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X’s New Video Strategy Is a Pivot to Nowhere

It’s going video-first by posting every other platform’s videos last.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: @lindayaX/X
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: @lindayaX/X

In June, Twitter started telling investors that video was the future of the platform. In January, the company, now called X, declared the job done in a post to advertisers: “X is now a video-first platform, with people watching video in 8 out of 10 user sessions.” Two weeks ago, Fortune reported that the company was working on an app for smart TVs that would compete with YouTube. Last week, X CEO Linda Yaccarino returned to the future tense but stayed on message:

X is an online advertising company, mostly, and video advertising can be lucrative, or at least more lucrative than the skimpy in-feed text and image ads that Twitter could never quite convert into profit. It would obviously be helpful for X’s core business to have a bunch of videos to monetize, and so that’s what the company is saying it wants.

This is reasonable from the perspective of an executive trying to run a large internet business. So reasonable, in fact, that every other social-media platform made a similar change in priorities nearly a decade ago. “I want to start by talking about our work around putting video first across our apps,” Mark Zuckerberg said in 2016, opening a Facebook earnings call (at the time, Zuckerberg’s focus was on competing with YouTube). That same year, Instagram copied Snapchat’s stories, remaking the app into a “real video product.” Twitter itself tried to get in on the action: “Video is becoming increasingly central to the real-time conversations happening on Twitter,” the company said in a June 2016 blog post, in which it outlined a program to pay video creators, YouTube style.

As social-media platforms filled with videos, traffic-dependent media companies made their own hasty investments in video — encouraged in part by cooked metrics from Facebook — the near-universal failures of which turned the phrase “pivot to video” into a grim industry joke. More than Facebook — and certainly more than Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok — Twitter was always very much for text, so much so that the company maintained Vine as a separate app, which it then decided to shut down in 2016 — two years before the similar TikTok app was made available in the U.S. Since then, the major social platforms all “pivoted to video” one more time, this time mimicking TikTok, replacing whatever their users were used to seeing with infinite feeds of algorithmically recommended vertical videos. At X, the current strategy appears to be a speed-run of the past ten years of “us too” social-media trends, a sort of pivot-to-video 1080 with unclear prospects for landing. It’s getting big personalities to broadcast or at least post longer videos on the platform: Tucker Carlson has a show; Don Lemon almost had a show; Mr. Beast reposts videos sometimes. It’s building a Twitch-style streaming platform. In its new “For You” tab, it’s constantly recommending videos to its users.

So X is indeed now a “video-first platform,” in that it’s full of videos, and videos are often the first thing users see when they open the app. To accomplish this, however, X has employed another industry strategy years later than its peers: It has allowed — or invited — users to fill the platform with videos that originated on other platforms. Facebook’s first pivot to video was driven by the popularity of YouTube videos embedded in user posts; when Facebook disabled YouTube embeds and started hosting video itself, users flooded its servers with videos they’d ripped from YouTube, many of which became hugely popular in a slightly new context. This was transparently scummy and also common practice among start-ups. In its early days, before it got sued and professionalized, YouTube gained popularity by hosting popular TV clips and unauthorized music videos. More recently, Meta and YouTube enjoyed the benefits of a similar … arrangement: Both companies cloned TikTok features in their core apps and watched as users posted thousands of ripped TikTok videos, filling the platforms with content created elsewhere, often by creators who had no idea it was being reshared.

Freebooting solves a short-term problem — your platform didn’t have content, and now it does — but it doesn’t guarantee long-term success. Facebook’s freebooted foray into video, which was followed by years of strenuous effort to get people to make videos for the platform, didn’t turn it into a YouTube competitor. Plenty of users post their own Instagram Reels, but the platform is still clearly downstream from TikTok. Whether Meta’s freebooting will pay off over the longer term is an open question — despite having fewer users, TikTok produces vastly more influential video — although a government ban of TikTok would probably help answer it.

In contrast, X videos — not to be confused with Xvideos — are downstream from basically every other video site on the internet: X’s “For You” recommendations are frequently ripped from elsewhere, often with watermarks or leftover interface elements from YouTube, Reels, and most of all TikTok. In its own pivot to video, X has remade itself as a video aggregator — it’s going video-first by posting everyone else’s videos last. The money isn’t good. Users are leaving. Most creators thinking about building an audience or monetizing their videos have no reason to think of X before YouTube, TikTok, or Instagram — if Mr. Beast treats it like an unserious afterthought, why shouldn’t they?

X doesn’t maintain a list of its most-viewed posts, but according to the platform’s extremely generous metrics, Donald Trump’s post about his mug shot, his first in years, got more than 280 million “views,” while Mr. Beast’s first YouTube repost to the platform got more than 150 million “impressions” with some major promotional help from the company. Neither comes close to the count on this post, which is easily in contention for the most popular in the short history of X and at the time of writing had passed 520 million views:

Being the third or fourth best place to watch aggregated TikTok videos is not an ideal outcome for X, nor is it clear where it’s supposed to lead next; it’s the sort of situation Musk might describe as “cucked.” The post, which ended up aggregating thousands of popular TikTok videos, doubles as a comprehensive catalogue of the sorts of videos the X users have no reason to make for the platform and contrasts sharply with the rare native X videos that do get traction on the platform. To the extent that X is developing a video culture of its own, it’s Liveleak-style gore footage mixed with shrill right-wing polemic interspersed with hard-core porn, all posted by blue-check users trying to monetize it. Try searching for pretty much anything! Or just ask Musk:

We know what usually happens when a pivot to video doesn’t take: at a media company, layoffs; at a social-media platform, another pivot, maybe even to video, again. Musk’s X’s exists somewhere between the two, a diminished social-media platform shrinking into something like a publisher, reconfiguring in real time around the obsessions and annoyances of its erratic owner, who appears willing to lose users and money in service of his increasingly political project, involving a gradual pivot to everything. 

In the meantime, X’s pivot to video has turned it into a pretty good app for catching up with stray viral videos from around the internet, as long as you don’t mind seeing a mangled corpse every once in a while.

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X’s New Video Strategy Is a Pivot to Nowhere