How Twitter lost its place as the global town square
"A series of disastrous missteps over the past year has robbed Twitter of its relevance
Alex Pearlman, a stand-up comedian in Philadelphia, woke up one morning in June and turned on the local news. A portion of Interstate 95 had collapsed. Pearlman thought it was the type of thing people should know about.
Five years ago, he would have turned to Twitter to spread the news. But on that Sunday morning, he picked up his phone and made a TikTok — which quickly amassed more than 2 million views.
A decade ago, Twitter rose to prominence by casting itself as a “global town square,” a space where anyone could reach millions of people overnight. The platform was pivotal in facilitating large social movements, such as the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East and the Black Lives Matter protests over police violence. In a recent email to staff, Twitter’s new chief executive, Linda Yaccarino, repeated this characterization, calling the site “a global town square for communication.”
But Twitter no longer serves this function. Thanks to a string of disastrous missteps over the past year by new owner Elon Musk — punctuated by the decision last week to cap the number of posts users can view — Twitter is hemorrhaging users and relevance. While Meta’s new Threads app is making an impressive debut, most social media experts say TikTok reigns as the new global town square and has held that role for quite a while.
“Twitter is definitely not anyone’s public square. Not anymore,” said Chris Messina, who on Thursday posted the hashtag #DeadTwitter on Threads. Twitter is “Elon Musk’s private playground where he’s about to charge everyone … for entry and access #DeadTwitter.”
Since taking the helm last fall promising to champion “free speech,” Musk has alienated users with a relentless stream of updates that are hostile to the app’s heaviest users. He removed all legacy check marks — Twitter’s years-old way to assure users that posters are really who they say they are — sowing distrust and leading to significant financial consequences for major brands that were easily impersonated under the new system. He then sold blue check marks, which ensured amplification to anyone willing to pay $8 a month, allowing scammers and grifters to crowd out the replies to popular tweets. Interesting content has been down-ranked in favor of pay-to-play blue check mark replies, some of which push crypto scams and pornography.
Musk also flooded the “for you” timeline with his own tweets, driving away users who came to the service to follow friends and interests outside of the platform’s billionaire owner.
“Before, if I saw someone was verified, they’d have to have done something of note to get it,” said Ryan Fay, a theater director in Atlanta. “Now, I can’t trust anyone who claims to be a journalist and has a check mark because they paid for it, and I don’t know if they have any credentials or knowledge. Seeing a blue check now means this person is using Twitter to try to sell me something or some sort of scamming.”
Musk also fired Twitter’s trust and safety team, allowing harassment and abuse to explode across the platform unchecked. He’s banned prominent journalists and liberal activists. He’s railed against LGTBQ people and declared the word “cisgender” a slur. If that wasn’t enough to drive the most dedicated Twitter users to greener pastures, last week he began limiting the number of tweets users could read, blocking nonpaying users from being served more than 600 tweets per day.
All of this has led users to stop relying on the service. Daniel, 17, a rising senior in a Philadelphia high school who asked to be referred to by only his first name because he’s underage, said Twitter is simply “not the spot” anymore. “People my age are going to Instagram and TikTok before they go to Twitter,” he said.
Some of Twitter’s struggles predate Musk. The company had been hemorrhaging celebrities and high-profile figures in entertainment and media for years as they moved to more visual-focused platforms, and it has long faced difficulties retaining younger users.
Twitter’s biggest struggle is that it’s an arcane follow-based social network, meaning users must manually seek out other users to follow to receive content, and if a user has no followers, it’s very hard to be heard. Contrast that with an app like TikTok, which delivers content through a highly sophisticated algorithmic feed. This means that even a user with zero followers on TikTok can reach millions with their first video.
TikTok also allows users to consume a breathtaking amount of information jammed into each short video. “People on TikTok are absorbing so much more content than on Twitter,” said Daniel, the high school senior. “TikTok is really good at hitting you with multiple things you’re interested in.”
Walid Mohammed, founder of the Bread Winners Club, a marketing agency, said TikTok has replaced Twitter as his go-to source for news and entertainment. “I used to go to Google,” he said, “then I went to Twitter, and now I use TikTok for information and news.”
Popular memes and catchphrases emerge first on TikTok, teenagers say, and don’t make their way onto Twitter until weeks later, making Twitter feel like a less culturally relevant place.
“Twitter is the place where us boomers talk about what the kids are up to on TikTok,” said Neeraj K. Agrawal, 34, director of communications at Coin Center, a cryptocurrency policy think tank, and a heavy Twitter user. “That role as a filter for the strangest and best of the internet has moved [from Twitter] over to TikTok. The mainstream audience and the rest of the world is getting that information from TikTok now.”
Amanda J Feuerman, an adjunct instructor in social media marketing at UCLA, said Twitter has failed to make itself appealing to younger generations, while TikTok has emerged as “a trusted source for information” for them.
“You’ve got a whole new generation of news influencers who are being invited to the White House,” she said. “Biden certainly isn’t inviting Twitter influencers to the White House. I think it lends a degree of credibility to TikTok.”
For a long time, Twitter was the default platform where government and public officials turned to get their message out and reach constituents. But that role too has been subsumed by TikTok. For instance, when Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro sought to communicate updates on the I-95 bridge collapse, he turned to TikTok, working with a slew of news influencers to get real-time information out about the collapse and the government’s response.
“Where people are finding community and trusted sources of information is changing,” said Annie Newman, Shapiro’s director of digital strategy. “Reaching people where they are requires a proactive, all-of-the-above approach … we’re going to keep engaging directly with Pennsylvanians where they are — whether it’s their local newspaper or their favorite TikTokers.”
Grant Goodman, 23, an actor in Georgia, said that “nowadays, people send me more TikToks than they do tweets.”
“I get geography TikToks, attorneys, tons of political analysis, entertainment coverage,” he said. “There’s a lot of interesting, educated people covering geography, food science, chemistry, election predictions, cutting-edge information, all kinds of stuff that I used to rely on Twitter for.”
Goodman says Musk’s chaotic changes have made Twitter unusable. “Since the Elon Musk takeover, I see all these terrible people in my feed,” he said. “The worst replies are now prioritized to the top.”
Meme accounts are also fleeing Twitter. The owner and administrator of @RightWingCope, a Twitter account that documents right-wing internet ephemera, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his identity, said, “The quality of discussions [on Twitter] has gotten worse, mainly because Twitter blue accounts are pinned to the top and spam is much worse on the site.”
He now receives far more links to political TikToks than tweets, a sign, he says, of a new hub for politics. “People are communicating political stories through TikTok more than ever,” he said. “A TikTok video is much more engaging than reading a Twitter thread; it’s also more digestible.”
As part of its role as the internet’s “global town square,” Twitter also served up pop culture and comedy. But the boom in hate speech and harassment since Musk took over has permanently altered the tone of Twitter, many users say. “Twitter does not have that sense of community and playfulness,” said Alex Falcone, a comedian in Los Angeles.
Falcone, like many comedians, now uses TikTok to reach audiences and workshop jokes. “There was a time where Twitter was good for posting a thought and the responses would help me tease out a thought,” he said. “At some point it turned into just people saying, ‘You’re stupid,’ and the actual interactions with people dried up. Whereas on TikTok, the comments are super insightful, and there’s a playfulness. It reminds me of an improv game.”
TikTok’s position as the internet’s new town square could face some competition from Threads, Meta’s latest app, which is essentially a Twitter clone. The app launched Wednesday evening, immediately attracting high-profile celebrities and content creators. Its sign-ups after less than 48 hours of existence totaled 70 million, making it the fastest-growing new site ever.
Some are not ready to make the switch from Twitter to Threads. “Engagement on Twitter has been lower,” said Tiffany Fong, a content creator who grew a large audience on Twitter by covering the FTX meltdown this year. “If I got more engagement on Threads, I’d switch over to Threads.”
However, she added, “if I got footage of something notable I wouldn’t think to post it on Twitter,” she said. “I’d think I’d post it on TikTok.”