People say they want to leave Twitter, but can they quit the platform?

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Thinking about quitting Twitter? What Elon Musk and $8 a month for blue check marks means for the future of the platform

Without a comparable media platform, whether people stay or go could depend on why they were on in the first place.

Thinking about quitting Twitter? What Elon Musk and $8 a month for blue check marks means for the future of the platform
THE NEWS

A small but growing number of celebrities — including Shonda Rhimes and Stephen King — are leaving Twitter over the platform’s new owner and unabashedly polarizing figure, Elon Musk. Reasons cited? Musk’s laissez-faire attitude about misinformation on the platform and Musk’s new plan to charge $8 a month for those who want to keep their coveted blue check mark.

But the social media platform is used by 238 million active daily users globally, a Twitter spokesperson told Reuters in October, and the vast majority don’t make it onto Entertainment Tonight for our adorable dog tweet or care about the blue check. So will regular old tweeters drop off Twitter too?

Eh … with no other platform that’s quite like it, and Musk seemingly willing to compromise on the blue check fee, it comes down to whether people can kick that dopamine hit they get every time they log on — and if they even care enough about what/who Musk lets tweet (and his next money-making scheme) to try.

THE CONTEXT

Twitter’s business model has been viewed as a bit stuck for a while. The platform has an unrivaled place in public conversation, but it has struggled to leverage that into profitability. Though Musk’s ownership has prompted a fresh round of declarations of quitting, the Washington Post reported last year that many of Twitter’s users with the largest followings rarely tweet, and instead invest time in Instagram and TikTok to cultivate their followings.

Added to that, Musk took on a lot of debt to finance his deal to buy it and needs to make Twitter profitable before those debts come due.

BUSINESS LENS

A new tier of Twitter

Musk’s plan to charge $8 for the notorious blue check that verifies users appears to be more than just a way to get a little more money out of a few hundred thousand tweeters. It’s part of a larger business plan to create a new tier of Twitter in order to transform how the company makes a profit.

Before the company went private, the vast majority of Twitter’s revenue came from advertising — about $4.5 billion of its $5 billion annually. During the takeover saga, Musk at times talked down running Twitter as a business and has been dismissive of advertising, saying “I don’t care about the economics at all.”

When the deal closed, however, and he faced over $1 billion of annual interest payments to fund his takeover deal, he began an advertiser’s charm offensive, posting on Twitter that “advertising, when done right, can delight, entertain and inform” and that he won’t allow it to be a “free-for-all hellscape.” (Tesla, it should be noted, does not buy Twitter advertising.) But he had been very clear that advertising will be only part of how Twitter makes money.

The $8-a-month verification program, which is still being hashed out — both privately and very much in public (the $8 number appears to have been floated in a reply to horror author King, who protested the original $20 price) — doesn’t look like a transformative one. That’s because there are only a few hundred thousand currently verified accounts on the platform, largely public figures, brands, celebrities and journalists.

But if even 200,000 of the roughly 400,000 currently verified accounts pay the $8 a month, that translates to about $19 million in additional annual revenue.

The plan, at least as described so far, is closer to a paywall offering like YouTube Premium with elements of YouTube’s partnership program, rather than a pure verification scheme. Musk said that the new version of Twitter Blue, its existing (but not widely used) premium service, would offer “priority in replies, mentions & search … ability to post long video & audio, half as many ads,” as well as access to some paywalled articles (a la Apple News) and even the ability earn money from your tweets. If it works, it will mean far, far more than the current several hundred blue checks will be in circulation. But whether that bird will fly — or even get off the ground — remains to be seen.

— Matthew Zeitlin

TECHNOLOGY LENS

Lots of choices, but no obvious replacement

People considering leaving Twitter have several options for broadcasting their thoughts to the world — but no one site is an exact match. But it does depend on what a person uses Twitter for. Mastodon, an open-source Twitter alternative, gained more than 10,000 users the day Musk took over Twitter. But users don’t join Mastodon directly — they sign up for one of several independently run servers, each with its own rules, that participate in the decentralized Mastodon network. That’s more complicated than just signing up for Twitter and could put off less tech-savvy Twitter users thinking about making a change.

TikTok is definitely a contender. The high-profile politicians, celebrities and journalists that have long made up Twitter’s core of power users are increasingly on the platform. Many also have their own newsletters to which they could steer people who currently follow them on Twitter.

People looking to replicate Twitter’s potential for group discussion might find a home in forums such as Reddit or Discord, while those who rely on the site for updates from state and local government may turn to Facebook, government-run text alert services or neighborhood apps like Citizen and Nextdoor.

— Lauren Morello

HEALTH LENS

Twitter can be addictive — that may thwart attempts to drop the platform

Twitter, like all social media platforms, is designed to be addictive — to hijack peoples’ emotions and engagement in order to sell data and screen time to advertisers. Leaving an app that has perfected the act of capturing peoples’ attention, for many, will be difficult.

Research points to these apps’ visual design, algorithms that promote viscerally evocative posts and targeted advertising as affecting both peoples’ brain chemistry and behavioral interactions with others.

Together, these models deliberately curate feedback loops based on rewards and expectations.

“[Designers of social media platforms] need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or post or whatever. … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” said Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook.

These demonstrated chemical imbalances are why psychologists estimate at least 5 to 10 percent of Americans are addicted to social media, and 30 percent of American adults say they feel addicted.

— Christian Thorsberg

CULTURE LENS

The power of numbers

There is also the elephant in the room: Some people need to stay on Twitter for professional reasons — regardless of whether they want to.

Politicians and commentators, journalists, pop culture influencers and public intellectual professions cannot afford — or may be hesitant — to detach themselves from a the platform that puts the “social” in social media — discussions and reactions to what is trending, being discussed and debated in society at large.

This is the network effect of social media — the more people on a platform, the more valuable it is to individuals, and the harder it is to leave. And there are currently 238 million people on the platform. ”The unfortunate result is that once an app starts to work, everyone is stuck with it,” wrote Jaron Lanier, author of “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” “It’s effectively impossible for everyone in a society to back up all their data, move simultaneously, and restore their memories at the same time.”

— Christian Thorsberg

  • Lauren Morello
    Lauren Morello

    Science Editor

    Lauren Morello is the science editor at Grid, handling coverage of science, technology, health and the environment.

  • Matthew Zeitlin
    Matthew Zeitlin

    Domestic Economics Reporter

    Matthew Zeitlin is an economics reporter at Grid focused on the domestic impact of major stories such as coronavirus, the supply chain and economic volatility.

  • Christian Thorsberg
    Christian Thorsberg

    Reporter

    Christian Thorsberg is a reporter for Grid.

  • Suzette Lohmeyer
    Suzette Lohmeyer

    Senior Editor

    Suzette Lohmeyer is the senior editor at Grid, where she focuses on daily news.

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