There have been some big changes at Twitter since it was acquired by love-him-or-hate-him tech entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2022.
Most noticeably, there’s the name change, with the platform rebranded simply as ‘X’. And not all the changes have been universally popular. Handing accounts back to users who were previously banned has stoked controversy. Although precise figures have not been made public, it’s been reported that this has led to an exodus of users and advertisers from the platform.
One thing Musk has been open about is his ambition to transform Twitter (sorry, X) into a ‘super app’.
What does this mean? The best example of a super app is probably Tencent’s WeChat. WeChat is a member of the exclusive group of apps and services that can boast of having more than 1 billion monthly active users. Other members of this group include Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. But what makes WeChat different is how broadly integrated it is into the lives of its users, particularly in China.
As well as social uses (like messaging), it’s used for broadcasting (one-to-many messaging), video conferencing, gaming, location-finding and making digital payments. However, there are some significant differences in the way WeChat is run, relating to politics, society and economics, compared to the big social apps that are popular in the West. Is Musk clever and innovative enough as an entrepreneur to overcome these? Or is his vision of “X: The Everything App” doomed to failure?
Why did Musk choose Twitter?
Twitter/X is different from other popular social media apps in that it has traditionally focused on ‘microblogging’. This involves the sending of short messages (tweets) often distilled down into a single comment (or ‘take’), sometimes accompanied by pictures but, in the vast majority of instances, not.
It doesn’t boast the huge, billion-plus active user metrics of the biggest social sites (Facebook, Instagram), but what it does have is a very engaged hard core of users – it’s estimated that 10% of its 400 million active users are responsible for 92% of tweets. Its super-users post often and spend a lot of time browsing the service, interacting and arguing with each other.
What it also has going for it is its reputation as the ‘town hall’ of the internet. Anyone can come to the platform and have their say. If we want to know what a particular person – perhaps a politician, journalist, activist or celebrity – thinks about an issue, it’s often the first place to look.
Statistics suggest that the main reasons Twitter/X is used in the US are “to get news” and “for entertainment”.
These factors mean that users engage with the platform very differently than they do with Instagram or Facebook.
With reference to Musk’s plans, this throws up one immediate question: why does he think its users want the ‘town hall of the internet’ to become the ‘everything app’ in the first place? It could be argued that other more widely used social apps, such as Facebook, are already more deeply embedded in their users’ lives and used for a wider variety of purposes.
What is a super app?
In the simplest terms, the super app – or, in Musk’s words, the “everything app” – aims to integrate functionality from many different applications into a single tool.
Firstly, let’s get one thing clear. When Musk says “everything app”, he specifically means a US version of WeChat.
Musk has been vocal about his admiration for WeChat, telling the hosts of the All-In Podcast, “If you’re in China, you kind of live on WeChat. It does everything; it’s sort of like Twitter plus PayPal … it’s really an excellent app.”
Chinese citizens can use WeChat to communicate with friends, pay their bills, access entertainment, book a doctor’s appointment, listen to music and interact with any number of services like online shopping, food delivery and ride-sharing.
Of course, apps like Facebook try to let us do much of this, too – with varying degrees of success. However, in the West, the user experience is far more fragmented. Users are more likely to head to YouTube to find videos, Spotify to hear music, and Instagram to share pictures.
And it shouldn’t be surprising that Musk sees the potential for Twitter to become a payment platform, considering that his own early success was built around PayPal – which at one point was called X.com.
He’s also shown enthusiasm for the idea of letting users earn a living through the platform – having recently launched a program that enables popular tweeters to be paid a portion of the ad revenue that they bring in.
But in making such a bold move towards transforming Twitter/X into his own ‘everything app’, there are several factors that Musk seems to have overlooked – or at least disregarded.
Why Twitter could never be WeChat
Critics of Musk’s plans (and there are many) point to the fact that political, economic and societal differences between China and the West have created very different environments for digital platforms.
The more diverse and less regulated technology industry in the West has given rise to many different technology ecosystems that compete across all fields. As opposed to China, where there is one clear leader in each field – Ali Baba in retail, Baidu in search, and Tencent in social.
Those apps, which are market leaders in their respective fields in China, don’t face competition in the same way that the US tech giants do. One obvious reason for this is that services provided by US companies are barred, or heavily restricted, by the Chinese government.
It’s also known that the Chinese government monitors the user data of its citizens that use WeChat (although, reportedly, not its foreign users, who access the service through a different company based in the EU, which is subject to all EU data and privacy regulations such as GDPR). This highlights the fact that, generally speaking, Western citizens – Musk’s target consumers – tend to have far higher expectations of privacy than Chinese internet users. The concept of the super app relies on the fact that users will be willing to share their data between different applications and services built on the platform.
WeChat also allows developers to create apps that run on the platform – something that’s possible on Facebook but not Twitter. This functionality would have to be in place for any attempt to transform Twitter into an ‘everything app’ to be successful.
All of these factors point to the fact that Twitter and WeChat operate in very different ecosystems when it comes to competition, functionality and data sharing. Bridging this gap is likely to pose significant challenges to anyone, even Elon Musk, wanting to create a Western super app.
Why trust is the make-or-break factor of X success
In order to build the critical mass of users necessary for a super app to become successful, Musk needs to win the trust of both users and the developers that will populate the platform with tools and applications.
In the US and Europe, consumers are inherently wary of digital platforms with business models that involve the large-scale capture and processing of user data. We are all too aware of the threats of data theft and breaches and increasingly protective of our privacy. This could mean that users are less likely to join in the required numbers.
Any attempt to create such an app is also likely to face intense regulatory scrutiny due to competition and monopoly laws.
It is also likely that Musk’s plans will face strong pressure from competitors. Meta (Facebook) has integrated payment systems into its Facebook, Instagram and Messenger platforms in recent years, and TikTok is investing in integrating ecommerce and online shopping functionality.
There’s a lot more to unpack around what’s going on here. We haven’t even touched on the meaning of CEO Linda Yaccarino’s statement that X will be “powered by AI” or the implications of Musk’s reported firing of 80% of Twitter’s staff.
Musk certainly has some noble ambitions – bringing electric cars into the mainstream and taking humans to Mars being two of them. He has also shown himself to be prone to pursuing less noble goals – such as attempting to beat up Mark Zuckerberg or launching his TV comedy career. Where creating the ‘Western super app’ sits on this scale remains to be seen, but one thing that’s certain is that he is never predictable, and the outcome of this latest scheme could yet prove surprising – for better or worse.