Dead Bird Squawking
My first tweet was posted sonetime in May 2007, dipping an experimental toe in the water while I was browsing in the office between teaching sessions at work, when I used to play at being an academic. Twitter was still called twttr then, and I first set it up so I could post things easily to multiple social media accounts using SMS, back in those dim and distant days before the iPhone¹. Fifteen years (and over 90000 tweets) later I’m still there (unlike facebook²). It’s been responsible for many friendships, quite a lot of fun, and a general feeling of positivity, especially during the pandemic. It has also been useful for odd, and sometimes quite niche specialist information and interests, not to mention (when you find the right people), reasoned and expert commentary on a wide range of different things.
There have been lows, of course. We all know who one of them was.
A while ago I remember suggesting to a friend that Twitter should set up a verification scheme to allow users to filter bots and bad actors, and that you could possibly give green ticks to people who’d had their ID details properly verified. That could have happily coexisted with the blue tick verification for public figures, and been a viable revenue source. Then Twitter announced Blue, which added some useful features, but didn’t include a verification. I’d quite liked the offer, was looking forward to Blue launching in the UK, and was intending to sign up. Now, they couldn’t pay me to do it.
In the last seven days, Elon Musk, the strange waxy-faced boy who never had anyone tell him no, has decided to take his 40+ billion dollar purchase and launch it off a cliff. Then again, he does have a history of enjoying launching things, which is clearly not compensating for anything, in exactly the same way that Jeff Bezos’ amusingly shaped rockets don’t give off that very gamey “divorced man” energy.
So Musk announced what he was planning to do, and there’s no way I can see that this will ever work, or at least not without pretty much trashing the platform as it has previously existed. For a start, it appears that he’s completely (and possibly deliberately) misunderstood, or tried to reposition the whole idea of user verification. As many high profile users have pointed out, the blue tick allows other people to know they are who they claim to be. These measures utterly destroy that trust mechanism, especially when the standard for registering seems to be “do you have the cash?” and very little else. Then came the disclosure that non-subscribers would have their posts shifted down in the timeline priority. There is a big problem with this: as we already know, many bad faith actors are extremely well-funded, so it’s likely we will see exactly the same amplification effects that have beset Facebook, with a relatively small number of accounts being used to pump out crap, with others being used to artificially inflate engagement numbers for specific content. Except now we have already had the “what use is a blue tick if all you do I pay?” alarm call to make us distrust the idea on Twitter.
Musk also threw out the thought that the platform was looking for ways of being able to monetise more types of content, even though that’s not really why most people are using it. Again, this feels like a worry, given that that seems to be trying to capture some of market of other platforms, such as YouTube, or TikTok³. Given how things are going with YouTube right now, with concerns about content, and many content creators angry about monetisation, is that entirely sensible? Much of this thinking seems to be about trying to emulate business models of platforms that are mature, and may even be entering relative decline. Making Twitter feel like a worse YouTube, or even a worse TikTok, doesn’t feel like a great plan to me. Then again, calling anything here a plan seems overly generous. Right now, he’s throwing huge quantities of mud at a wall and seeing which, if any clods, stick to it. It’a not a coherent strategy. It’s hardly even worth calling it a strategy at all when it seems like he’s just dumping out the first thing that comes into his head.
For now at least, lots of this appears to mean I’ll be doing a lot more blocking and muting of my timeline. If the “latest tweets” functionality is doctored, or killed and we’re all forced onto the curated “quality filter” I cannot imagine that going down at all well. He many think it’s a price worth paying but I wonder just how many people are going to buy in, especially as he is trying to milk the user base twice: once to extract data to sell to advertisers, then twice with the threat to throttle the user experience if you don’t pay him more as a subscriber.
Like the equally increasingly plasticky Zuckerberg, when you have a single dominant shareholder/owner willing to throw cash down the toilet to justify their capricious whims on how the product’s future growth will look, it makes the core user base either nervous, mutinous, or worst of all, both. In Zuckerberg’s case it’s the punt on the Metaverse which is looking faintly mad. In Elon’s case it’s destroying most of the core principles of your platform to … well, what exactly? He complained that Twitter was too bloated, and not profitable enough, and yet he was the man who spunked 40+ billion dollars up a wall to buy a thing he said at one point he didn’t actually want. I still suspect that all this is a stampy toddler tantrum because on his first approach, which he thought would be greeted by applause, laurel wreaths, and approbation simply becasue he was … fanfare … “ELON MUSK!”, the Twitter board instead informed him that he could unceremoniously go and fuck himself sideways, in the most unlubed option available. All of what we are seeing now is simply the result of an unrestrained ego throwing the mother of all hissy fits because the other bros didn’t like him enough.
So for now, Twitter remains, though lots of people are looking for escape routes and outlets. Many of these are niche, and not in a state to fully scale or support a mass migration yet. And perhaps most of those users aren’t ready to embrace other, more federated models of social media quite yet either. For now, the bird is not dead, but might just be tired and shagged out after a long squawk. We will just have to wait and see if the the beautiful plumage will remain enough of a distraction, or whether it will very soon shuffle off this mortal coil, and run down the curtain and go off to join the choir invisible.
¹ The iPhone didn’t arrive until mid 2007, of course, though the announcement took place earlier in the year.
² I still have a facebook account so I can look in on people I know, but I no longer post, and have removed as much of my content as I have been able.
³ I said the words “Twitter Influencer” in my head, and felt a little bit of sick rise up in my mouth.