When the world’s richest man completed the purchase of Twitter, there were already signs that a version of Elon Musk that was profit-oriented rather than valuing “free speech” was emerging.
Perhaps, initially, he wanted to buy Twitter to kill two birds with one stone, both a joke and a way to tip the balance of public speaking to the right – or at least the center. right. But when Twitter rejected its flimsy, yet costly, legal attempts to atomize the deal and forced it to accept its $44 billion takeover, Elon Musk looked more like he wanted to protect his investment than make Twitter a “hell where absolute freedom reigns” (the quote is his), where content moderation would hide to die.
He reassured his bankers, Tesla shareholders and Twitter advertisers that he would take the platform seriously. It became clear for a while that Elon Musk was going to take some steps that would make the experience more unpleasant for most people, and it looks like it’s already happening in moderation. If this is the case, however, it is for reasons of commercial difficulties, not ideology. And that’s why Twitter is still at risk of being wiped out, even if not in the way many fear.
A different place, but not better
If the platform quickly becomes unusable, it will not be because Elon Musk has decided that protecting the speech of the most insufferable neo-Nazis on the Internet deserves to derail a huge investment. If that happens, it will be because he will find himself in the dire straits of finding ways to make Twitter hugely profitable.
This is far from being a historical specialty of the network. To change that, Elon Musk is exploring – or announcing, perhaps? – changes that would make this platform a very different place. But they probably wouldn’t make it a better place, because the changes he envisions seem to be zero-sum between Twitter and its users.
Instead of making this platform a more desirable corner of the internet, he intends to collect money from current users by threatening to make it more unpleasant to those who will not spit at the basinet, using mainly sticks, accompanied by some little carrots that maybe aren’t even carrots.
If Elon Musk wants Twitter to start making money, he’s got something to worry about: If the former board of directors was so keen to hand him the baby, there was a reason. But if he wants to have any chance of making a profit, he should start by making it a more pleasant place to spend time. However, for the moment, what he dangles is far from it.
An anarchic cesspool
Initially, according to The Verge, Elon Musk’s new version of Twitter allegedly charged $20 per month for account certification and removed the blue badge from anyone who didn’t pay. On some level, it’s a good business idea. Verified accounts are often those who rely on Twitter to publicize their work or connect with their audience and customers. Extracting a few coins from them in exchange for the prestige and visibility of the blue tick is an idea that makes sense.
Except that this project shows a complete misunderstanding of how Twitter works and why it certifies accounts. The badge has indeed become a flashy, schoolyard-style status symbol for tons of accounts, but it’s also a tool that’s supposed to make Twitter a more trusted conduit for information. It simplifies the processing and trustworthiness of information on the network, and since the site wants people to come to learn things, that matters a lot.
However, if everyone can buy this symbol of authenticity, it simply ceases to confer it. It’s easy enough to imagine how this system could lead to problems with misinformation, which would make Twitter less attractive to those who want to be informed and could antagonize advertisers who have no desire to be associated with an anarchic cesspool.
It is also evidence of a misinterpretation of the power dynamics between Twitter, the media and the celebrities who use it, whose content draws myriads of people to the platform. They already tweet freely. What if some of them decide not to pay to continue doing this and come to the conclusion that Twitter is no longer a welcoming environment in which to share their work? Especially since these seasoned tweeters, most of whom are rather on the left, have no sympathy for Elon Musk.
Elon Musk finally announced that the certification would cost $8, not $20, and that it would be included in a formula offering replies to tweets, mentions and profile benefiting from a better promotion, half the ads and the possibility of publishing long videos. Admittedly, the stick is less hard, but the carrots are problematic.
Today, tweets roam democratically. When a post gets a lot of retweets, likes, or replies, it gets seen by more people. Ideally—admittedly, not always—it happens because it’s a good tweet. But in the version proposed by Elon Musk, it will have a better chance of making progress because an average user will have paid for it to be “priority”.
Basically, this project transforms all the tweets of anyone who uses Twitter Blue, the company’s paid formula, in advertising. Even advertisers don’t want that: for them, the interest of Twitter is to place their advertisements in the middle of publications that people have decided to see in a natural way, not to compete with an army of tweeters who pay 8 dollars a month in the hope of having the head sticking out of the crowd.
It’s hard to imagine that such a project could be beneficial for the results of the company, which will no longer be made public now that Musk has privatized it. Also, I don’t believe there are currently many subscribers to the Twitter Blue formula, because the network made the rather ostentatious choice to remain vague on its paid subscription data in its last earnings publication before its redemption.
Twitter lost $270 million in the second half of 2022. It says it gleaned around $100 million in form “subscriptions and others” during these three months. The share of “subscriptions” and that of “others” were not detailed, nor how many people had subscribed to it since the launch of Twitter Blue in 2021.
Me, I subscribe to it – because I’m a degenerate. But for $4.99 a month, not $8, and because I do a lot of typing and dreamed of being able to “undo” tweets before they were posted. It will take a lot of improbable calculations to make me swallow that Elon Musk will be able to sell enough subscriptions at 8 euros with these features to succeed in influencing the trajectory of Twitter for the better.
I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but I might even unfollow if it becomes apparent that normal Twitter users think paying to be certified is embarrassing. It is a real risk. It will seem much harder to engage people the old-fashioned way on Twitter.
Elon Musk has other ideas for improving Twitter’s financial situation. It seems that he is considering in particular massive layoffs. Some of his co-investors and peers hold the theory that, at their core, tech companies have way too many people. Maybe they are right! And if so, it could save a lot of money. Otherwise, it could degrade the quality of Twitter and distract its users. The best they can hope for now is that these layoffs won’t make things too noticeably worse. I doubt it, but who knows.
Here’s what Musk’s ideas seem to look like: on the one hand, the clumsy plan to charge current Twitter users more, and on the other, to improve margins by cutting staff. What’s missing is the ambition to improve the platform for the critical mass of people who spend time on it.
Improving TweetDeck could pay off
Elon Musk flirted by tweet interposed with the idea of resuscitating Vine, ex-platform of very appreciated short videos that Twitter shelved because of non-profitability. That would be refreshing, and maybe he’s smart enough to capitalize on it better than Twitter’s old management. But he could do a lot more.
I think Matt Yglesias has something on his mind when he suggests that Elon Musk might venture into features to help people customize their experience and get rid of the things that get in their way: more tools like twitter circleswhere one can reduce the group of his subscribers.
May be Twitter Spaces, the company’s foray into the world of live audios, could also be compartmentalized for small groups. Things could also be done to help users deal with possible harassment, such as automatic deletion of old tweets or mass hiding or blocking functions.
There are also better ways to take advantage of the most active users than by screwing up the certification system. For example, a lot of those seasoned tweeters—”addicted” is a better term, and I include myself in that—rely heavily on TweetDeck, an interface owned by the company but which it has treated with contempt for years. This ignorance probably stems from the fact that TweetDeck does not bring much to Twitter as a free service.
It is an essential tool for the media and a large number of other professionals, since it offers the possibility of scheduling publications, or even of seeing several different lists of tweets at the same time. But this feature is also a huge mess. Many posts do not appear correctly. Programming is faulty. The search function works half the time. If Twitter was serious about making TweetDeck a better product, I’d be happy to pay $20 a month for it.
The network has several tools aimed at different types of business users, and all of them could earn it more if it focused on making them more profitable. And as a bonus: improving features like TweetDeck wouldn’t require upsetting the entire balance of Twitter’s informational ecosystem.
A difficult path
The difficulty for Elon Musk is that even if he only makes good business decisions for Twitter for years, the path ahead of him promises to be difficult. Buying Twitter for $54.20 a share was an exceptionally ill-advised idea. The world’s richest guy is never really at his wit’s end, but it’s going to be hard on him not to end up financially losing out in a deal he admits to paying too much for and furiously trying to wriggle out of .
If Elon Musk manages to get away with it, it won’t be because he chose to favor business acumen over the flattery of the far right. That is a necessary but not sufficient condition. In reality, his success will depend on how long it takes him to understand what the real qualities of Twitter are.