Mid 2021 Gabor Chelle bought a $15 Moleskine notebook to sketch ideas for new startups. On the front page, he wrote “T2” and started taking notes for a better version of Twitter. Celle sold startups Google and Twitter and worked for both companies. (This was his second time at Google as director of Area 120, its startup incubator.) But he couldn’t figure out how to take people away from “T1” — the original Twitter — and plant the idea aside.
Then came Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, which saw its new owner fire more than half of Twitter’s employees, troll the community with alienating tweets, and contemplate adding features like long videos. “Basically, it was the worst-case scenario for how not to run Twitter,” says Chelle, who finally left Google last summer. (He left just in time: last month’s layoffs are essentially not funded by Zone 120.) In his opinion, it’s time to pursue the dream of T2. Finally, he had a distinctive feature: his version of Twitter was more like … Twitter in the classical sense. T2 will be less of an update than a restoration, an attempt to bring back the excitement of early Twitter and build on it.
T2which will not be the final product name, now alive in a very limited test version. The company employs nine people, including co-founder Celle, Sarah Oh, who was head of user security at Facebook and, more recently, Twitter. Last month, T2 received $1.35 million in angel funding from several well-connected Silicon Valley investors.
But T2 is far from alone. Celle speaks to me at WeWork’s vibrant, breathtaking office in the Salesforce tower in San Francisco. It could be that perhaps half of the smart young techies typing at desks and sofas are creating new social media apps to challenge Twitter or other social apps that have lost their charm in the pursuit of mass audiences and ad revenue. T2 faces startup competition from Mastodon, Countersocial, Post, Hive Social and more. They all have different twists and turns in a short social network. None of them are as brazen as Celle, claiming he’s dubbing what was once the original’s thrilling moment.
“People can’t stop fiddling with the format, but it works,” Celle says. “People have a background process in their brains: What can I say about what just happened? Why bother with it? What if you could show that same crunchy 280 character thing in front of the people who really matter to you? I think that would be pretty cool.”
It would also be a rejection of what in retrospect seems to be the gravitational pull that makes social networks social. The drive to go viral reduced the intimacy of the personal, and as the early networks’ business models were heavily focused on delivering an audience for advertisers, they increasingly became the new version of broadcasting. Social media was once obsessed Dunbar number, the assertion that people can only meaningfully interact with 150 people they know well. What you saw was determined by who you knew or wanted to know more about. Now Meta, Twitter, and the rest are algorithmically linking you to “content you might be interested in,” which is most likely due to influencers who spend all their time thinking up ways to get your attention with calorie-drained content. Or whatever annoys you. Celle wants to turn back time like it never happened. “It’s kind of retro,” he says. “Remember what it was like on Twitter in 2007 when it was real people sharing things from their lives and not airbrushed TikTok?”