Elon Musk’s controversial takeover of Twitter in October 2022 has energized a legion of new challengers—and users searching for a replacement app either out of protest against Musk’s tenure or as insurance in case Twitter’s service degrades.
In the aftermath of Musk’s takeover, users flocked to platforms like Mastodon, Post, and Hive Social. But there’s also Bluesky, originally funded by Twitter as a decentralized alternative, and a nascent network tentatively called T2, created by ex-Twitter employees. Substack, the newsletter platform, sparked a flamewar with Musk after it launched its own lookalike feature, called Notes.
But now a heavyweight is entering the ring. Facebook parent company Meta is reportedly readying a Twitter clone of its own. Lia Haberman, who writes the newsletter ICYMI, reported on May 19 that the app could debut as soon as the end of June, it’ll be built “on the back of Instagram,” and that it’s targeting “creators and public figures.” For Meta, the move makes perfect sense.
A short history of Facebook—er, Meta
Facebook’s corporate history can be subdivided into three phases: founding (2004-2011), buying (2012-2015), and copying (2016-present). The founding years are self-explanatory, and the buying years saw corporate takeovers of photo-sharing app Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, the VR company Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, and messaging giant WhatsApp for $19.3 billion in 2014.
The copying years arguably began after Facebook tried and failed to buy Snapchat in 2013 for $3 billion. Instead, it copied many of Snapchat’s design elements and its Stories feature, which let users post photos that disappear after a 24-hour period, first incorporating it into Instagram in 2016 and later adding it to Facebook and WhatsApp. The move away from buying and toward copying also coincided with heightened scrutiny of Facebook—renamed Meta in 2021—by global antitrust regulators. In short, it’s much tougher for Meta to buy companies and much easier for them to build new products, even if those products closely mimic those of their rivals.
Sometimes Meta’s copycat efforts work, but sometimes they don’t. While Instagram Stories is an inarguable success, and Instagram Reels has ported some of the experience of watching TikTok (albeit with less algorithmic precision and community, I’d argue), Meta has whiffed on efforts to clone the celebrity shout-out platform Cameo, the neighborhood communication app Nextdoor, and TikTok through a standalone app called Lasso. Meta has an entire experimental product division through which it builds—and often kills—these apps.
The most interesting thing about Meta’s Twitter clone
So, what do we know about Meta’s Twitter clone? Well, first we know it’s actually in the works. Shortly after the website Moneycontrol broke the news in March, Meta confirmed the story.
“We’re exploring a standalone decentralized social network for sharing text updates,” the company told the tech newsletter Platformer. “We believe there’s an opportunity for a separate space where creators and public figures can share timely updates about their interests.”
There’s been a lot of chatter about decentralization in recent years, as cryptocurrency and web3 advocates have proffered a vision of the internet that can break free from walled gardens owned by centralized companies, such as Meta, which have scorned interoperability. But Meta’s Twitter clone is built on ActivityPub, the same decentralized social networking protocol that Mastodon uses. The tech writer David Pierce has called ActivityPub “a technology through which social networks can be made interoperable, connecting everything to a single social graph and content-sharing system.” On Mastodon, users can operate different servers that host versions of Mastodon that interact with one other. This federates control on the network—considered part of the Fediverse for this reason—allowing people to join different servers based on their rules and styles, and shifts content moderation responsibilities somewhat to the people who run the servers.
If Meta pursues this idea at scale, it would be an incredible departure for the world’s largest social media company. If and how Meta plans to turn this into a money-making opportunity remains to be seen: Haberman reported that Meta isn’t currently sharing its monetization strategy even in private meetings with the creators it’s courting. But while Twitter is a small rival to Meta’s businesses, even the prospect of stealing away their user habit—at a time when many people are looking for a new place to “tweet”—is naturally a tempting proposition.