In mid-2021, Gabor Cselle bought a $15 Moleskine notebook to sketch out ideas for new startups. On the first page, he wrote “T2” and began taking notes for a better version of Twitter. Cselle had sold startups to Google and Twitter and worked at both companies. (He was at the time at Google for a second stint, as a director at Area 120, its startup incubator.) But he couldn’t figure out how to draw people away from “T1”—the original Twitter—and set the idea aside.
Then came Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, which saw its new owner lay off over half of Twitter’s staff, troll the community with alienating tweets, and speculate about adding features like long-form video. “It was basically the worst-case scenario of how Twitter shouldn’t be run,” says Cselle, who finally did leave Google last summer. (He got out just in time: Last month’s layoffs essentially defunded Area 120.) The time had arrived, he felt, to pursue the dream of T2. He finally had his differentiator: His version of Twitter would be more like … Twitter, in the classic sense. T2 would be less a revamp than a restoration, an attempt to recapture the excitement of early Twitter and build from there.
T2, which won’t be the final name for the product, is now live in a very limited test version. Nine people work for the company, including Cselle’s cofounder, Sarah Oh, who had been an executive in user safety for 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 is talking with me at a bustling WeWork with spectacular views located in Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. It could be that maybe half of the bright young techies typing at work tables and sofas are building new social media apps to challenge Twitter or other social apps that have lost their charm in pursuit of mass audiences and ad revenue. T2 faces startup competition from Mastodon, Countersocial, Post, Hive Social, and more. All of them have different twists on a short-form social network. None of them are quite as brazen as Cselle in claiming to duplicate what was once the thrill of the original.
“People can’t resist futzing with the format, but it works,” Cselle says. “People have a background process in their brains: What is a crispy 280-character thing I can say about this thing that just happened? Why mess with that? And what if you can get that same crispy 280-character thing in front of people who are really relevant to you? I think that’d be pretty cool.”
It would also be bucking what in retrospect seems like a gravitational pull away from social networks being social. The pursuit of the viral has diminished the intimacy of the personal, and as the business models of the early networks focused heavily on delivering audiences for advertisers, they increasingly became a new version of broadcasting. Social networks once obsessed on Dunbar’s Number, the claim that humans can only meaningfully interact with 150 people they know well. What you saw was determined by who you knew, or who you wanted to know more about. Now Meta, Twitter and the rest algorithmically connect you to “content you may be interested in,” which more likely than not involves influencers who spend all their time concocting ways to grab your attention with calorically empty content. Or stuff that enrages you. Cselle wants to roll back the clock as if all that never happened. “It’s kind of retro,” he says. “Remember what Twitter felt like in 2007 when it was real people sharing things from their life and not airbrushed Tiktoks?”