Blue Sky, Red Ocean

I became familiar with Blue Ocean Strategy in the context of Nintendo's decision to forego the "console wars".

Instead of pushing to design consoles with the fastest chips and best graphics, they embarked on quirky industrial designs and user experiences with seeming tangents like the Nintendo DS, the Wii, the 3DS, the Wii U, and the Switch. The big idea (as it was baby-birded to me via amateur videogame journalism) was that competing with Sony and Microsoft to have the highest-performance machine or the best-looking version of multi-platform games was a losing proposition. It represented competing in a so-called "red ocean" (as in, there's blood in the water). Why? Because there were already two well-funded competitors vying to sell the exact same thing. The best Nintendo could hope to do was be marginally better, despite being in a far weaker capital position, with less access to the top chipmakers, and with a stable of IP that didn't necessarily benefit as directly from better graphics. So they pursued a blue ocean strategy by creating bold (and occassionally bizarre) products that couldn't be compared apples-to-apples with the competition.

The rapid, unscheduled disassembly of Twitter-dot-com over the last six months has resulted in an ocean of opportunity emerging. Tons of entrants are getting in. Mastodon was already there. Hive was there for a couple weeks, too. Journalists toyed with giving up the one thing they really care about—drip-feed dopamine from constant notifications—to join Post.news. Meta is apparently building a Twitter-like platform with ActivityPub support. Spoutible is a thing, I guess. And this week, everyone's talking about Bluesky, the open and federated but nevertheless locked-down and invite-only Twitter clone that started under Jack Dorsey Twitter and whose new app looks more like Twitter than Twitter does.

All these real-time, text-based activity streams are pouring chum straight into a deep red ocean.

If all these companies were making dishwashers, normal market forces would ultimately reward one or two standout competitors and then a combination of consolidation and business failure would gradually calm the waters down. Maybe we'll see that here.

But I kinda doubt it.

See, the real reason Twitter worked was that it was a stupid, unprofitable, poorly-conceived venture. Because the market for "social media but without the profit potential" was a blue ocean of sorts, Twitter quickly cornered the market. This resulted in Twitter becoming the de facto "place" of the Internet. A publicly-accessible real-time representation of the Internet zeitgeist. The tip of a glacier of everything happening in more profitable walled gardens, behind paywalls, or otherwise happening in meatspace. It was the only correct answer to the question "where can I see what's happening right now?"—equally applicable to celebrity gossip and subway delays.

Over the years, what we eventually saw play out on Twitter a sort of epistemic closure in which communities formed increasingly tight-knit echo chambers of follower graphs. This led users of all persuasions to feel a false sense of security: they experienced "Twitter" as being mostly people they agreed with and they found themselves competing for attention within their in-group. The more efficient the echo chamber, the louder one would have to preach to their own individual choir, incentivizing increasingly provocative statements that people would normally never make in mixed company. But as a single platform, it was mixed company. Each echo chamber was like a roaming thunder cloud that would occasionally interact with nearby storm systems and discharge lightning—giving birth to new main characters that kept the broader population outraged and engaged.

All of these newcomers want to recapture the role of "the place", the way Twitter had been for over a decade. But that kind of super-charged network effect can only be achieved if there's literally only one viable platform or protocol. And now we have a dozen competing standards in an era of eye-poppingly high political polarization. What will surely happen is that right-leaning folks will land in one place, left-leaning folks will land in another, and everyone searching for a single authoritative public square will be left wanting. Having been robbed of the world's instantaneous and undivided attention, Twitter addicts are grasping at each of these apps in desparation as they go through withdrawal. But it's hard to see how a fractured ecosystem of Balkanized monocultures cordoned off into separate apps and protocols is going to give them the same kind of high that Twitter did.

All of this to say, the one thing that made Twitter interesting is the one thing that none of these Twitter successors have any hope of attaining. Stop looking for it.

Anyway, thanks for reading this post! You can follow me on Mastodon, Twitter, and Bluesky. I also encourage you to just give up on these also-rans and go back to curating the content you consume using RSS and newsletter subscriptions.