Tuesday 19 September 2023

X-tinguishing Twitter

As you probably know, the world's most stupid rich man is threatening to destroy his website again. In conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu, he said "We're moving to having a small monthly payment for use of the system." Therefore today has been a very good day for X/Twitter's rivals, Bluesky and Threads. Proving yet again that Musk's fortune is owed more to preternatural luck and timing than acumen and ability, this will destroy the site. Kill it stone dead. X-tinction, you might say.

The principles of social media are not hard to fathom. The platform provides the architecture and its users the content. Money is made in several ways, but where Twitter was concerned it was via paid advertising - mostly with promoted tweets and sponsored trending topics. Other platforms mine their users' data to determine their preferences, and sell targeted advertising space on that basis. Being the biggest brain the business world has ever seen, when Musk swooped on Twitter he very quickly kneecapped its business model and, as a result, more than half of its advertising revenue vanished. Who knew that allowing anyone to be verified as anything for $11/month would destroy brand trust, and see the platform trade pounds for pennies? Musk also decided to butcher the work force, threatening the dysfunctional collapse of the system and getting stuck into several embarrassing public spats with former employees. Then earlier this year and under the guise of free speech, every account that had previously been banned for hateful content and the like was reinstated. Never perfect in the first place, under Musk X/Twitter has become an open sewer, a paddling pool for Nazis, racists, misogynists, and every kind of right winger you can imagine.

And now, the threat of charging for using the platform. Looking at the dozens of polls that have circulated since the announcement, the place would become an instant ghost town with the only ones left being Musk fans and fascists. It's the freakish picture-in-the-attic made flesh. So stupid would such a move be that, despite Musk's lack of impulse control, part of me refuses to believe it will happen. It's worth recalling his purchase of Twitter was backed by banks and Sheikdom oil money. He did not pony up the $44bn himself. Presumably, these investors didn't fork out because they wanted to shut the website down for x, y, z conspiracy reasons. They would like a return on their capital, and I doubt what they signed on for was Musk's retrovision of transforming a microblogging website into a banking and (crypto) currency hub inferior to the other outlets. If they go along with this, then they deserve to have their capital burned.

Despite the well-worn criticisms of Twitter, seeing it disappear up Musk's backside would be a travesty. Not only has it become essential infrastructure for politics, the media, and culture more generally, it is simultaneously a manifestation of the general intellect and a living historical document. Trying to reconstruct accounts of early 21st century politics without it, for instance, would be next to impossible. It is the medium for so many subcultures and, indeed, mainstream cultures. Shuttering it behind a paywall would be an egregious act of cultural vandalism. It would take a long time for any alternative to replace it, nor would any replacement ever be the same given how the exodus Musk has provoked is balkanising across different platforms that don't have the same functionality. Social media only works when one market is cornered by one platform. Whatever comes next will be less effective.

Nevertheless, a lot of people have been preparing for the day when Musk turns Twitter off for good. I'm no different, so just in case the end comes you can find me at Bluesky here and Threads here.


Anonymous said...

A shame politics mastodon never took off. Its good for infosec, academic and queer posts but terrible for journalism and politics.

Douglas Carnall, @juliuzbeezer said...

Charging users potentially offers the benefit of cutting spam accounts to near zero. Some sites (Amazon?) actually do this, then refund the (token) payment. But doing so is certainly beyond the norm of social media sites, and it's far from certain that Musk is the person to lead such a clean-up. It's a reasonable proposition that I would entertain; and likely reject, because X/Twitter has already lost so much value (@julesbises at BlueSky)