By Marcus Collins
It’s been a tough week for Twitter. Although platform updates and policy changes have led the headlines regarding the micro-blogging social network—and its subsequent decline in traffic—since the Elon Musk acquisition, Twitter faced a new challenge this week: new competition.
The threat of competition itself is nothing new for Twitter. In its seventeen-year existence, the platform has seen new social networks enter the market, some with great success (TikTok) and others not so much (Tumblr). While new entrants have focused on novel engagement mechanisms and features, Instagram with filters and Snap with ephemerality, Twitter has maintained a unique positioning as the de facto microblogging destination within the competitive landscape. While user activity has ebbed and flowed over the years, Twitter has been hard to kill. However, its newest threats might very well be the 1,2 punch that takes the platform out.
The first punch is Spill, a Black-owned platform started by two ex-Twitter employees, Alphonzo Terrell and DeVaris Brown, who built the network as a safe space for people of color to engage in community. This proposition has become increasingly compelling for Black Twitter users, in particular, considering the rise of hate speech and toxic rhetoric on Twitter after Musk rolled back civil sanctions on the platform under the guise of free speech. As an alternative, Spill presents a place of social refuge specifically for—but not exclusive to—the Black community to participate in its many cultural practices—a place like Black Twitter.
Black Twitter is a moniker that describes the population of Black people who use Twitter to participate in cultural discourse and collectively construct meaning through coded language, inside jokes, and contextual references. Black Twitter isn’t a place as much as it is an idea. It’s where Black people can be found online and how they stay in the loop on matters that matter to the community. There is no URL to get on Black Twitter. No additional app to join. You just have to know who to follow on Twitter, among the roughly 400 million users on the platform, to be in the know.
Black Twitter transformed the platform from a place of information exchange to a vehicle for cultural production. Black Twitter didn’t just report the news; it created meta-text to make meaning of the news. This distinction reshaped the platform and gave it new relevance and new meaning for the community and beyond. Twitter’s potential loss of the Black Twitter community would be a cultural drain tantamount to Facebook losing its cool.
And this is the real threat that Spill poses to Twitter. Spill has not only curated a safe environment for the predominate Black community and its cultural producers, but it has also enabled the community to participate in discourse and collectively construct cultural meaning in ways that it once did on Twitter when it was safe.
Spill is a visual-based app that prioritizes the combination of text, memes, and gifs considering this the primary means by which Black Twitter had historically engaged with each other. Spill understands the community. In fact, the name Spill comes from the cultural phrase “spill the tea,” which means to tell the news, information, or gossip. This evidences the cultural proximity of the platform’s creators, which signals that Spill was built for the culture by members of the culture. Since its debut in mid-June of this year, Spill has hit the top of the Apple App Store just days after the 4th of July and has attracted celebrity users like Quest Love and John Legend—a testament to the app’s traction.
The second punch is Meta’s Threads, the closest contemporary to Twitter with regard to functionality and aesthetic. Threads is a text-based microblogging platform that enables mixed media posting but focuses on written expression. User-posts are presented in a reverse chronological order, as is typical fashion for most social networking platforms, and people are encouraged to contribute to the conversation.
Threads presents a unique but straightforward threat to Twitter. Not only is it similar in its look and feel, but Threads also allows users to carryover their social connections from Instagram to Threads. This feature instantly removes the necessity of finding your people on the platform because on Threads, your people come with you. This enables instantaneous network effects that reduce the barrier of entry for most new social platforms and mitigate the value of years spent acquiring new followers that made leaving Twitter so hard for many users.
In 18 hours, Threads amassed over 30 million users, a feat that was not lost on the leadership at Twitter. Just days after its launch, Elon Musk publicly threatened potential legal action against Meta, accusing the company of hiring ex-Twitter employees and leveraging Twitter’s trade secrets to create a Twitter clone. Meta contends that no ex-Twitter engineers worked on developing Threads, despite Musk laying off 80% of the Twitter workforce shortly after the acquisition. Either way, the combination of Threads’ launch and Spill’s ascension poses bad news for Twitter and a lesson about competition for contemporary business leaders.
Competitive threats are often assessed by feature comparisons and product adoption. On these bases, Spill and Threads provide a formidable foe for Twitter and, simultaneously, ups the ante by focusing on the social aspect of social media—the people.
Spill didn’t create a competitor app with better features. Instead, it invested in facilitating community and celebrating its culture. Twitter’s new perspective on free speech dog-whistled that hate was welcomed on the platform, bringing violence to the cultural engine that drove the platform’s relevance. Spill provided an alternative, not because of a better product, per se, but better cultural understanding. Having better features is subjective, but community is concrete when you understand what makes them tick. Understanding the significance of community and their cultural practices provides a competitive advantage to better serve the people. By focusing on community, Spill has created a place worth being, while Twitter has turned itself into a place worth fleeing.
On the surface, Threads is a parity app compared to Twitter in almost every demonstrative way—save for some functional differences like character count and video length. But what makes Threads so compelling, beyond being the newest bright and shiny object in the market, is the built-in community it provides. Meta understands the power of network effects and their ability to propagate and scale. This isn’t just about product adoption; it’s product adoption from my community—my people. The social proof of community adoption creates a contagious reverberation among community members that influences others to act in concert to promote social solidarity.
While Twitter made self-serving decisions through the monetization of blue checkmarks and the limitation of available tweets, Meta built a platform that focuses on people and their people. Twitter is Elon Musk’s platform. However, threads feels less like a dictatorship and more like an empty canvas where its users are invited to co-create. And it’s this prioritization of people that creates the greatest competition.
Will this be the death of Twitter? It’s hard to say, but it will undoubtedly cease being the Twitter we once knew. In many ways, that’s a loss for all of us, and arguably the real cost of competition.