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Elon Musk wants Twitter to be a super app. What does that mean?

Elon Musk's Twitter profile is seen on a smartphone placed on printed Twitter logos in this picture illustration taken April 28, 2022
explainer

Elon Musk's Twitter profile is seen on a smartphone placed on printed Twitter logos in this picture illustration taken April 28, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

What’s the context?

Elon Musk's goal to turn Twitter into an everything, or super app, raises surveillance and privacy risks for users, say digital rights groups

  • Elon Musk says Twitter could be super, or everything app
  • Super apps offer users greater convenience, more services
  • Risk of surveillance, privacy violations seen higher

Elon Musk became Twitter's new owner on Thursday, declaring "the bird is freed" on the social media platform.

While there is little clarity on how he will achieve the ambitious goals he has outlined for the platform, he had earlier tweeted: "Buying Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app."

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So what is an everything app, which is also sometimes called a super app? And should Twitter become one?

What is an everything app?

An everything app, or super app, offers its users a wide range of services - from messaging and ride-hailing to shopping, food delivery or banking services.

They are widely used in several Asian countries, where smartphones are often people's main form of internet access.

China's WeChat is the biggest such platform, with more than 1 billion monthly users of diverse services including messaging, dating, gaming and flight booking. Alipay, also in China, is another example.

Other super apps in the region include South Korea's Line and Kakao suite of apps, and Grab and GoJek in Southeast Asia.

Why does Musk want a super app?

During a townhall with Twitter employees in June, Musk said there was no equivalent to a super app like WeChat outside Asia.

"You basically live on WeChat in China," he said, adding that he saw an opportunity to create such a platform.

Adding more tools and services to Twitter could also help hit Musk's ambitious goals for the company, including growing to "at least" 1 billion users from about 237 million active daily users now.

What are the potential downsides of super apps?

Having a dominant app that everyone depends on for everything raises the risk of surveillance and control as the app collects vast amounts of data on users, and can leave people stranded if they are cut off, digital rights groups say.

"While they sound like a convenience ... if that account gets hacked, suspended, or lost, then you've lost the ability to live key aspects of your modern life," said Gus Hosein, executive director of rights group Privacy International, which has researched super apps.

While a super app is also "predicated on the idea that your singular identity is the same across all services", people tend to have multiple accounts for different aspects of their life, Hosein told Context.

"So either we will be reduced (to a single online identity), or the services will be ineffective. That isn't a great proposition for consumers."

Recent incidents underline the need for caution on super apps.

In China, hundreds of WeChat users were banned earlier this month after they discussed a rare political protest in Beijing, according to the MIT Technology Review.

"After losing WeChat, it feels like you lost connection to the world," one user was quoted as saying in the report.

Reflecting broader social media surveillance in the communist country, messages and posts on the platform are routinely blocked for content deemed politically sensitive, researchers have found.

Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab said in 2019 that WeChat imposes real-time automatic censorship of chat images, and has the ability to block users from sending certain images.

Outages can have much bigger implications: after Kakao apps went down because of a fire at a data centre this month, millions of people across South Korea had trouble messaging, and were unable to pay for groceries, order food or book taxis.

KakaoTalk, launched in 2010, has more than 47 million active accounts in South Korea, making it one of the most ubiquitous apps in the country of about 52 million. It also offers banking, shopping, payments and ride-hailing, and is the default form of communication for many government and business services.

Describing KakaoTalk as "nationwide infrastructure", South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has ordered an investigation into the incident.

This article was updated on Oct 28, 2022 to add details of the acquisition of Twitter.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Helen Popper.)


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