I've been on Twitter for years, probably since around the time they went out of beta. Like many of us, I enjoyed the social network quite a lot and made connections that soon became virtual friends and, for some, real friends. I learned things; I was outraged, and I got to connect and feel the social pulse of an event whether I was attending it or not. Some events I attended were even largely more interesting from my Twitter feed than from what was in front of me IRL. Then, like with most of us, social media fatigue crept in. The attention-grabbing strategy of promoting negativity, the bots, the populism, the scams, Trump, vaccine deniers, and more ended up killing the vibe.
But OK, this is now old story. Twitter is going away, slowly for now, until it becomes a rapid free fall, as it is how network effects die.
Still, Twitter is of huge interest.
Not as a social network anymore but as a clinical case of how social network unravels. Indeed, if you think about it, we had very few cases of such large social networks dying out. Of course, there was AOL and a few others post the dot com bubble, but it was a different era. An era without mobile phones and billions of people stuck on their screens for hours a day. As such, in the seemingly thousands of cuts Elon Musk is making into this platform, understanding which are just surface wounds from those causing arterial hemorrhages is morbidly fascinating. Or think of it positively if you prefer: Musk is laying out what not to do with a social network and a community for the rest of us...
At this point, if I try to zoom out, I would retain three big ideas to go about sustaining a large social community online:
1. Understand your core flywheel effect
For Twitter, the core value has always been fairly stable: this was the social network where you'd get to read about the latest news in (pretty much) real-time. No one would beat Twitter as the first to broker information in any news or media cycle. Facebook or Google would be too slow, not to mention TV or radio. Get breaking news, reshare it to friends, comment and get more reshares would feel like being 'part of it.' Seems like a weak flywheel? Don't be fooled; ego and attention are powerful engines in our social monkey brains.
2. Enforce and reinforce the tacit social contract
When you understand your social network flywheel, you then immediately have to accept it and build a de facto social contract with all the participants in your social network. People will come knowingly or not with expectations, and you must supply. For Twitter, that means always being positioned as a frictionless connective tissue for any news. As soon as something remotely interesting is happening around you (from your cat being stuck in a laundry basket to witnessing a redneck coup in the U.S. Capitol), Twitter should be the easiest tool to share it.
3. Paying contributors accordingly
And as a contributor, you should have a clear incentive to share. Contributors in a social network are not "users." They are providers working for the social network, feeding the flywheel effect and expecting payment from the tacit social contract. What is the payment if you post on Twitter? Visibility. Whether it's a follower number or a pixel badge, nothing is silly about it. It's a badge of honor of sorts in a real social hierarchy.
Mess with it by allowing anyone to get a badge in exchange for a few dollars, and you destroy the social contract:
Don't understand that other platforms are key contributors, and you deliberately choose not to sustain your flywheel anymore:
These are ongoing powerful lessons.
If you are an international consumer brand or a B2B industry leader, these lessons should be learned and understood as they unfold. They give you tremendous insights on how to nudge and sustain your community across all the digital channels you currently use. And you can start by asking yourself what your social flywheel effect is. Do you even have one? Elon Musk is certainly showing everyone at scale that it shouldn't be amateur hour anymore... He might not have had the memo, but you certainly should.