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This Week in Discourse: Elon has lost his mind
Elon jumps headfirst into the deep end of crazy. Plus, a content moderation simulator game.
Elon loses his mind
It’s another week, another update on how Elon is running Twitter. You know the drill by this point. “Look at these crazy things he is doing! These things are terrible, illegal, or just deeply stupid”, I will tell you. “This is new information! I cannot believe such a successful man as Elon Musk would make such irrational and bizarre decisions! Who could have foreseen this?”, you will say.
As with any site that covers news about social media, we talk quite a lot about Elon Musk here. We’ve covered how you need to acknowledge that Elon is both unfathomably talented and also a giant drooling idiot at the same time. Almost every week we cover his many, many, many, many, many terrible decisions as owner of the Bird App. We’ve talked about about the theories of which site could replace Twitter should it fail. In short - we talk about this a lot.
So let me tell you that this week was a landmark week for stupid Elon bullshit, even by his standards.
Let’s cover the small stuff first:
In addition to the FTC, SEC, and virtually every other federal agency, The National Labor Relations Board is now also taking action against Musk/X for illegally firing a worker.
New reporting: Elon forced the entire engineering department to manually boost his tweets in the algorithm in an emergency 2AM meeting because Joe Biden’s “Go Eagles” tweet in the Super Bowl got more likes than Elon’s “Go Eagles” tweet.
Twitter was fined more than half a million dollars in Australia for failing to address child safety/abuse material.
Twitter is throttling links to Patreon, likely in an effort to keep monetization on-platform.
Yet another report confirms that Twitter traffic is still declining.
Musk continued his feud with the NYTimes by removing their verified status.
A glitch in Twitter’s site could have allowed the CIA’s informant link to be hijacked.
Not really news about Twitter, but good news for us - you can get headlines back on links by downloading this Chrome extension. Lifesaver.
That was all the news, just from the last week, that we’re not going to even talk about further because it’s the little things. Just lawsuits, security leaks, numerous petty feuds, declining business prospects and child safety. You know, small stuff.
Instead, we’re going to talk about two massive pieces of news, both of which could switch Twitter’s death spiral switch from slow-motion into turbo speed.
First: Elon is moving forward with charging users to access Twitter.
This was first reported (and then denied) a month ago. Elon’s had this vision for a long time, likely because Twitter has lost the majority of their ad revenue. That ad revenue does not seem to be coming back and so the site is scrambling for alternatives, such as paying for verification or simply paying to use the site, period. Now Elon is moving forward with his plan to charge users to tweet, as part of his long-standing obsession with ‘bots’.
There are plenty of caveats. The fee is remarkably low at $1 per year. The fee only applies to new users, not existing users. And it’s being tested right now in only two countries, New Zealand and the Philippines. This is the smallest of baby steps in the direction of charging all users.
But the program is now active, and this is absolutely the first step of many. If the program goes well, it will be expanded globally. And I can’t imagine the price stays $1/year forever, or that it would apply to only new users forever. The long term vision is absolutely to have a monthly fee to use Twitter. That’s what Musk said last month, and I take him at his word.
I’ve written in detail about why this can’t work for a site of Twitter’s size. Quoting myself:
The first wave of people leaving is easy to predict. But afterwards, the audience will be significantly smaller. The value of a site like Twitter is how far it reaches and how fast it moves. With fewer users, it won’t necessarily be THE place for breaking news and conversation any longer. Many people who would happily pay $8/month to use Twitter with ~200M daily users might balk at paying $8/month to use Twitter when it only has 20M daily users. Of those 20M paying users, many will find the site no longer valuable due to reduced activity and will themselves also leave. So a few months after the initial drop, you could see the site reduced from 20M to 10M active daily users, which further decreases traffic and engagements. And so on.
Every time there’s a wave of people leaving, it makes the site less valuable for those remaining and therefore causes another round of departures. Eventually you end up with a tiny core of only the most dedicated Musk/Twitter fans, and the site essentially destroyed.
This is an adverse-selection style doom loop, and there’s no real way around it. Even at $1/year and only for new users, I’d guess that new user sign-ups in New Zealand and the Philippines will fall off a cliff. Twitter is worth $1 a year to most users, in the sense that if they regularly use the site you’d have to pay them more than $1 to quit. But there’s a large, robust set of evidence that people are biased towards a price of free, and that free things are incredibly sticky. The mental distance between a free app and a $1 app is much, much larger than just one dollar. Count this as a firm prediction - if this is ever rolled out widely, it will essentially kill Twitter as we know it.
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And that’s only the first piece of earth-shattering news. The second: Elon is so mad at having to comply with the EU’s new Digital Services Act that he’s considering pulling Twitter out of the EU market entirely.
There’s a sympathetic case to be made here. I think the EU tends to regulate tech badly - both too much regulation and poorly designed regulation. Meta decided not to launch Threads in the EU because of the difficulties of complying with the DSA and its sibling the Digital Markets Act (although this was characterized as a delay, not a permanent decision). Musk seems fed up after multiple rounds of meetings with EU regulators, and it’s entirely possible the regulators are partially to blame here.
And yet! Every other major social site, while they might grumble about regulation, is not going to give up on the entire European continent. It’s understandable for a brand new service to duck EU regulations. It’s an astonishing decision for a company that should already have experience managing regulators and safety concerns to just… leave Europe.
Europe is supposedly about 10% of Twitter’s global user base. They could technically survive a 10% hit, sure. But it would be much worse than 10% in practice. Twitter’s reputation is already in the toilet, and the site is perceived as being in decline. If you’re a non-European user and you suddenly notice that every European is gone, the site will seem much less valuable and be a worse experience than before. I would expect that a significant number of non-European users leave the site if this happens. Twitter’s power is in its global scale, but Musk doesn’t seem to understand that. Insider reports that there are essentially no employees left in the Berlin, Paris or Madrid offices.
Will Musk actually make either of those major changes? Your guess is as good as mine. The man is mercurial, impulsive, and stubborn. He might actually do it. But if he does start charging to tweet and if he does leave the EU, I think we’ll quickly move from “Is Twitter worth $1 to post on?” to “Is Twitter worth $1, as a business, period?”
Here’s something fun and cool to wash the Elon nonsense out of your mind. Mike Masnick at TechDirt has come out with a new game called Trust and Safety Tycoon, where you play as a content moderator for a new social site and try to navigate the difficult decisions that social media sites have to make.
The game puts you through rapid-fire rounds of decisions about which content to ban, how to respond to law enforcement, how to set your algorithms, etc. You have to keep user growth high and ad revenue coming in, but you also can’t alienate users or piss off the public too much without getting fired. You also can’t moderate everything without overworking your stressed team and impacting their speed and morale. I played the game twice - on my first go through I answered every question honestly and I got fired for low moderation speed. My second play through was more strategic, and I managed to reach IPO. It’s a fun game and worth your time.
Masnick is known for thinking deeply about the challenges of moderating social media. I’d recommend his fantastic ‘Content moderation speed run’ post, which is probably the best piece I’ve ever seen in describing how impossible some of the decisions are when moderating content at scale. He’s even written a piece called Content Moderation at Scale is Impossible to Do Well. But it’s one thing to read his arguments, and another thing to be put in those situations yourself.
Links and Posts
Every internet newsletter is talking about this Katie Notopoulos piece, but I honestly don’t think its core argument is that good. Bad things occur online not because of the advertising model but because of human nature. Still, it’s worth a read.
An interesting story from China - livestream shopping is on the decline as the country’s economy falters.
The paid version of ChatGPT now has access to the full internet.
Every week we end with some feelgood content to cleanse our brain of internet poison. Here’s a very good boy telling you it’s time to touch grass.