‘Twitter will not die instantly… but may decay over time’: Former India head Manish Maheshwari

Is Twitter going to die? What is Elon Musk up to? Is there any method to his madness? We posed these questions to Manish Maheshwari, who has seen Twitter inside out during his three-year stint as the India head of the micro-blogging platform.

Edited excerpts from the Our Own Devices podcast interview with Nandagopal Rajan.

Q. What is your outlook on Twitter? Is the platform dead?

Manish Maheshwari: Last week, Elon (Musk) sent an email to employees saying either they commit to a hardcore work culture or their resignation is accepted. Many employees chose to resign. Now, that is hugely problematic. It has caused confusion and chaos on the platform. Many celebrities are fearful that the end of Twitter is near. Therefore, they have begun asking their Twitter followers to follow them on Instagram or Mastodon just in case Twitter stops working. It is leading to a negative network effect.

Twitter is such a big brand name. Therefore, it will not die instantly. But you may start seeing it decay over time. Elon will have to figure things out, realise the problems, and then pull together a solid team to help Twitter recover. If he fails to do so, it is a downhill path from here.

Q. Musk has sunk much money into buying Twitter, and what he’s doing now seems to make little financial sense. At least, that is not how people act after they acquire something. Is there something else going on here?

Manish Maheshwari: Honestly, I’m surprised. Why would you act irrationally if you have put so much of your wealth into this? But here, I am beginning to believe that he has a bigger purpose behind acquiring Twitter. It is not purely commercial. Because if it were commercial, he would probably have acted in the interest of advertisers and revenue. I am sensing that he wants to further his non-commercial agenda, which is to have more significant political clout and have Twitter as a tool to support his ideology. Even then, I’m surprised by the way he’s behaving. His actions are inconsistent with rationality. We will have to wait and watch how this will unfold.

Q. Is it politics? His tweets suggest there is a larger agenda at play.

Manish Maheshwari: He has been very vocal about his political inclination, supporting Republicans. There’s nothing wrong with having a personal political viewpoint. The problem right now is that his personal and platform views are converging because now he is the only owner. The question then is whether the platform is neutral or Republican. Secondly, he’s already over 50 and has had good commercial successes at SpaceX and Tesla with no dearth of money. So, what’s next for him? He is already the wealthiest person. So, what do you do next? You may want to become the most influential person politically as well.

Twitter is not only commercial now. It’s about proving the point. It’s about upholding an ideology. It is about political clout.

Q. Is that something that we’re missing? Is something you learned in some business school that gives a bit of a method to this madness?

Manish Maheshwari: I looked at the business plan he presented to his investors when raising money for the Twitter acquisition. There are three pillars.

On users, he wants to remove non-human accounts and focus on verified human users, which he believes would improve the quality of conversation and reduce hateful conduct. And, he wanted users to pay.

On revenues, he wanted to diversify beyond advertising and start a subscription business. Twitter’s 90 per cent of revenues come from advertisers. He wants to balance it with subscription revenues. So, he will need to have people pay for the service, which is why he talked about the Twitter Blue service and wanted that share of revenues to go up to about 50 per cent.

On content, he wants to make it possible for creators to monetise their craft on the platform, enabling them to make money, and share revenue with them. Twitter did try doing that with initiatives like Tip Jar and Ticketed Spaces, where creators could create exclusive content and have people pay for it. But it needed to reach the scale required to make it monetarily consequential.

It is a three-pronged strategy: quality human users who pay and engage in authentic conversations, revenues beyond advertising from subscription along with content monetisation.

It seems logical. Elon could have thoughtfully executed this strategy to inspire confidence among employees, users, and advertisers. However, what he has done over the last few weeks looks pretty brash and impulsive.

Q. Many things Musk is doing go against Twitter’s grain. Is that going to impact Twitter?

Manish Maheshwari: Twitter will not be how it was, that’s for sure, in terms of internal culture and product for its users. We saw a glimpse of that with the $8 verification, which he paused and, I think, will be restarting.

Come to think of it, Twitter is a two-sided platform. On one side, there are content creators. These are socially eminent personalities who choose to share information, opinion, news, and updates about themselves. And, they were given this verification Blue Tick to denote that these people are eminent, authentic, and worthy of being followed, given the quality of content they were creating. On the other side of the network are the people who want to check out what’s happening by following these eminent personalities.

So, Twitter as a platform brings the two sides together and gets the network effect going, and this flywheel effect gets better and better, with more creators on the platform attracting more consumers.

If you equalise everything, you have to consider the incentive for a content creator to be on this platform, especially compared to TikTok, Instagram, Mastodon, or Koo in India.

Similarly, on the other side, you also have a problem because the followers need to know whom they are following because everyone’s the same. If you go down this path, you convert this platform into any other user messaging system. A user-to-user messaging system is different from a digital town square where celebrities broadcast their news and updates. That changes the foundation of Twitter.

The other fundamental change is that if there are fewer or no advertisers, your reliance on subscriptions will go up, and you have to think about creating more value for the users to pay. Users need to get premium content, be able to do edits, and be able to do video and audio in a much better fashion. So, you have to start thinking about what features you can add. And if you are in a subscription business, you must figure out how to deliver that value in a differentiated fashion month after month. And how do you then do payment collection in multiple countries, and how do you manage the entire operation?

On the content creator side, if you are thinking about monetising your craft, that’s a whole new game you have to start. That’s something Twitter has yet to do much historically. There’s also talk about reviving Vine, the short video app Twitter acquired several years ago. The ship on that has already sailed, and there are enough players. You will have to think about what is your unique value proposition. Is it going to be more opinion-oriented videos, and what will be the clientele for that?

There’s also the idea of a super app like WeChat in China, where everything happens inside the app ranging from messaging to payments to gaming. WeChat gained traction at a very different point in time in a country with state control. In the US and globally, apps for every specific use case already exist and are pretty deep in their area of focus. You can make a horizontal app and bring everything together, but that requires much investment with questionable stickiness. You have to spend a significant amount to acquire many users, create connections between them and have them use more than one service on this Super App. Otherwise, you will have a leaky bucket problem as users abandon the Super App for specialised apps.

Q. Is there an inherent lack of understanding of Twitter at some level here because Twitter needs verified users more than it is the other way around?

Manish Maheshwari: This network will only be valuable if you have prominent people on the platform. If PM [Narendra] Modi is not tweeting, why would people who follow politics be on this platform? If Virat Kohli is not there, why would cricket buffs be here? So clearly, you need prominent personalities not only present but also actively creating content. You must give them reasons to tweet regularly to keep the forum engaging. Not just that, you want them to tweet and share information on Twitter first before they go to mainstream media. Therefore, Twitter needs them more than they need Twitter.

Twitter today has a large user base. Content creators need a user base and will come for distribution and pay money. That may be true in the short term. But it could be different if free users start to leave the platform.

Q. If the platform itself becomes partisan, does the angle of Twitter being the noticeboard of the world get challenged in a way?

Manish Maheshwari: Neutrality is essential. If you favour one side, you are bound to lose the other. And it is the notice board of the world because the world is here. If the world is not here, you can stick a notice anywhere. Who cares? Only when you stick it on the noticeboard it matters. If some other noticeboard becomes prominent, for example, Koo in India, people will go there.

In a network business, the winner takes all, and the leading player has a tremendous advantage over all the other players. So far, Twitter has had the monopoly and the advantage of being the top player. This advantage will be lost when people start fleeing the platform. And if it loses neutrality, it may also lose one side faster than the other. If it loses its user base, it will lose both sides. Either way, it is failing.

Q. A lot of your former colleagues now find themselves jobless. It also means that maybe a few hundred people now run a large platform like Twitter. How does all this impact user safety?

Manish Maheshwari: It’s worrying. Let’s do the math. So Twitter had 7,500 employees before Elon took over. He fired half the people, so that’s 3750 people out. Then to the remaining people, he gave an ultimatum, and I learned that close to 75 per cent chose to leave. So what is left now is 12.5 per cent of the original base, or less than 1,000 people. That’s a cause of concern because some crucial functions like moderation, curation, trust and safety, and even something as basic as two-factor authentication and user support are severely understaffed.

Q. Twitter is a platform that carries much more weight than its size in India because many political conversations happen here, and there are legal implications to what people say on Twitter. Is that going to change?

Manish Maheshwari: The thing about technology platforms is that they benefit from the flywheel effect and gain power quickly when they are on the rise. But, when they are on a decline, they deteriorate very fast too. Look at how strong Orkut was before Facebook came in.

So far, Twitter has been quite popular and immensely influential. But alternatives will emerge if people aren’t getting the service or users are not happy. It will also become less relevant to politically eminent people. Options like Koo will become powerful. The only problem today with Koo is that it is local, and if you want to interact with people outside India, you need something else. What if Koo expands globally? Then it becomes a viable alternative to Twitter for content creators and consumers.

Under Elon, Twitter won’t focus on getting India-relevant content for now. If you do not have someone to contact all the IPL teams to ensure they are adequately covered, people will stop coming to Twitter during a cricket match. And if Twitter doesn’t handle relationships with news media companies, they will not post on Twitter first. That will then impact both the quality and quality of users. Over time, that will adversely affect content creators and advertisers.

Q. In this melee, are you seeing a silver lining somewhere?

Manish Maheshwari: It is a difficult question. On one side, you want Elon to succeed and Twitter to grow because so many people depend on Twitter. In countries where people have no access to information or news media, they use Twitter to find out what’s happening. Twitter also plays a vital role during a natural calamity by serving as a helpline for rescue and relief. During the Covid second wave in India, people were resorting to Twitter to seek oxygen and hospital beds. If you remove the political and business aspects, Twitter still has tremendous value purely as a public service platform. That, to me, is the silver lining.

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