In the middle of 2021 Gabor Xele bought a Moleskine notebook for $15 to sketch ideas for new startups. He wrote “T2” on the front page and started taking notes for a better version of Twitter. Xelle sold startups to Google and Twitter and worked at both companies. (He was in his second term at Google at the time, as director of Area 120, its startup incubator.) But he couldn’t figure out how to get people away from “T1″—the original Twitter—and set the idea aside.
Then came Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, which saw its new owner fire more than half of Twitter’s staff, troll the community with alienating tweets, and consider adding features like long-form videos. “It was basically the worst-case scenario of how Twitter shouldn’t work,” says Xelle, who finally left Google last summer. (He got out just in time: Last month’s layoffs essentially gutted Area 120.) He felt the time had come to realize the T2 dream. Finally, it has a feature: its version of Twitter will be more like … Twitter in the classic sense. T2 would be more of a rebuild than a restoration, an attempt to recapture the excitement of early Twitter and build from there.
T2, which will not be the final name for the product, is currently running in a very limited test version. The company employs nine people, including Cselle co-founder Sarah Oh, who was head of user security at Facebook and, most 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. Cselle speaks with me in the bustling WeWork with spectacular views located in the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. Maybe half the bright young techies typing away at their desks and couches are building 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 others. They all have different twists on the short social network. None of them are as brazen as Xelle, claiming to duplicate what was once exciting about the original.
“People can’t help but drool over the format, but it works,” Xelle says. “There is a background process in people’s brains: What can I say about what just happened in 280 characters? Why mess with it? What if you could show off the same crisp 280-character thing in front of the people you really care about? I think that would be really cool.”
It would also resist what in retrospect seems like a gravitational pull away from social media as social. The pursuit of the viral reduced the intimacy of the personal, and as the business models of the early networks focused heavily on providing audiences for advertisers, they increasingly became a new version of broadcasting. Social media was once obsessed with Dunbar’s number, the claim that people can only meaningfully interact with the 150 people they know well. What you saw was determined by who you knew or wanted to know more about. Meta, Twitter and others now algorithmically connect you to “content that might interest you,” which most likely includes influencers who spend all their time coming up with ways to get your attention with empty-calorie content. Or things that make you angry. Chesel wants to turn the clock back as if it never happened. “It’s kind of retro,” he says. “Remember what Twitter felt like in 2007, when real people were sharing things from their lives instead of airbrushed Tiktoks?”