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Musk throws down the gauntlet to media institutions

Twitter is trialling a new feature allowing users to share ‘notes’ as long as 2500 words. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Twitter is trialling a new feature allowing users to share ‘notes’ as long as 2500 words. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Published Jun 26, 2022

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“This is where the writers are, Of past, Present, And Future”. This was Elon Musk’s answer to the question: Why Twitter?

In a matter of days after that tweet by Musk, the social media platform launched Twitter Notes (in pilot form in Canada, Ghana, UK, and US) which is the platform's answer to longform content.

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Twitter is trialling a new feature allowing users to share "notes" as long as 2500 words.

Currently, Twitter limits posts to 280 characters.

Twitter Notes is the first sign that Musk is wielding his influence over the social media platform. This is not to say that Twitter was not working on some form of long-form tweets before the intervention by its majority shareholder.

What has just happened is that an instruction has been issued to unleash the most lethal part of this media giant.

To understand the significance of this change, you have to consider that the short form of writing was baked into the Twitter design architecture. The change is not only about Twitter, it's the beginning of Twitter's challenge to the media establishment. The new feature aims to keep audiences in the Twitter eco-system, with readers able to see a headline and access the longer note by clicking on a link.

It’s Twitter's answer to platforms like Substack where most independent writers have flocked.

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Twitter is taking micro out of microblogging in a way that has never been seen before.

How should society welcome the long-form version of Twitter when it's fully implemented? If the social media platform goes ahead with a long-form content plan, should it not be considered a publisher?

There are two ways of looking at current developments. One has more to do with the fact that more people will have similar tools as media companies to communicate. Depending on the accuracy of the information being shared, this will be a two-edged sword with limited regulation. It will now be easier for people to share more inaccurate information and add fuel to an already toxic environment of misinformation.

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On the other hand, some will look at current developments and celebrate a new entrant into the media ecosystem. Those who share such a view will see this as an opportunity for independent writers and journalists to expand their craft and thereby add new voices. If this catches on, Twitter will become one of the most important media platforms of our times.

What this means for media companies is that the ground has shifted even further. When social media entered the media space, it became a thorn in the media industry.

Then, social media was just enabling the distribution of news and content through its platforms. In addition, some tech companies ate the bigger chunk of advertising spending.

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Twitter alone with short-form tweets did not hurt the media sector. Now that Twitter will adopt some form of long-form tweets, it will not only eat more of the advertising slice, but gain more attention from readers from mainstream media platforms.

The fact that Musk will be at the helm will not make life easier for media companies. He is one of the greatest innovators of our times and he is about to inject innovation at Twitter.

The future Twitter will, even more so, be a thorn within the media industry.

It will be the most exciting time for writers and independent journalists. Twitter will become a platform for writing, content distribution, and income generation for thinkers and thought leaders. It will also be a moment that will require some form of caution.

What should media companies do about the upcoming attack by technology companies?

Part of the answer by media companies has to include less reliance on technology companies for their existence.

Currently, media companies rely on social media companies for distribution, which is a form of self-destruction by them. It is not impossible for media companies to stand on their own. Recent indications are that social media companies are not keen to share their advertising revenues.

The New York Times has figured out how to play this game and Disney is also proving to be smart about its response. More media companies need to learn from their approaches. Disney, instead of relying on Netflix and Apple to distribute its content, has created its own streaming platform. This is how a content creation machine can respond to tech giants. The New York Times is responding by being a product company. All of these efforts are adding resilience to these media companies.

Media companies play a critical role for society to just allow their existence to be controlled by tech companies.

Their responsibility to ensure that society has access to quality and accurate information cannot be carried out by any other entity. This responsibility should inspire media companies to innovate and come up with ways of surviving in the 21st century instead of being dictated to by tech giants.

Currently, tech companies are slowly taking over the role of media companies without taking the full responsibility that comes with being a publisher. To allow this is to lay the ground for anarchy.

If Twitter implements long-form content fully, it may be necessary to start treating Twitter as a publisher. New rules will have to be formulated to manage the risks that will come with a Twitter that wields a mighty pen of a publisher.

It will be a tough task but a necessary one if society is to preserve what is left of journalism.

Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of FastCompany (SA) magazine. He hosts weekly TwitterSpaces on technology and innovation, you can follow him on Twitter via: @WesleyDiphoko

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