A social network, privately run by a billionaire free-speech advocate, on a shoestring budget, hosting politicians with millions of followers, and with very loose content rules.

Sound familiar?

That’s the direction Twitter Inc. is going under Elon Musk, but it’s also the current iteration of Telegram, a messaging and broadcasting app that’s relatively unknown in the US and more than double Twitter’s size, with about 700 million active users, and even fewer staff.

As Musk steers Twitter toward becoming a lawless paradise — most recently by dropping its Covid-19 misinformation rules and reinstating thousands of previously banned accounts — some have compared the platform to 4chan, the chaotic image board teeming with porn and racist memes. But Telegram, which has evolved into a broadcasting service similar to Twitter, offers a more realistic template. Its continued growth suggests a future that Musk’s critics will find difficult to swallow: Even as Twitter drains cash, staff, and celebrity users, it could still thrive with activity.  

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Telegram was founded as a messaging app by Pavel Durov, a Russian-born libertarian billionaire whose strong views on free speech are reflected in the app’s scant rules on behavior. While Twitter has 16 rules about content, Telegram has just three.

Musk’s latest actions suggest he’ll whittle Twitter’s policies down to Telegram’s size, initially by taking a more lax approach to enforcement. But he’ll pay the price in advertising dollars and famous names, just like Telegram. Despite its enormous size, Durov’s platform boasts just a handful of Bollywood actors and leaders, including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and Donald Trump Jr.

The reason, which will come as a surprise to no one, is that Government leaders, celebrities, and big brands don’t like sitting alongside a thriving network of extremists. On Telegram, that includes QAnon influencer, GhostEzra (177,000 followers), white supremacy propagandist, Jack Posobiec (187,000 followers), and anti-Muslim activist and US political candidate, Laura Loomer (31,400 followers). Porn and crypto pump-and-dump schemes also rank among some of the app’s most popular channels, with millions of followers.

Of course, the world of content is a grey one, and having no rules isn’t all bad. Telegram managed to avoid getting banned in Russia this year because it does nothing to misinformation, meaning it didn’t take down Kremlin propaganda about its “special military operation” in Ukraine, unlike YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. That allowed Telegram to become a rare gateway to the truth about the war for Russian citizens.

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Importantly for Musk, having fewer rules is also cheaper, since you don’t need thousands of content moderators and policy staff to enforce them. While Facebook has an estimated 15,000 moderators, Telegram gets by with a few hundred. Musk again is moving in that direction, having recently cut 80% of Twitter’s contractors who were mostly enforcing its content rules. In Musk’s speech, this is pulling Twitter back toward being more of a “tech firm,” where engineers and computer programmers are the rock stars, not policy staff. Sure, the latter has helped stop Twitter from undermining democracy, but they also weigh on margins. 

There are a few other ways that Telegram has preempted Musk. For example, Durov had a public beef with Apple in 2020 over its 30% subscription fee two years before Musk did, and he also launched Telegram’s $5 subscription in June, while Twitter will launch its $8 fee in due course.

Ultimately, Telegram’s continued popularity dispels any notion that Twitter will die. Celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Carrey, and Trent Reznor, who’ve cited rising toxicity under Musk, will continue to leave, but many others will stay, and reconcile themselves by sitting alongside anti-vax influencers and holocaust deniers. Today’s biggest social networks are entrenched. Even Facebook, despite its financial decline, continues to attract 2 billion users daily. And Musk’s brutal cost-cutting at Twitter shows you don’t need huge armies of people to keep such services going. WhatsApp, prior to selling to Facebook in 2015, had 450 million active users and a workforce of just 55 people.

If Twitter’s revenue drops amid a full advertiser exodus, Musk could probably run Twitter with an even smaller staff, financing the operation with those $8 fees, a few remaining ads, and his equity in Tesla Inc. He’d face some major regulatory headaches from Europe, but the site would stay up and teem with activity, albeit with a wider array of crypto bros and bad actors.

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Telegram shows that even with the loss of money, rules, and advertisers, people tend to stay. It’ll be the same with Twitter. But it won’t be pretty.