In 2017, writer David Roth gave a name to a phenomenon that had existed for some time. When someone sent a tweet that some critical mass of users decided was bad, the damning statistics would appear underneath: a very small number of retweets, a bigger but still-small number of favorites (now “likes”) indicating passive approval, and a huge number of replies informing the poster that their post sucked. The Ratio, as Roth coined it, meant someone had biffed their tweet badly enough to generate a solid Major League Baseball stat line. A tweet with 34 retweets, 83 faves, and 198 replies was akin to a typical season for the Cincinnati Reds’ Adam Dunn: 34 home runs, 83 runs batted in, and a .198 batting average. If you were very online in those days, you never wanted to flirt with that stat line.
The nature of the Ratio has evolved a bit over the years. Some now consider a high number of quote-tweets, which differ from the replies underneath a tweet, to be the more reliable indicator of a public humbling. But the classic form of harsh Twitter feedback has always been in the replies to an objectionable tweet. Anyone could get got: Someone posting a noxious defense of the Iraq War, a big-city Democratic mayor saying virtually anything, or anyone posts a picture of barbecue that looks too dry. While sometimes unnecessarily mean and verging on harassment, and not always serving the most useful ends of building consensus, the reply festival has become an important part of modern Twitter. It has been a democratic feature, a means by which lots of people can tell one person how badly they had blown it. At its best, it has been a nice way to speak truth to power. At its worst, it’s been an ungenerous waste of energy. It has at least kept people honest and surely discouraged a few bozos and brands from tweeting various bozo-ish things.
What will become of this sort of pile-on in a world where the first replies you see under any tweet are the ones people paid to put there? The most famous feature of Twitter Blue, Elon Musk’s subscription product for the site, is the verification check mark that used to signal some degree of authenticity or notoriety but now signifies that someone paid $8 per month and supports Musk’s vision for Twitter. But “prioritization” in tweet replies is another big part of the package. It doesn’t seem to work all the time, because nothing at Twitter currently works all the time, but it is true for the most part: If someone pays for Twitter and replies to a tweet, the rest of us will see it before we see replies from the silent majority—meaning the 99.9 percent of humanity—who do not pay for Twitter. Paying subscribers are not all right-of-center Musk fanboyish types, and a decent number are just power users who do not worry much about badges of shame. But by offering Blue at the same time he was making a pivot to right-wing cult hero status, Musk inherently tilted his subscriber base to the right.
In one way, it’s clear what this right-wing flavor to paid subscriptions will mean: The replies that you’re most likely to see under any popular tweet will be more likely to flash a conservative perspective. These users have, after all, paid for the right to be the loudest voices on Twitter. Perhaps this is Musk’s only success story since buying the platform. Advertising has fallen down a well, Musk currently values Twitter at less than half of what he paid for it, and celebrities are now embarrassed to be associated with it. But Musk is pretty explicitly (and cringingly) conservative these days, and in buying Twitter and boosting the tweets of people who support him, he has made Twitter less hospitable for liberal or leftist commentary. That will make it harder for nonconservatives to mount the kind of good, old-fashioned shame fest that became such a part of the internet over the past decade. And it may, in a roundabout way, be good.
To be clear: Nonpaying, nonconservative people on Twitter can still do a bang-up job of expressing their disapproval. It’s just harder and needs the right circumstance. Think you’re going to mount an effective persuasion campaign in the replies to a Marjorie Taylor-Greene post? Sorry, you are not. The replies to anything Taylor-Greene tweets are a blur of mostly conservative Blue accounts cheering her on and a smaller delegation of what some would call “Blue MAGA” accounts—Democratic posters with hundreds of thousands of followers who tweet mostly about the Donald Trump indictment and Ukraine—fighting back. There is no oxygen in there for a regular tweeter who’d like to get some shine for a witty response to a demagogic figure. There are cases in which a high-profile, right-wing Twitter user acts in such a loathsome way that even the Blue commentariat will take them down a peg. Talk-show host and big traditional family guy Steven Crowder is currently amid divorce proceedings with his wife, and there’s videotape of him speaking gruesomely to her while she was pregnant, and so even the paid tweets under one of Crowder’s defenses of himself are unsparing. Apparently certain things remain beyond the pale.
But most heavy-hitting conservatives don’t make it so easy, and you can look at silly tweets by famous people today and imagine how things might have been different in days gone by. Ben Shapiro, for instance, posted this on Friday, which was Karl Marx’s birthday:
Kind of silly! Exactly the kind of one-inch-deep thought that a big segment of leftist Twitter, and even inches-left-of-center Twitter, would’ve had a field day with as recently as a few months ago. Someone might point out that just weeks ago, Shapiro was defending the billionaire who bought a majority stake in Clarence Thomas’s jurisprudence against charges that owning a bunch of Nazi memorabilia and statues of dictators indicated any weird views on his part. “A reason you might own this stuff is to remember the things that you hate. But apparently this makes him a Nazi and a communist,” Shapiro said of Harlan Crow. The replies to Shapiro’s newer Marx tweet might be deluged with people asking him things like, “Hey, Ben, what happened to all of that dutiful remembering of history, even the stuff you hate??” And all of those tweets would have a few hundred favorites, and everyone would have a small if 99 percent inconsequential chuckle about having so easily undermined a bad argument. Instead it takes extensive scrolling to find anything other than warnings about what could happen if society ignores its past mistakes “No, Ben, if we forget, then we will be doomed to make the same mistakes again. We must remember,” reads one perfectly indicative reply. There are more than 800 replies in total, and it takes work to get to anything with a spice level higher than a 3. Who could possibly be having fun here?
It might look like a certain kind of victory for Musk that Twitter is now this way. The site is a bit more ideologically attuned to what seems to be his liking, and it’s harder to use the wisdom of the crowd, rather than of those who pay $8 a month, to puncture ridiculous talking points in a visible forum. But this dynamic ultimately breaks bad for Musk and his buddies, too. It gets harder to warn someone’s followers about the Woke Cancel Culture Mob on the internet, and to position oneself as the last big defender of free speech standing up against the vile left, if a person needs to read through 500 replies to a terrible Ben Shapiro tweet to see someone making a confrontational point in response.
The Twitter experience also just gets a bit less fun, for everyone. Someone on the left who doesn’t pay for Twitter has less incentive to look at tweets they think are terrible, and then craft a reply they think is cutting, if they think there’s a slim chance anyone will read it. And conservatives, who seem more likely to pay for Twitter Blue, will eventually get bored. Twitter’s benefit to them is not that it’s an echo chamber where any right-wing line is met with hugs and kisses. There are numerous conservative social media websites, and none has gotten anywhere near Twitter’s popularity. There is no Fox News of conservative social media, because much of the fun for right-wing internet users is having an allegedly woke mob to argue with. It may not have happened yet, but it will eventually get stultifying for a huge mass of Twitter Blue subscribers to gather in the replies to talk-show hosts’ tweets to agree that socialism is bad. This kind of poster needs someone to fight with, and by tilting the playing field, Musk has cut down on fighting.
That seems like a good thing for people in two groups: Those who would like to spend less time getting their blood pressure up while looking at the internet, and those who would like to see Musk’s Twitter investment degraded until the point of a wipeout. Much of the analysis about Musk’s ownership of Twitter has focused on the classically consumerist ways that he has made the site worse: Things break more often, and curating reliable news on Twitter is harder, and the ad experience is lousy. Maybe Twitter can weather all of those things. It’s unlikely, but possible. But the thing Twitter definitely cannot survive is people losing interest in waging internet combat against their ideological enemies, whether because they can’t get a word in or they have nobody left to argue with. Twitter has always been a sewer. The prioritization of paid, right-skewing tweets merely asks what happens if people get tired of swimming in it.