X is set to shrink to an inconsequence as its owner fails to spot the chasm between public tolerance and his obscene greed.
The value of an account on an exploitative, ad-strewn Silicon Valley silo was established at $0, and it's always been considered expensive at that. There will soon come a point at which even the average Musk supporter will begin to notice that cattle don't pay to be farmed.
In 2022 I wrote a short piece called The Benny Test, which highlighted the truth about Twitter's value to its userbase. You may find the rather maverick method of analysis interesting, but if you don't have time to read the article, its conclusion was that the overwhelming majority of accounts on Twitter are inactive, and you can easily prove that for yourself. On this evidence, even at a cost of $zero, most people consider Twitter a poor deal. The platform has markedly worsened since then, and inactivity has risen further.
After owner Elon Musk recently floated the idea of charging all users an access fee, there was widespread debate about whether his X rebrand could survive as a full-on premium service.
But the very fact that Musk would have to contemplate such a drastic measure - unprecedented in mainstream social media - shows that the platform has already passed the point of salvageability. In this post, I'm going to examine why the former Twitter cannot now survive in its recognised form, regardless of whether Musk introduces a mandatory fee - which, incidentally, I believe he will do before the ship finally disappears below the waterline.
HOUSE OF CARDS
Most online platforms are houses of cards, and vastly more of them fail than succeed. All of their value is in their userbase. The technological shell is worthless without the public. Outside entities - from working class creators to celebrities - fill platforms with what's come to be known as "content", and that's all anyone cares about. Conversation, information, humour, media, and most importantly, the potential for more conversation, information, humour and media.
It was never the "Town Square". It was the backstreet nightclub where no one knew anyone's name and no one needed to.
The problem, for the platforms at least, is that the commodity on which they build their brands - namely, people - is not theirs. And unless someone's planning to legalise slave-capture, it never will be theirs.
Every outside entity contributing value to a social media brand is not only free to leave, but also free to scale down their contributions at will. And - very much an overlooked point - free to reduce the value of their contributions. The fact that you're still using the former Twitter doesn't necessarily mean you're contributing the quality or value of work that you were contributing previously. I have a raft of Nitter bookmarks that evidence a decline in effort. This may be one of the most significant factors of all in the platform's general downturn.
And the above is what makes platforms like X houses of cards. They can only survive as long as the public willingly agree to feed them engaging material. And inactivity is just as viral as activity. A few key "cards" drop out, and the rest go with them.
Critically, there's a public inactivity threshold below which maintaining a presence is just not worth a celebrity's bother. And once the celebs start to leave in number, it really is the end of mainstream life.
No centralised platform will replace Twitter. In part, because the substitute platforms are not actually giving their users anything remotely close to what Twitter gave its users in its ascendancy (neither is X, we should studiously note). But also because twenty plus years of watching platforms pull the same strokes has damaged public trust.
Classic mainstream platforms set out to ambush their users. Traditionally, they conceal their true business model upon launch, and portray themselves as hippified, utopian freescapes that will never be monetised, will always exhibit saintly behaviour, and will survive on fragrant goodwill forever more. God will pay the staff's wages, and ROI-bless all the venture capital sources that funded the breathtakingly expensive infrastructure. Such a beautiful fairytale.
But then comes the ambush. Like…
Good day User #7,117,615. God is like totally 100% on our side, but apparently he ain't got no bank account so er… Give us money or we iz henceforth wiping your visibility off the face of the Earth.
Visibility becomes such an artificially-managed commodity on latter-stage social platforms, that in some cases clicking someone's Follow button is a meaningless action. Unless they've paid a visibility tax, you're probably not gonna see them anyway.
If this type of monetisation plan had been disclosed from the start, it wouldn't cause the kind of uproar it causes as a late-stage ambush. But of course, if it had been disclosed from the start, the platform would never have gained its userbase - which is why it's routinely hidden until users have deeply committed themselves.
Several factors make the characteristic onset of ransom demands and other surprise collateral-grabs damaging to public confidence. Among them…
- People who invested their time on a different set of conditions feel tricked or misled.
- The most talented users are the least likely to pay for visibility, and spammers are the most likely. Which means that the spam ratio increases and the platform loses appeal to the reader. We've seen this precise outcome on the former Twitter.
- The "King Effect". That is, disgruntlement among users who feel they're providing more to the platform than they're receiving from it in return - as expressed by author Stephen King on Twitter in 2022. Imagine what it must be like to bring an audience of millions to an advertising company, only for that company to expect YOU to pay to continue doing it. That was King's protest. Musk's direct response was to offer him a discount. This complete refusal to acknowledge the value of even VIP contributors has characterised Musk as someone who will exploit creatives.
- A new sense of vulnerability. If the platform can make these surprise demands now, it could make even worse surprise demands in future. Based on this logic, paying a ransom is considered a bad idea. So is it worth continuing to invest time, or is it time to cut the losses and quit? And if it is time to cut the losses, is it ever worth bothering to invest time at that kind of intensity again, anywhere?
It's the latter of those points that has been the most damaging for the concept of social media.
Social media differs from other platform types in that it demands constant time investment. For anyone who isn't famous, you're talking about a day-after day slog - building a presence on what literally feels like a treadmill. A lot of the time being harassed or aggressively contradicted by people you never wanted anything to do with. It's a lot of labour, and potentially, mental stress too. And if you've invested that labour over a period of years, and then the platform flippantly kneecaps the visibility you worked so hard for, because you won't pay a "boost fee", you're probably going to be extremely wary about starting that same process again.
This is where we are in the history of social media. People have seen the playbook enough times to understand a social platform's projected lifecycle.
The layers of revenue that this man is aiming to extract from a shrinking resource do not even bear thinking about in terms of their impact on the value of the service.
Sure, there are people who can be screwed over time after time after time, and who never learn, and will keep repeating the exactly same actions expecting a different result - indefinitely. But those people are not the majority. Most people adhere to a strict "Trick me once…" ethos. When some new Silicon Valley-style startup comes along with a hyper-vague business plan, professing to be the next Twitter, all they see is 5,000 hours on a treadmill followed by a gunpoint heist.
Bait, bite, and hook.
We might be tempted to imagine that this would play in the former Twitter's favour. After all, if people aren't using substitute platforms in "mainstream" volume, that's all the better for Twitter's retention, right?
Not really. In truth it's an indication of poor viability across the entire genre of social media. If the social media bubble had not already burst, alternative platforms would have been buckled under the weight of new signups in autumn '22, when Musk took over Twitter. Over half the platform hated the guy.
It's telling that Mastodon has been the most successful of all Twitter alternatives despite its cumbersome and very non-mainstream setup. A perfect illustration of the fact that people are NOT ready to trust a new Silicon Valley-style startup the way they trusted Twitter. Most people now need a plausible, visible assurance that the platform they're joining is genuinely different.
In many ways Mastodon is not different. It still has a lot of Twitter's problems, and it's certainly not immune to the whims of Big Tech, as some appear to believe. But it does, at least, have a fundamentally different structure. And it's fair to say that joining Mastodon is not simply repeating the same behaviour as before and expecting something different to happen.
There are all sorts of devastating knock-on effects that introducing a blanket access fee would bring.
So the game, for social platforms, has changed. The public are now wary of them, and in particular their motives. In this light, the former Twitter has some key problems. Among which…
Its owner was overcharged when he bought it, and he wants the public to pay the bill - ON TOP OF WHAT HE WANTS THEM TO PUT INTO HIS WALLET IN PROFIT. He's also simultaneously trying to rebuild the platform as a new brand, which vastly reduces his earning power. The layers of revenue that this man is aiming to extract from a shrinking resource do not even bear thinking about in terms of their impact on the value of the service.
You cannot be getting good value from any product or service whose boss is a multi-billionaire. It is impossible to extract that amount of capital from an economic system without screwing everyone over.
Twitter never reached the critical mass of Facebook, which is able to use its real-life connective power to retain users under far worse conditions than the former Twitter will withstand. Virtually no one went to Twitter to connect with Gran and Grandpa, or with the boss on remote catch-up. It was the opposite of that. There's an old joke that people used to drop into their Twitter bio text:
"My family found me on Facebook, so here I am."
And that perfectly summarises the role of Twitter. It was never the "Town Square". It was the backstreet nightclub where no one knew anyone's name and no one needed to. But that culture is to a large extent disposable. You don't lose your family or your job if you ditch your X account. Twitter's random roleplayers can go and find random roleplayers elsewhere, and pick up where they left off.
Whilst there are people who feel they can't leave Twitter, the platform does not have the lock-in potency of Facebook. In December 2022 Stephen Fry left behind over 12 million Twitter followers and started again on Mastodon from scratch - proving that even with the biggest and most valuable accounts, tolerance of Twitter's evolution was not going to be infinite.
And it now appears that the public in general are beginning to more carefully distribute their social presence, so as not to fall victim to exploitative, almost blackmail-style tactics, which they're coming to see as near inevitable in the realm of mainstream tech.
Nearly all of the people still in my Nitter bookmarks now have an alternative presence on at least one other platform. This is new. Before Musk, people had backup accounts on Twitter itself. Now the backups are at other venues. Any momentum at all in the direction of those other venues would quickly become an avalanche that Elon Musk could not stop. The re-invention of X/Twitter as a premium platform would easily spark that momentum.
THE TWITTER ACCESS FEE
Most rational people have concluded that introducing a fee for access to the former Twitter would kill the platform as a mainstream player virtually overnight. The fact that X "CEO" Linda Yaccarino refused to either defend or contradict Musk's fee proposal in her high profile interview last week, showed that Musk is:
- Still running the company.
- Out of touch with the reality of his platform's value to the average user.
There are all sorts of devastating knock-on effects that introducing a blanket access fee would bring. Since its entry to the mainstream, Twitter has had masses of free push from media orgs, enterprise, educational resources and the like. It's a perk of being a mainstream platform.
But no one's gonna be plugging a premium platform on TV, on the radio, on billboards, in their school, or on the side of their company van. Elon Musk may not care a jot about inclusivity, but the world outside his bubble still does, and is acutely aware that pushing important discussion onto a paygated resource is deeply discriminatory, and ethically untenable.
And let's not forget that this week, Musk increased to unprecedented levels the data-economy price of using his platform. If you were previously in doubt as to whether your Twitter contributions would be directly sold to AI businesses whose express goal is to destroy your creative livelihood, be in doubt no longer. In publishing valuable content to X, you are feeding your executioner a banquet per day until he straps you into the chair and pulls the lever.
When some new Silicon Valley-style startup comes along with a hyper-vague business plan, professing to be the next Twitter, all people see is 5,000 hours on a treadmill followed by a gunpoint heist.
Everything of yours that can be sold, will be sold. And we should not underestimate the extent of the backlash awaiting X's new terms. Creators understand more than anyone how the new conditions will impact them in the long term. The message is: put it on X/Twitter and it's no longer yours.
As high-value creative contributions to the former Twitter dwindle - as they have steadily been doing for almost a year now - the ratio of quality submissions to what I can only describe as "chud Tweets", will drift into a territory that simply will not support mainstream advertising. There's only so much you can do with algorithms. They're already stretched to the limit trying to make a site full of empty houses and spambots look like it's still alive. Elon Musk knows this, and it's the reason why he's already gauging public reaction to an access charge.
Before long, Musk will be forced to extract his core revenue directly from users. All users, including readers and casual visitors. And we know what that means. A premium platform with a much, much smaller userbase. X could be profitable for a while under those circumstances, but its shrinkage will accelerate. Before long, it will be little but a glorified "Truth Social", and it will roundly represent a complete waste of forty-four billion dollars, because Musky-boy could have built a glorified "Truth Social" for a few million.
The value of an account on an exploitative, ad-strewn Silicon Valley silo was established at $0, and it's always been considered expensive at that. There will soon come a point at which even the average Musk supporter will begin to notice that cattle don't pay to be farmed. Which means that even the shrunken, paygated husk of Twitter will continue where its semi-open predecessor left off. Steadily losing traction until its search presence is outranked by discussions of its heady past on nostalgia forums.
And if the fee is not introduced? Same story, longer book. The viability of social media itself is dying. More than ever, the public are tiring of the corporate Web, and we can safely guarantee that a money-crazed thug like Elon Musk will never do anything with the former Twitter that doesn't absolutely epitomise corporatism.
There is no plan he can possibly come up with that would fit in with his voracious, extractive goals, without repelling users.
X is going down. The only question is when.