never-ending cauldron of anger and denunciation.

But there’s one huge thing that entrepreneurs haven’t yet managed to unbundle from Twitter — the news. Twitter is still the only place to get up-to-the-minute information about the goings-on in the world, and as such, it still maintains a death grip on the eyeballs of journalists and politicians. Until and unless social media whizzes can cook up some better way to get informed about the world, Twitter will continue to be the center of public affairs in the US and elsewhere. Its dominance has been eroded, but not yet undermined.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg columnist. Views expressed are his own. 

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