Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April 25th, 2022

The Last Time an Unlikeable Buyer Took Over a Likeable Social Network

In April 2012, Facebook bought Instagram. Ten years later, another social network I like is getting snapped up by a buyer I do not care for. What can the decade-long Instagram story tell us about where Twitter could be heading?

The influence of one person can be overstated, but I understand the anxiety if Elon Musk is, as reported, actually acquiring Twitter.

There are some who believe this will resemble something of a rebirth of the “free speech wing of the free speech party” mantra. Some of the people who are very excited by this are terrible. Though they do not represent everyone who may hope for a less moderated Twitter, it is worrying to see so much enthusiasm for that concept from unrepentant assholes. The failure of reactionary Twitter clones does not fill me with confidence. Why Musk — a man who justified cancelling a Tesla order because the customer was rude in a blog post — apparently represents the paragon of unimpeded speech is another matter.

There are others who are deeply concerned about what a Musk-owned Twitter looks like. Some are re-evaluating their use of the platform — whether they follow through over the long term is a different matter — and worry about the broader implications of Twitter’s outsized influence falling under the purview of someone who does not understand platform moderation. Musk is also somebody who has used Twitter in ways that are despicable and illegal. Management at one of his Tesla factories allegedly subjects black employees to a “pattern of rampant racism and harassment”. It is worrying this is the guy who could be running Twitter.

Though I sympathize with the latter views, the most significant changes will not happen over the short term and, unlike many of Facebook’s changes to Instagram, are harder to predict. There are key differences between these acquisitions — especially in buyer intent and long-term interests. For example, Musk appears to actually like Twitter and wants more direct influence; whether his ideas are improvements is another matter. Facebook did not buy Instagram for those reasons. It bought the company because Mark Zuckerberg saw it was a threat.

After its acquisition, Facebook moved Instagram to its internal infrastructure, improving its stability and also making it harder to decouple. It also added features. Video was a natural extension of the app’s longtime square photo format: it came first to posts, and then in long-form, short-form, and even shorter form versions through IG TV, Reels, and Stories, respectively. Facebook added direct messaging, added more user controls to reduce abuse, and made it possible to search for photo topics.

But Facebook also added its unique brand of financialization. Every layer of the app has been tuned and tweaked for optimal monetization. Every fourth post in the timeline is now an ad. There are several ads between Stories. The app has a mall inside it.

Even the core photo sharing functionality has changed, most famously by swapping a feed sorted based on time for one based on what Instagram thinks you will be most interested in, mimicking the longtime behaviour of Facebook’s News Feed. At first, users still saw posts from users they follow but organized differently. Instagram later augmented those photos with “suggestions”, first at the end of recent posts, and then scattering them throughout users’ feeds. All of these things are designed to encourage people to use Instagram longer and more often, damn the consequences.

These are the long-term product decisions I worry about. Perhaps some of these changes would have been made to Instagram regardless of ownership, but Facebook’s fingerprints are all over the reality of its reality today. Every possible path is being squeezed for revenue and engagement, which has birthed a dubious industry of SEO-like specialists who claim to help improve popularity on Instagram. Along the way, Instagram has dropped its original audience; it has no need for you to share a nice photo when it wants everyone else to shop for a bike, or scroll through an endless feed of short videos as it hopes you do not switch over to TikTok and do the same thing.

The unique thing about Twitter is how, at its core, it is the same as it was when I joined fifteen years ago. It has moved slowly to change — sometimes to a fault, like how reluctant it was to answer calls for more aggressively moderation of its platform. This is in direct contrast to Facebook’s “move fast and break things” ideology. Musk is different, too: he often promises to radically change the world overnight, but rarely meets his goals of either time or quality. There are Teslas everywhere, but the long-promised $35,000 model vanished shortly after launch. SpaceX is as much a staggering achievement as the Boring Company’s tunnels are a failure. Whatever you think Musk’s plans for Twitter could be, it may be in your best interest to scale back your forecasts.

I think it is unlikely Musk will take Twitter to new heights; this is not his forte, nor something he has expressed particular knowledge about. I just hope he does not do what Facebook did for Instagram by radically upending the platform and chasing away longtime users. Perhaps he simply gets bored, or realizes platform moderation is a difficult task. Whatever the case, it still seems surreal that Twitter — this still-weird platform I enjoy — is about to be owned by one person.