Is Twitter too ‘sticky’ to leave, or will Elon Musk's chaos undo the glue

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Is Twitter too ‘sticky’ to leave, or will Elon Musk’s chaos undo the glue?

To understate the obvious, Twitter is in flux.

Elon Musk’s takeover of the company has been met with notable pushback — regular users and celebrities alike threatening to drop the platform in response to potential policy changes and controversial new features. Mainly:

  • The revamped Twitter Blue, an $8 monthly subscription that grants users verification, with no planned authenticity check, reportedly set to debut soon
  • Concerns over a lack of content moderating, already prompting an uptick in racism and antisemitism
  • A general lack of faith in Musk’s leadership — after laying off nearly 3,700 employees last Friday, he is reportedly asking some to return.

But Musk’s app boasts 238 million users, according to the company’s second quarter report, and jumping ship is easier said than done. This is true especially for those whose professions — politicians, journalists, political commentators, academics, influencers and some celebrities — require being tapped into public discourse and following breaking news events. For better or for worse, for the past decade, this has meant being active on the bird app.

What are the biggest factors in people staying on or leaving Twitter? And what levers would Musk have to pull to cause a significant exodus?

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Grid spoke with experts in social media, economics and politics about the likelihood of a platform migration — how, why or if people will really quit on Musk, the self-proclaimed Chief Twit.

Content moderation has staying power — for both users and advertisers

Earlier this year, Musk hinted that he would relax Twitter’s content moderation policies and potentially welcome back banned users — including Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.

“Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it,” he said in a statement in April.

That statement stoked fears that Twitter would become a more welcome space for political extremists, said Pinar Yildirim, an associate professor of economics and marketing at the University of Pennsylvania.

On his own feed, Musk shared a meme depicting a Nazi soldier just days after firing much of his content moderation staff. Negative online experiences like these, Yildirim said, are likely why some have already left the app in Musk’s first week at the helm.

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But Musk is a businessman and engineer — for Twitter to successfully operate, he needs people to use the app. In recent days, Musk has walked back his initial statements of a completely free and open platform, claiming that he has plans to form a “content moderation council” and suggesting paid tiers of moderation. “He has signaled that he’s not necessarily going to get rid of them,” Yildirim said.

He also addressed advertisers directly, promising that Twitter would not become a “free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”

For two key reasons, Yildirim said, this isn’t a surprise.

An uptick in hate speech would disrupt the average user’s experience — and for Musk to make money, he needs people to be using Twitter.

And secondly, advertisers — who are the primary customers of Twitter and social media sites at large — have shown in the past that they are quick to cut ties with a platform if controversy, hate speech or misinformation proliferate. Some have already begun pulling away from Twitter — including the Volkswagen Group, Pfizer, United Airlines and sporting goods store REI.

In order to be profitable — which Musk has constantly reassured the public his Twitter will be — he needs advertisers, who in turn need a level of content moderation. A potential uptick in hate speech, abuse or confusion in a less-moderated environment would outweigh Twitter’s benefits, for users and advertisers alike.

As a result, Yildirim said, this could potentially keep Twitter looking relatively familiar to its millions of users, a reason many are likely to keep their accounts.

Musk currently owes almost $13 billion to lenders following his purchase of Twitter. Last week, in a now-deleted tweet, he said that Twitter was losing $4 million per day. Coming up with a plan for the platform to make money, and fast, is no doubt his top priority.

Verification helped legitimize Twitter’s communities — subscription-based blue checks might disrupt this ecosystem

Another possible inflection point is how far Musk goes with paid subscriptions and how drastically he alters the Twitter verification system.

Incremental changes to a platform can add up in unpredictable ways, said Maria Bridge, COO of the Center for Humane Technology. “For people to leave en masse, there will have to be some sort of tipping point.”


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What this tipping point could be, Bridge said, is almost completely unpredictable. In her past media experiences, she saw early-Spotify assume people wouldn’t want to pay for streaming music (they will) and Foursquare underestimate the draw of its seemingly peripheral “mayor” feature (people left the app when the platform removed it).

One possibility is that it comes down to a mass exodus from those hurt most by a subscription-based verification: less-prominent academics, commentators, activists, journalists and others who are not household names and had to earn verification status, oftentimes over many years of work and public engagement, said Yildirim.

Once anyone willing to pay a monthly fee has access to the blue check and no one knows who to pay attention to, “I could see cohorts dying off,” Bridge said — different academic, political or journalistic communities gradually leaving the app when the infrastructure that made Twitter special and useful is rendered obsolete.

But this likely won’t extend, Bridge said, to most users or communities on the platform. Twitter’s strength in numbers is likely to curb many potential departures. “I can see some first movers leaving, and then a lot of people being quite sticky,” she said.

Network effects harbor connectedness — albeit imperfectly

By collecting, coalescing and drumbeating news, politics, articles and commentary, Twitter has distinguished itself as the “attention allocation organ of society,” said Aza Raskin, co-host of the “Your Undivided Attention” podcast, on a recent episode. “It determines where and what we look at, because so many journalists decide what to write based on what’s on Twitter.”

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What’s important about connections made on Twitter, said Yildirim, is that most users don’t actually know their mutuals (accounts they follow who follow them back) offline. This contrasts with platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, she said, and is a crucial element of why people might be hesitant to quit. Leaving Twitter — the only space where these connections exist — means losing these relationships entirely.

This pull is known as the network effect: The more people who use a certain product, the more valuable it becomes and the harder it is to leave. The staying power to Twitter is its numbers and how entrenched communities are on the app.

But there is a fatal flaw to this perception that staying on the app is necessary to certain jobs, Bridge said. People assume that by not being on Twitter, they will be missing out on what’s happening in the world, she said. That’s true, to an extent. Social media feeds like Twitter’s are designed to distort reality, filtering the world through the app and amplifying personalized content — the Twitter lens.

Viscerally evocative posts are pushed to the top of users’ timelines. Vocal minorities and a silent majority imbalance notions and trends, making viewing the world, seen via Twitter, extremely limited, Yildirim and Bridge both said.

It’s a tough sell, Bridge said, for people — especially Twitter’s most active or influential users — to believe that Twitter is not so crucial to everyday life.

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But for the majority of the people in the world, Twitter is not part of their life, said Nilay Patel on Vox’s “Today, Explained.”

“Elon Musk thinks Twitter is important. … A bunch of reporters think that Twitter is important. A handful of celebrities think Twitter is important. No one else does. Twitter has 200 million-some users. In the world. Right? Less than the population in the United States. Facebook has 2 billion users,” he said.

Mastodon, the most Twitter-esque social network currently available, has gained 230,000 of its 655,000 users since Oct. 27 — an indicator that people are at least putting out feelers for something other than Twitter. But it’s not a one-for-one exchange; Mastodon is more complicated to sign up for and use than Twitter. Until more than a person here or there leaves Twitter, it will likely remain a powerful force.

“One person leaving Twitter doesn’t change the fact that Twitter is influencing the broader information environment, because it’s influencing journalists, academics, those producing content and politicians,” Bridge said. “It is affecting our shared information environment, how we’re making sense of the world. And we’re certainly seeing how it’s affecting elections, polarization and democratic stability.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.