In October 2022, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk made headlines when he acquired Twitter for $44 billion. Since then, speculation has been rampant about his intentions for the social media platform. In a recent tweet, Musk provided some insight, stating his aim to provide “Trust as a Service” (TaaS):1
We’re going to use a modified Wardley Map to provide a Second Opinion on Musk’s strategy and explore what other moves Musk might be making. In short, we think Twitter 2.0 is about to disrupt multiple industries and threaten the survival of even more companies.
Current State of Play
Twitter today functions as a near-global public square helping registered users meet a basic human need: To connect with others. Twitter provides the platform that enables users with a digital device (provided very profitably by third party companies) and an internet connection to connect with anyone in the world. This platform relies on commodity-like components delivered as utility services (data centres and electricity supply) and manages its own infrastructure that keeps the site running.
Humans seek to connect with others in order to share knowledge and build mutually-beneficial societies. Social groups need mutual trust to function effectively2 but trust in modern institutions (governments, businesses, media) is both historically low and counting to fall. Journalists in particular are widely distrusted as many people believe they are actively being lied to by them3. Can Musk meet this widespread but under-met need to develop an institution people can trust?
Developing “Trust as a Service” (TaaS) will require Twitter 2.0 to become an honest knowledge broker, which requires radical transparency. Under its previous management Twitter colluded with government to moderate information flows on the platform4. Publishing the ‘Twitter files’ has been an early move by Musk to draw a line under these non-transparent practices, which wrought significant harm the platform’s reputation as an honest broker. Musk has also tried to take the concept of radical transparency further by running Twitter polls, where millions of users have been invited to weigh in on company decisions (though Musk hasn’t always followed through on the polls’ results).5
We’ve added these components to our Wardley Map (below). Note how the technology components that have pre-occupied the media following Musk’s acquisition of Twitter6 are on the right of the map: This means these are specific, commoditised components with a lot of certainty about them, which suggests that issues here are known and solvable but contain little opportunity to build future competitive differentiation on (as they’re largely invisible components to the end user). However, the components needed to build TaaS (Trust-as-a-Service) are on the left of the map: This means these are more fluid or transitional components with a lot of uncertainty about them, (which may explain why media is talking about them less). But where there’s widespread uncertainty there are also potential sources of future value for those who can tap into them. This is what Musk is trying to do.
Map 1 — Twitter’s Current State (high-level)
Cashflow — Upon acquisition Musk fired half of Twitter’s workforce to make the company’s cashflow positive7. The media immediately raised concerns, which turned to outrage about who now would moderate information on Twitter especially under he leadership of ‘free speech absolutist’ Musk8. Negative publicity caused a significant number of advertisers to take a time-out,9 which fuelled the #RIPtwitter hashtag predicting the platform’s imminent collapse due to diminished advertising revenue and having too few staff to run things.10
Musk then announced a new, paid subscription service (Twitter Blue) but this was quickly ridiculed as being insufficient to off-set the loss of advertising revenue.11 However, this move unlocked a new, recurring source of revenue which starts to reduce the absolute reliance on (and bargaining power of) advertisers. If If this and other new services, such as e-commerce, helps Twitter 2.0 keeps growing its active users12 advertisers are unlikely to stay away for long.
Advertisers — Some companies, especially car manufactures who spend lavishly on advertising, now have an “advertising on a media platform owned by one of our competitors” problem. This is especially acute on social media as Musk’s Tesla will more easily be able to gather data about rivals’ well researched customer segments and track responses to various campaigns and new products. If this doesn’t seem like a problem to you just think how much information your company would be comfortable sharing with competitors about your target segments, customer reactions to your products, campaigns, and even their interactions with you?13
Time as a weapon — Twitter’s major differentiator from legacy media is time-based and this will be at the heart of its future moves. Twitter 2.0 aims to become both the first and (relatively) most trusted institution to get your news from. Millions of potential content creators around the world, armed with sophisticated digital devices, capture what’s happening and publish instantaneously. Yet the time lag in how existing media reports stories (even online newspapers and 24 hour TV news) means ‘breaking news’ segments that attract eyeballs and the scoops they’ve built their reputations on will be a thing of the past as Twitter will have been there first. Unless legacy media makes smart counter-moves they’ll increasingly rely on Twitter for even more of their content going forward. Amplifying Twitter in this way will drive more traffic to a platform that, with greater TaaS and the ability to engage in two-way dialogue (rather than being passive consumers), will eventually become the legacy media’s chief nemesis.
Here are the moves we think Musk and Twitter 2.0 could (and perhaps will) make next:
Content Co-creation — Blue check marks on user accounts previously indicated notable figures (or little known figures from notable institutions) and confered a sense of authority on these accounts, (even when they were from increasingly distrusted institutions). The new Twitter Blue service now gives anyone who pays for it a blue check mark. This initially led to instances of people and institutions being imitated by others (sometimes with amusing results),14 which legacy media quickly jumped on to sow further fear, uncertainty and doubt about Twitter 2.0 — lamenting the dangers of allowing just anybody to buy status.15 But this is a feature, not a bug.
Twitter Blue will attract and amplify those who think they have something valuable to say and are prepared to put their money where their mouth is for the opportunity to win an audience. Twitter will provide these users the tools to post long-form, blog-like tweets and directly embed video content to support their out-reach (rather than linking to external platforms as they do today). In turn, this will enable Twitter to leverage the increased data flows published directly on its platform to develop a powerful (open sourced?) algorithm that will verify (and then amplify) trusted content, using and building on insights from peer-reviewed academic papers and ranking systems on other platforms. Maybe they’ll call this something like the ‘wisdom of crowds algorithm’ to further distinguish Twitter 2.0 from Twitter 1.0 where content was moderated by a small clique of non-transparent actors.
The opportunity for well-informed voices that are outside the (increasingly untrusted) mainstream media will make Twitter the publishing platform of the growing alternative media industry. It also has the potential to make it a real global public square resplendent with real-time applause, heckling and where reputations get made. This will pile further pressure on the ratings and readership of media rivals and lure advertisers away with the promise of ever more eyeballs for each dollar spent.
Land Grab — The other major tech story of late 2022 was the release of the AI product, ChatGPT by OpenAI, which made a record-breaking sprint to 1 million users in just 5 days16. This was something of a ‘Sputnik moment’ for the West — an advance in technology that has so surprised society that the future looks very different. (Notably, the East already had its own AI ‘Sputnik moment’ back in 2016 when Google’s AI — DeepMind — beat the Go world champion).17
Musk had been an early investor into OpenAI but is now not a fan18. He immediately paused further access to Twitter’s data that ChatGPT had partly been trained on, which suggests a few things; the most important being that Musk will make a move in this direction. The moves needed to develop TaaS — creating reliable content, from reliable providers (who will be incentivised) — are part of a land grab to occupy the valuable future real estate of AI. Musk’s recent announcement that Twitter would be directly translating and promoting tweets from other countries of the world19 is part of a move to develop a more ‘ethical AI’ — one free from many of the biases hard-wired into other AI systems trained predominantly on data from one part of the world and overwhelmingly in one language20. Twitter 2.0 and TaaS is a move to create a more trustworthy dataset for AI to train on.
Map 2 — Trusted Content = More Ethical AI
Sapping Rivals — Silicon Valley has taken a “light” approach to harnessing the power of the internet by building apps and platforms focused on connecting people and sharing information, while off-line activities (for example, on the ground logistics) have been left to traditional brick and mortar firms. In contrast, Chinese tech firms go “heavy” by building platforms, but also recruiting sellers, handling goods, running delivery teams, supplying the scooters they deliver on, repairing them and handling the payments for all the above.21 Musk has also been explicit that ”Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the ‘everything’ app”22 — one app for everything you need to run your business and life. If successful this will sap the life out of Musk’s many rivals:
- First of all, Musk’s Starlink — providing cheap satellite internet connectivity — will expand to more countries and disrupt traditional telecommunication cable and DSL providers
- Then Musk’s status as walking billboard will attract new users to Twitter 2.0 and, as more users, especially from large and increasingly affluent markets join (attracted by real-time content in their own language) advertisers will follow, which will disrupt advertising firms
- An improved Twitter direct messaging function — sprinkled with the gold-dust of Musk’s ‘freedom of speech absolutism’ and enhanced encryption — will become a WhatsApp killer
- Twitter’s launch of video conferencing will do the same to Zoom and Zoom-like rivals as people will have no reason to leave the app to connect directly with others
- Users will start seamlessly paying for services through the app using Dogecoin23, which will not only threaten ApplePay and GooglePay but, by bringing more of the global unbanked online, it will pose a potentially fatal threat to large, slow-moving banks
- With a critical mass of people using Twitter as their main news source legacy media companies will take a bit hit as advertisers will flee to Twitter, (where the eyeballs will be)
- Tesla will use the meta-data from these advertisers on its platform to improve the targeting of its own marketing and promotions, helping it out-compete its rivals
- And, if the TaaS move really works, and Twitter 2.0 produces ‘ethical AI’ we may see more people opt to get Musk’s Neuralink24 … at which point we’re not in Kansas anymore!25
Are these the moves Musk is going to make with Twitter 2.0? He certainly has options and it will come down to how clearly he can articulate them and how effectively his teams can execute (which explains Musk’s call for a ‘hard core’ team willing and able to go on this journey to step forward26). The only other thing that can stop Twitter 2.0 becoming the everything app is how well rivals adapt.
It’s all to play for. Who is your money on?
Does your organisation need a Second Opinion on its Strategy (SOS)?
If so, get in touch. We can provide you with an alternative perspective and radically fresh insights in as little as couple of hours. And if we add no value you get your money back.
Contact us for a confidential discussion about how we can help you: firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Article referenced in Elon Musk’s tweet https://therabbithole84.substack.com/p/trust-as-a-service-taas-a-vision