I can understand Elon Musk’s push in most cases, in trying to drive certain actions on X, like reducing the reach of tweets from non-X Blue subscribers in order to boost Blue take-up, or limiting the reach of posts with external links to better incentivize direct posting to the app.
I get it, it’s pretty overt logic. But I do think that he often overlooks the potential negatives of such changes in the broader scheme, and how they might change the way that people, including influential users, engage in the app.
The latest example on this front is that X will soon start displaying link previews in a totally different way, with the headline and preview text removed, and just the header image remaining.
As you can see in this example, shared by 9to5 Mac, the new Twitter link preview will maintain the original link display in the tweet, with the header image, and a URL overlaid on the image.
Here’s how the old (right) and new formats look side-by-side:
Essentially, the lower text panel is being removed, while there’ll no longer be an automated header or preview text snippet. You’ll get an image preview, and that’s it, which will put more onus on users to create X-specific posts, as opposed to relying on the article link to convey relevant info.
X owner Elon Musk has confirmed the change, which he has claimed full responsibility for.
This is coming from me directly. Will greatly improve the esthetics.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 22, 2023
The view is that this will better compress the timeline, and improve overall presentation, with Elon specifically looking to reduce the amount of space that link tweets occupy in-stream.
X is also reportedly informing selected partners that the new design will help in combating clickbait. I mean, people will still be able to write the same text manually, so it’s not entirely clear how this will help in negating bait clicks, but this, apparently, is another reason.
It’s also, reportedly, been pretty unpopular among brands in early feedback, but X is seemingly moving ahead anyway, which could have a significant impact on your X posting process.
Basically, if you’re putting any reliance on preview cards, you’ll need to change your approach, in order to ensure the best presentation for your shared links. It could also impact your older posts, with the same format likely to be applied to all active content. So all your link posts will probably revert to a single image, which could erase a lot of context from your original tweet/post.
But there’s not much you can do about it, other than planning for how you maximize such moving forward, with the change set to come into effect any time soon.
And in line with Elon’s other changes designed to reshape user behavior, the new format could also be a means for X to push more journalists towards posting on X itself, which could also explain this recent tweet.
If you’re a journalist who wants more freedom to write and a higher income, then publish directly on this platform!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 21, 2023
With long-form tweets now available in the app, along with subscriptions, and its ad revenue share scheme, X is trying to get more original content shared direct to the app, and it’s been keen to highlight the big payouts that some users have been getting in the early days of the new ad revenue scheme.
Maybe, if X can convince more users that native posting is a better option, that’ll help to make X a more relevant, and important news platform, and draw more users to the app for original analysis and insight. Though it’s hard to see many journalists being overly keen to take up Elon’s offers on this front, as he continues to criticize any publication that dares to criticize him, Tesla, X, or indeed anything else that he decides is a personal affront.
Just today, Musk added Mashable to the list of publications that he has a problem with, while Elon has also directly criticized The New York Times, Reuters, The Guardian, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC, all just in the last few months. X is now also restricting the reach of posts to at least some of these outlets, as per recent tests, underlining Musk’s contempt for certain media outlets.
Yet, that angst could also be where he’s underestimating the impact of this latest change.
By reducing the size and format of link previews, thus making it less desirable to post external links in the app (note: all external links also cop a reach penalty, as Musk recently confirmed), the ideal outcome for X would be that more people will start posting direct to the app, but as noted, many journalists are not exactly excited to start feeding into the X machine, given Musk’s regular criticism of their profession.
The more likely outcome, then, is that this will be another push for journalists to reduce their reliance on the app. Which Musk himself may not have a problem with, but the problem for X, in this case, is that the platform’s value as a news source has come about purely because of its popularity with journalists, who use the platform to not only track the latest stories, but also to share their reporting and insights, in real-time.
That’s what’s made X a critical app, despite its relative presence. In terms of overall usage, X’s 250 million users pales in comparison to Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, with even Snapchat seeing far more active engagement. But even so, X has remained a key platform for many, largely because it’s where the news breakers are engaging, with many stories starting on X, before being aggregated out to every other source.
As such, X’s influence is far bigger than what its raw user numbers suggest. But with only a small relative user base, and only a fraction of those people actually posting in the app (90% of X users read but don’t ever post or engage in the app), any reduction in activity among that main cluster of active posters could have a major impact on the app.
Which is why updates like this pose a major risk. Again, ideally, this prompts more people to share more original content in the app, but that’s also reliant on the idea that people actually need X, and that they want to continue to maximize engagement in the app.
What if they don’t? What if, as a result of changes like this, they just start focusing elsewhere instead, and X loses out, as journalists reduce their reliance on the app, and build new communities elsewhere?
This is the counter to Elon’s forceful changes, that they could actually backfire, and hurt X more than help.
Add to this the fact that Threads is reportedly launching a desktop app this week, and that Threads link posts are already better presented than X, and you can bet that this update will have a heap of publications and journalists checking in on Google Analytics to see just how much referral traffic they’re getting from X, and whether it’s even worth implementing a whole new posting process.
It probably is, at least for now. But unpopular changes like this are not likely to drive the outcomes that Musk wants.
Then again, he continues to claim that X is seeing record levels of “cumulative user seconds”, so maybe he is a genius after all.