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TikTok and Twitter are having their issues. But here's why they'd be hard to replace

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Two major social media platforms, Twitter and TikTok, are not having their best moments. Twitter, under Elon Musk, is, well, chaotic, while TikTok's links to China have drawn U.S. government scrutiny. And yet, these two platforms would be hard to replace. Here's NPR's Bobby Allyn.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Drew Austin is a writer and urban planner in New York City. He's also something of a Twitter addict. Since Elon Musk acquired the platform in October, Austin says his Twitter feed has started to look different.

DREW AUSTIN: To be honest, the biggest change I noticed right away when he took over was just that everybody was talking about Elon all the time. And all the content that users were generating was Elon-oriented content, which I found really annoying.

ALLYN: Yet Austin is sticking around, like most people are on Twitter. Outside researchers have found a small dip in usage since Musk took over, but it seems to be that no matter how much the service degrades, people will keep logging on.

AUSTIN: I've basically been using Twitter for 15 years at this point, and there's no way to quickly replace the followers and following that you accumulate over that amount of time.

ALLYN: Another place where people have accumulated huge followings - TikTok. But its future is uncertain. The Biden administration has told TikTok if it doesn't separate from China-based ByteDance, it could be banned in the U.S. That has left many wondering, OK, so why can't a U.S. tech company just build its own version of TikTok? Well, it's also the answer to why everyone keeps logging on to Twitter - something called network effects.

ZSOLT KATONA: The idea is that you have to reach critical mass. And before you do that, it's not a super valuable service. But after you reach that, it's very hard to beat because it's very hard for others to replicate.

ALLYN: That's Zsolt Katona. He's a business professor at the University of California, Berkeley who studies social media. Network effects is a phrase tossed around a lot by social media scholars like Zsolt. It essentially means the more people join a platform, the better it gets for everyone. And a platform with really strong network effects is really hard to replace.

KATONA: And the reason this is called network effects - because, usually, this value is realized through some sort of networking, with an actual link between two people.

ALLYN: In the case of Twitter, a link between 330 million people - and on TikTok, more than a billion people. On top of that, many on both platforms have found niche communities around food, music, politics, memes and whatever the internet topic du jour is. Trying to replicate that takes more than a really good algorithm and a slick app. Writer and Twitter diehard Austin has tried several alternatives, but they don't feel the same.

AUSTIN: Twitter is still the default. It's the Schelling point where everyone is.

ALLYN: Even on platforms with tons of users, copying a service doesn't guarantee success. Instagram introduced a TikTok copycat feature called Reels, and it just hasn't taken off. Julian McAuley studies social media at the University of California, San Diego. He says when a big social media site tries to copy a competitor, it usually does so as a kind of side experiment, not the main service of the app.

JULIAN MCAULEY: An obvious reason why Facebook or YouTube or whoever else doesn't implement it that way is because these, like, big incumbents are very reluctant to cannibalize what's already working well for them.

ALLYN: Another way to think about the network effects of social media is that the popular ones are sort of too big to fail, at least for now. If anyone remembers MySpace, Friendster, Google Plus or Vine - all social networks that had their moment, only to eventually fade into obscurity. Now, Twitter and TikTok's network effects will not protect them forever. Social platforms rise and fall with internet fads. And experts say when a new app becomes all the craze and amasses a huge network, Twitter and TikTok might find themselves in the social media graveyard with MySpace and Friendster.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.