Well it’s been a weird and wild week in social media land. Reddit still appears to be quelling an open rebellion, while Twitter had a massive disruption surrounded by bizarre communication and reactive product changes. Facebook, being run by a bunch of dead-eyed savages, took one glorious whiff of the blood in the water and launched Threads (rumors say they launched it early), gaining immediate massive traction.
Given the high stakes involved and the fact that all of this is happening in public, there’s a lot to be learned. Let’s talk about what we can take away from these recent events.
There Is Such a Thing As Too Unreliable
Social media is like, the most luxurious of luxury hobbies in our modern society. It serves no societal utility other than organizing the occasional protest or helping you read up on the hottest new conspiracy theories while you’re in the bathroom. As a result, you would think that reliability would not be a huge worry. Nobody ever missed their ambulance ride because Snapchat was slow.
Twitter has never had a reputation for reliability in the tech world – if Google and Amazon are Toyotas, Facebook is a Ford, and Twitter is a used Kia Sorento that bought you from a stranger on Craigslist. But their extended rate limiting / outage on the weekend before July 4th, and the bizarre communication around it, finally appears to be falling below the community’s already desperately low expectations.
Twitter may survive all of this just fine, and everything might blow over. But it certainly looks like a lot of people said “what the hell, I’ll try it” about Threads because of the amount of trust that Twitter has managed to squander.
Reliability is especially interesting because it is a cultural problem that gets worse over time. If you’re an unreliable but highly viral product, what lesson do you learn? “Reliability doesn’t matter, the users will never leave.” Elon and Twitter are like that friend who never shows up when you make plans, and are salty when you stop inviting them.
Product Management Is a Skill
The first rule of product management, just like in healthcare, is to first Do No Harm: Never, ever allow your product / market fit (PMF) to degrade. The #1 way that you accomplish this is by not building useless features, and even more importantly not fiddling in a way that makes previously viable features useless.
Elon’s Twitter has been breaking this rule left-and-right. Some of the main steps that I wish he had taken include:
- Launching products iteratively
- Trying to sell products before building them, to verify the market
- Putting extra scrutiny on products that competitors haven’t built yet
The change to lock down Twitter to non-logged-in users was a great example – they launched it all at once (with bugs!), don’t appear to have verified that it will induce the behavior that they want, and are now also unique in their approach to discoverability (even TikTok will let you see a few public videos if you’re not logged in!).
It all screams product management by instinct rather than science, and leaves them open to completely unforced errors. You might not need abundant product managers, but you do need to actually do bare minimum product management.
Facebook, by contrast, has played this brilliantly:
- Build an MVP
- When the moment is right, launch it very fast
- Market it aggressively
There’s already crowing that Facebook are dumb for launching without features such as search or direct messages. My brothers and sisters, Threads hit over 50m users in 24 hours. If you think they should have waited, you are the dumb one.
Copying Is Smart
Commentary is already trickling out about how Threads has copied Twitter’s UI, and it appears that Elon may actually be filing a lawsuit (hilarious – I love everything about the last few weeks).
People love to talk down to companies that they feel are copycats, and in my opinion this is entirely foolish. I can practically feel the condescension sparking out of my phone like bacon grease off a pan: “Zuckerberg hasn’t launched an original feature,” “Facebook only knows how to copy and acquire,” “They just aren’t innovative anymore, maybe they never were.”
The reality is that drawing heavy inspiration from other products can be an effective strategy, if not an optimal one – this is not your 5th grade math homework, this is real life and real users and real revenue. Product / Market Fit is capital-H Hard to achieve, especially in the chaotic world of social media.
If you find a model that works, whether TikTok-style feeds or Tinder-style swiping or Twitter-style message threading, and you have a massive user base to leverage, why tempt fate by testing some new product experience? What are you going to do, try to invent some entirely new paradigm just to prove a point, and make a burnt offering hoping that people like it?
One of the most important lessons that we believe at Stay SaaSy is that reinventing the wheel is foolish. If viable social media paradigms are as rare as they appear to be, it would actually be insane for a company with Facebook’s resources to compete in any way other than copying others.
Building a “Copy” That Actually Works Is Not Copying
But of course, operating at the scale of Twitter and Facebook is absolutely non-trivial, and building a “clone” that is snappy and actually works reliably is no mean feat. The fact is that despite a 15 year head start, Twitter is a buggy piece of shit and Threads actually works just like the rest of Facebook’s products. This is of course utterly shameful for Twitter given the money they’ve spent to date on engineering, and if Threads loads correctly 100/100 times, then baby that looks pretty differentiated from Twitter to me.
Scale is extremely meaningful. I can cook a better cheeseburger than McDonald’s, but McDonald’s serves over 250 burgers per second. My grill is not a better business than McDonald’s.
Don’t F With Founder-Led Companies
Elon and Zuckerberg are, in my opinion, two of the greatest founder CEOs of the last few decades. You might disagree with their politics or their weird speech inflections or their stance on any number of sociopolitical issues, but when you get down to the brass tacks of “can this person build a business around what people want” they’re both truly incredible.
But Twitter is Elon’s side piece, and Facebook is Zuckerberg’s life partner. Zuck literally started the company before he was 20 years old, has never worked anywhere else, and has devoted his life to making the business have the sort of impact that he envisions. Behind the dead, shark-like eyes and robot voice, you can see that he’s actually a little bit loco and there to take over the world riding his steed of a company, not just out to look cool on Joe Rogan.
Not only would Zuckerberg not screw up any Facebook properties the way that Elon seems to be screwing up Twitter (note that most major Facebook properties remain highly successful), but he’s still willing to make the fast bets that are necessary to expand product / market fit. Generally speaking, this sort of rapid, voracious forward momentum only comes from companies that still have core entrepreneurial DNA; Facebook has this and we’re seeing them run a master class on how to move fast at scale.
This is, of course, coming against the backdrop of a potential Musk / Zuckerberg mixed martial arts match. If this fight comes to be, it will unironically probably be a top 10 day in my life.
It’s too early to say where the social media wars will shake out, but we are getting to watch two of the defining business leaders of this generation duke it out and there’s a lot to be learned for all of us cheering them on. Good luck to both companies, and it looks like this week is going to make Musk vs. Zuckerberg, Live at the MGM, into a grudge match for the ages.