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Blog // Technology
April 21, 2023

Everything About Twitter Right Now

Last year I wrote about the future of Twitter. Since then, Elon Musk has bought the company and a lot has changed. Rather than just review all those changes, let’s look again at what the future holds.

Twitter is changing. It will no longer be about news and information, community, or folks sharing every aspect of their lives.

But it will still be about what you had for lunch. How you paid for it. And how you felt about the experience.

Twitter As An Everything App

Because Twitter will likely become an everything app. Think of that as social media crossed with payments: your purchases, payment history, preferences, opinions and reviews, all encoded into your online identity. This kind of thing already exists in China. We’re soon going to see if it works everywhere else.

Think of it this way. You attend a sporting event and at half-time there’s some kind of entertainment. It’s sponsored by a fast food company. They’re giving away half-price meals if you tweet the hashtag. So you do, and you get a coupon. But it’s tied to your Twitter account. And when you use it, your Twitter identity now shows you to be someone interested in sports and fast food. And you receive ads tailored to you by other brands in sports and fast food.

Or suppose you go on holiday and the airline loses your luggage. You complain on Twitter. And you score the airline on their service. And they score you. Maybe they are also able to see what kind of customer you are, and how often you have complained about other things. And they adjust their service accordingly.

Twitter Needs a Saviour

People say Musk overpaid for Twitter. He himself admitted, in a bizarre interview with the BBC, that he bought it only because a court forced him to honour the purchase agreement he’d made. In the same interview he implied he’d be willing to sell if the right buyer came along.

But, assuming there is no buyer, how does Musk save this situation?

In the same BBC interview he said that advertisers are coming back to Twitter. However, that might not be true. And the strategy of bullying legacy verified accounts into buying subscriptions to “save their tick” failed, with less than 4.8% of the 407,000 verified accounts signing up. Twitter can’t survive on its current course.

Well, he’s long been interested in the idea of an everything app. Just like WeChat in China. He’s even legally merged Twitter into X Corp, an entity he created for just this purpose. And while he might not understand how advertising and media work, Musk does have some understanding of payments, given his role in the creation of PayPal.

The Marketing Of Online Clout

Years ago there was a platform called Klout. The idea was that your presence on social media, the number of followers and the engagement you had, could be monetized. Everyone would have a Klout score and companies would reward people who spent all day on social media with discounts and free stuff.

At the time I thought the idea was stupid. But was it just too far ahead of its time? Social media activity back then was too diffuse and ephemeral to be acted on in the way Klout wanted. And everyone was too set in the idea that the internet was just free commons where no one paid or got paid. Of course we’ve now had a decade of influencers and branded collaborations.

Kara Swisher once said, “Twitter is a great product and a terrible business.” This has always been true of its ad business. Facebook knows far more about its users’ beliefs and social class. Google knows far more about their tastes and preferences. Meanwhile Twitter managed, once upon a time, to gather the smartest and most creative people on a single platform, while knowing very little about them individually. Which meant it couldn’t give advertisers the kind of nuanced demographic information they want in order to build effective marketing campaigns.

Becoming an everything app might make Twitter more attractive to advertisers. It would also make the platform’s attempts to sell subscriptions more compelling.

Getting Out Of The Subscription Maze

Twitter has had a subscription service, Blue, for a while. They tried to market its features to power users and content creators, with little success. Meanwhile a lot of Twitter’s regular users, stuck in a decades-old perspective, scoff at the idea of “paying to tweet.”

But of course, people with skin in the game, who run brand accounts or create content or have businesses that sell online, have paid for years. Maybe not to Twitter directly. But certainly for third party services such as BlackMagic, Hootsuite, or Hypefury. But the controversy which Musk fuelled over the meaning of verification meant these kinds of users were never going to pay for a diluted version of verification.

But if a subscription-based verification advances your status in the everything app economy, then it would make sense for everyday consumers to pay. Especially if Twitter becomes something like the digital equivalent of a store loyalty card for every major brand in the world.

As someone who went to Twitter for community and collaboration, ideas and inspiration, and geniune connections and friendship, none of this appeals to me. The Twitter I loved might not be gone yet but it’s going fast. It’s being killed off by every erratic altercation, from messing with verification, enabling hate, to mislabelling public broadcasters.

Is There A Big Plan?

I don’t believe this was caused simply by a series of mistakes made by an erratic billionaire. There’s something deeper going on: an attack on the role of journalism as a critical voice against big tech’s excesses. In that same BBC interview Musk admitted he enjoyed removing the New York Times’ verified mark. He also suggested journalism was an inherently shallow activity.

This is in keeping with his increasing descent into a conspiracy theory influenced view of mainstream media. And runs parallel to a resentment-filled anti-journalism narrative that is popular in the tech world and dates back to the GamerGate controversy.

If the long-term strategy is to turn Twitter into an everything app, then the departure of all the authoritative voices that filled Twitter might be part of the plan. After all, other spaces on the internet, like Reddit and Wikipedia, still thrive as places where people go for information without having visible authorities adding credibility to the platform.

Our Post-Knowledge Age

But I find places like Reddit and Wikipedia deeply unsatisfying. Wikipedia, for example, is fine if you want to know who won the FA Cup in 1970. But if you want to know what a major philosopher thought, it’s not as rewarding as The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Too often, Wikipedia has the same problems with generic language that we find in ChatGPT’s answers.

Sometimes it feels like we’re in the post-knowledge age. We have content for content’s sake even if it doesn’t say or mean everything. We are conditioned by the technology around us to be satisfied by the most convenient answer instead of the best one.

Maybe in that world Musk’s everything app version of Twitter, with a faceless horde of competing voices trying to crawl out of the bucket to gain treats from their favourite brands, could be a success.

Other Recent Essays on Twitter

A Post-Twitter World – with Twitter in turmoil this essay looks at how Twitter is more of a cultural engine than a technology platform and how to think about a future where Twitter is perhaps less central to the world’s creative media conversation.

The Future Of Twitter – an in-depth look at the challenges Twitter was facing, the reasons why they were considering a sale to Elon Musk, and the problems in his proposed solutions.

How to Use Twitter – an actionable and practical guide to using Twitter written specifically for people working in creative fields who want to be able to make meaningful online connections and have a safe experience with Twitter.

Ten Years On Twitter – using a ten year anniversary on the platform to reflect on the way it has changed and how my own habits have evolved in response to those cultural and technological shifts.

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