When the world’s richest person closed on his purchase of Twitter last week, signs were already pointing toward a business-oriented version of Elon Musk, rather than a “free speech”–focused double, running point. Musk may have initially wanted to buy Twitter as some combination of a gag and a plan to tip the scales of the public discourse toward the right, or at least center-right. But by the time Twitter had batted away his expensive but flimsy legal efforts to nuke the deal and gotten him to agree to his $44 billion buyout of the company, Musk was talking like someone more focused on protecting his investment than making Twitter into “a free-for-all hellscape” (his words) where content moderation went to die. He was reassuring his bankers, his Tesla shareholders, and Twitter’s advertisers that he would be a serious steward of the platform. It has scanned for a while that Musk would still make some moves that worsen the Twitter experience for most people, and it looks like that is already happening on the moderation front. But it’s happening for reasons of business difficulty, not ideology. And that’s why Twitter still could burn, even if not in the way many have feared.
If Twitter rapidly becomes an unusable platform, it won’t be because Musk decided that the praise of the most annoying neo-Nazis on the internet was worth tanking an enormous investment. Instead, if it happens, it’ll be because Musk finds himself in a position where he needs to find ways for Twitter to start making a lot of money. That is not a historic specialty of Twitter’s, and to change that, Musk is exploring —or maybe announcing?—changes that would make the platform a much different place. They probably wouldn’t make it a better one, because the changes Musk is exploring look to be zero-sum between Twitter and its users. Instead of making Twitter a more desirable corner of the internet, Musk wants to pull more money out of existing users by threatening to make the platform worse for those who don’t pay up. He is using mostly sticks, with a side of small carrots that may not even be carrots. If Musk wants Twitter to start printing cash, he is in trouble. There is a reason the company’s old board of directors was so eager to unload the company onto him. But if he is to have any chance of making Twitter more profitable, he should start by making it a better place to spend time. What he’s unveiled so far doesn’t do that.
One initial idea, as reported by the Verge, was that Musk’s new version of Twitter would charge $20 per month in exchange for account verification and strip the blue checkmarks from anyone who didn’t pay. On some level, it’s a neat and fair business idea. Accounts with blue checks are often the ones that rely on Twitter to distribute their work or engage with their audiences and customers. Wringing a few bucks out of those users in exchange for the prestige and recognizability of the checkmark is a fair idea. Except the plan fundamentally misunderstands what Twitter is and why it verifies accounts in the first place. The checkmark has indeed become a cliquey high school status signifier for tons of accounts, but it’s also a tool meant to make Twitter a more trusty purveyor of information. The checkmark makes Twitter an easier environment for processing and believing news, and to the extent Twitter wants people to come to it to gain new information, that matters a lot. If everyone can buy that symbol of authenticity, it ceases to confer any at all. It is not hard to think up various ways in which that could become a disinformation problem that makes Twitter a less appealing place to get news and bugs advertisers who don’t want to be associated with a cesspool of chaos. It also misreads the power dynamic between Twitter and its media and celebrity users, whose content drives tons of people to the platform. They already tweet for free. What if some of them decide they won’t pay to tweet for free, and then reach the conclusion that Twitter is no longer a hospitable environment to share their work? Especially if those mostly left-of-center power tweeters already do not like Musk.
Musk now says verification will cost $8, not $20, and will come in a package that includes “priority” in tweet replies, mentions, and searches, half as many ads, and the ability to post long videos on Twitter’s services. That’s less harsh of a stick, but the carrots are problems in their own right. Currently, tweets travel democratically. If something gets a lot of retweets, likes, or replies, more people will see it. Ideally, though certainly not always, this happens because a tweet is good. In the version of Twitter that Musk is outlining, a tweet will have a better chance to travel because a day-to-day user paid for it to get “priority.” This plan essentially makes every tweet from anyone who uses Twitter Blue, the company’s subscription plan, into a paid advertisement. Paid advertisers do not even want that. The allure of Twitter for them is to place their ads amid posts that people have organically decided they want to see, not to compete with an army of posters paying $8 a month in the hopes of rising above the noise.
It stretches belief that a plan like this will become a boon to Twitter’s bottom line, which will no longer be for public consumption now that Musk has taken the firm private. I do not think a lot of people currently subscribe to Twitter Blue, because Twitter made a conspicuous choice to leave its subscription data vague in its last earnings release as a public company. Twitter lost $270 million in the second quarter of 2022. It said it had about $100 million in “subscription and other” revenue in those three months. It did not say how much was “subscription” and how much was “other,” or how many people had subscribed since Twitter Blue rolled out in 2021. I’m a subscriber, because I am a degenerate. But that’s for $4.99 a month, not $8, and because I tweet lots of typos and craved the chance to “undo” tweets before they went live. It requires a lot of pixie-dusted napkin math for me to see Musk selling enough $8 subscriptions with these features to significantly change Twitter’s trajectory for the better. I am not yet sure what I’ll do, but I may even unsubscribe if it becomes clear that regular Twitter users think it’s embarrassing to pay for verification. That is a real risk. It looks much more metal to get one’s Twitter engagement the old-fashioned way.
Musk has other ideas about improving Twitter’s financial situation. One that he is widely reported to be considering is mass layoffs. Some of Musk’s co-investors and tech peers have a theory that tech companies are massively overstaffed as a rule. Maybe they’re right! If they are, Musk could generate significant savings. If they’re not, he could make Twitter worse and push users away. The best those users can hope for is that any job cuts do not make things noticeably worse. I’m skeptical, but who knows.
These seem to be Musk’s ideas: On the one hand, there’s a hamfisted plan to take more money off of Twitter’s existing users, and on the other, there’s (maybe) a plan to improve margins by cutting staff.
What’s lacking is a plan to make Twitter better for a critical mass of people who spend time on it. Musk has flirted via tweet with the idea of bringing back Vine, a once-beloved shortform video platform that Twitter mothballed after it didn’t make money. That would be refreshing, and maybe Musk is smart enough to profit from it in a way Twitter’s old management could not. But Musk could do a lot more. I think Matt Yglesias is on to something in suggesting that Musk could lean into features that help people customize their experiences and get rid of annoyances: More things like Twitter Circles, where people can tweet to small groups of their followers. (Maybe Twitter Spaces, the company’s entry in the live audio sweepstakes, could also be walled off for small groups.) More tools to help users manage potential harassment, like automated deletion of old tweets and mass-blocking or muting functions.
There are also better ways to profit off of Twitter’s power users than nuking the verification system. For example, many of those power users—”addicts” is a better word, and I include myself—rely heavily on TweetDeck, a Twitter interface that the company owns but has given short shrift for years. That ignorance probably stems from TweetDeck not making Twitter much money as a free service. It’s a critical tool for media and lots of other professionals who use Twitter, thanks to features like the ability to schedule tweets and see many different lists of tweets at once. But the feature is also a mess. Lots of tweets do not show up properly. The scheduling feature is janky. The search button works half the time. If Twitter put serious engineering muscle into making TweetDeck a better product, I’d gladly pay $20 a month for it. Twitter has different back-end tools for different types of professional users, and all of them could fetch the company more money if they focused on super-powering them. And here’s a bonus: Making features like TweetDeck better would not mean upsetting the entire balance of Twitter’s information ecosystem.
The difficulty for Musk is that even if he nails every business decision at Twitter for years, he has a tough road ahead. Buying Twitter for $54.20 per share was an exceptionally bad idea. The richest guy in the world is never truly desperate, but it will be hard for Musk not to be a financial loser in a deal where he admits he overpaid and tried furiously to get out of closing. If Musk can pull it off, it won’t be because he chose business over the flattery of the far right. That much is necessary, but not sufficient. Instead, any success he has will revolve around how quickly Musk realizes what Twitter is actually good at.