On March 4, Twitter made its most significant announcement since its inception, much more consequential than the 280-character extension. The tech company started to test Fleets in Brazil last week, a version of the Stories’ feature already present in the other social media platforms. Fleets will consist of temporary posts that will appear on the user’s profile and disappear after 24 hours. It may sound repetitive—many social media platforms already have this feature—but for Twitter, it is a major change. The app is following Tik Tok, Snapchat, and Instagram, in a trend that seems unstoppable—ephemeral and non-consequential posts matter. With Fleets, Twitter is changing its essence.
Twitter was born in 2006 as a microblogging site, where users could post messages with 140 characters. Six years later, the platform had over 100 million users posting 340 million tweets per day. Twitter was perfecting an evolving trend (blogging)—blogs were ubiquitous in the early 2000s, as places in which users shared their interests and wrote about their concerns. Twitter dived into this reality, and added a twist, creating a conversation in real-time. Suddenly, you could know what was happening on the other side of the world just by searching for a hashtag. At first, users shared everything they did, from commenting on their food to just stating what they were doing at the time. Then, the app started evolving into a newsy-platform: journalists turned to Twitter to find out what was going on, to take the pulse of society. Twitter, with its text-based system, became a tool for journalists.
Today, Twitter has over 330 million monthly active users, —152 million of them are active daily—and total revenue of $1.01 billion in the fourth quarter of 2019. Still, the company needs to grow faster, as a small percentage of society uses the platform. For that reason, and others, the tech giant has launched Fleets.
The push may also have to do with the fact that activist investment fund Elliot Management acquired a 4% stake in the company earlier in the month, and started pushing its executives for change. At the same time, the fund is also looking down upon Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, who is perceived to spend more time with its other company, online-payment app Square. On March 9, Twitter reached an agreement with the fund to save Dorsey’s CEO position, as reported by The New York Times. In this context, the Fleets’ initiative looks like a strategy to ramp up the number of users the app reaches daily, and expand the content shared. It is also a way to compete with the other social media giants, like Instagram and Snapchat, which have been using the feature for years.
Snapchat, launched in 2011, was the first social media app based on ephemeral images. The platform was a success among young users, who enjoyed sending each other ‘spur-of-the-moment’ pictures. That trend prevailed, with users all over the world becoming used to fleeting content, heavily image-based. Facebook stole that feature from Snapchat, after failing to buy the company in 2013 (read Tik Tok, Facebook’s worst nightmare). In 2016, Mark Zuckerberg implemented that feature on Instagram and later included it on its other social media platforms—Facebook, WhatsApp, and Messenger. Since most Snapchat users also had Instagram accounts, the results of this envelopment strategy were immediate: two months after the launch, Instagram stories had 100 million daily active subscribers. By June 2017, that number had increased to 250 million, with Snapchat having only 166 million active users. Other platforms followed their lead, with Medium’s Series—similar to Instagram Stories, but more text-based—and Skype’s Highlights, as reported by The Nieman Lab.
However, Twitter was filling a different space. The platform was no longer for friends, family, feelings, pictures, or random thoughts—which, of course, are still present on Twitter. It was more focused on news, discussion, polarized conversations, and politics. Some users turned away from Twitter, with journalists and politicians filling their place. It was and always has been a text-based service—first with 140 characters, then 280. Slowly, Twitter had distanced itself from those other platforms, but at the same time was being isolated from more mainstream users. Moreover, issues like fake news and the question of editorial authority loomed over the tech giant. With Fleets, Twitter’s future might slightly change.
Fleets are images that exist for 24 hours before disappearing. As reported by The Verge, users can type up to 280 characters of text; they can add pictures, videos, or GIFs. Interestingly, you will only be able to see fleets from people you follow and who follow you back, you will not be able to retweet them or like them, but you will be able to respond to them. This changes the whole essence of Twitter, an app in which you do not follow friends or acquaintances, but people and topics you are interested in. Fleets will add a ‘friendly touch’ to the platform, which will shield those intimate moments from strangers—users who you do not follow.
Mo Aladham, a Twitter product manager who explained Fleets on a blog post, said: “Twitter is for having conversations about what you care about. But, some of you tell us that you’re uncomfortable to tweet because tweets are public, feel permanent, and have public counts (retweets and likes). We want to make it possible for you to have conversations in new ways with less pressure and more control, beyond tweets and direct messages. That’s why starting today in Brazil, we’re testing Fleets, a new way to start conversations from your fleeting thoughts.”
Once Fleets is implemented, the consequences for Twitter will be two-fold. On the one hand, the platform will add a feature that moves away from its natural and usual content to a more intimate, ephemeral, friendly approach. In this way, the app will try to compete with Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, trying to steer users to its own platform. On the other, Twitter has long been an archive for past tweets. Content never disappeared, and it could sometimes come back and damage someone’s reputation. With Fleets, Twitter will give users the opportunity to turn their backs to this everlasting content.
Twitter is ready to change its essence, or what has been essential to it for the past few years—its permanent nature and its text-based, newsy content. Without a doubt, the change will be good for the company if it manages to attract a sufficiently large crowd back to its platform. News outlets will also learn to use the feature, as they have with Instagram’s Stories.
The only question that remains is the following: if all media platforms resemble one another, why pick one over the other? Where’s the difference? Besides the number of users, does one have any competitive advantage? Also, the power of the network externality does not seem very strong, as many users inhabit multiple platforms and simultaneous posting is a habit for many.