The very leaky case for sticking with Twitter
It's looking bleak out there, folks. Brand spoofs, tanked stocks, and a verification system that is predictably bad. Here's an earnest, probably bad argument for sticking around.
The past few newsletters I’ve been offering more scholarly assessments of what is going on with Twitter as a type of case study for the bigger transformation happening in social media. The collapse of Twitter would represent something calamitous for the community that has been built there, and while there are alternatives they are fundamentally not the same thing.
I promise I’m not only going to write about Twitter in this newsletter, but it really is an emblematic case study for what’s happening in digital community spaces right now. It’s worth sticking with this for a bit, in other words, and so I wanted to offer a case for staying on Twitter. You’re going to have to wait to the end to see it, but I wanted to be realistic about that choice so we’ll start there.
The choice to stay depends on who you are. But man, it’s gotten harder and harder to keep saying that.
I mostly am thinking about people who are on Twitter to be part of the conversation, which as I’ve written before represents a tiny, tiny part of the service’s 200 million active users. In this case I’m thinking of politicians with a message, journalists reporting and sharing news, or academics like me who use the platform for public scholarship. Information sharers who make Twitter so valuable.
The way I see the choice looks something like this:
If you stay, your reporting is currently sitting alongside a sludgefall of spoofs, fake accounts, etc. You are visually indistinguishable from spoof or scam content to people scrolling by.
If you leave, you are giving up. Really just abandoning any real hope of being a presence in the information stream, and surrendering a chance to correct the record as the lies swirl about the platform. You leave Twitter to its worst devices.
Those two bullet points have taken on a different kind of urgency due to the chaos that has engulfed the service the past 48 hours since Twitter opened up the ability to be “verified” for $8 a month.
I put “verified” in quotes because it’s not real verification. It’s proof of payment, not proof of person. Twitter is just validating a credit card but not verifying the name behind the payment is who the person is. So then this happened, and who could have seen this coming besides everyone?:
That’s a fake tweet that looks dang real. It takes advantage of a common Twitter spoof trick: a lowercase “L” and a capital “i” look the same with san serif fonts. There were multiple versions of these accounts floating around using variations of this trick.
By letting people purchase verification badges, Twitter changed the definition of verification without changing the visual cue. People like me warned what would happen last week if Twitter followed through with this idea. For $8, someone could create a spoof account that looks real, and then get a blue checkmark that for years has been a sign to Twitter readers that the person is who they say they are.
In just two days Twitter took a not-perfect-but-useful system that vouched for people (not the information they post, mind you) and replaced it with a free-for-all. Twitter was rife with corporate and influencer brand hijackings. A good thread to click through here that has compiled a lot of examples:
Look, some of those are legitimately funny and I consider some of this a type of resistance art against the Elon regime. Super Mario flipping the bird, Chiquita talking about its sketchy history in colonialism, and even Tesla talking about its self-driving cars hitting people.
But you have to wonder whether brands and people who are there to share information will in the long run think it’s worth sticking around. It's a difficult ROI equation for organizations with limited resources.
And feels like an uphill fight. Look what happened to ESPN’s Adam Schefter this week, for example, when a spoof account was created and verified with the same picture and a deceptively good username. The account proceeded to post a scoop, which Schefter often does on Twitter, that reported Las Vegas Raiders coach Josh McDaniels had been fired. Schefter makes his name by dropping scoops on Twitter, but the spoof fooled more than 10,000 people before it was taken down. That’s brand damage, plain and simple, all because a prankster had $8 to light on fire.
“Despite everyone telling them it would be a disaster to make verification pay-for, Twitter forged ahead. But in doing so, it’s important to see they shifted the burden of verification and trust to users who (and I cannot stress this enough) DO NOT have the tools to do that work.”
I've long said trust is the real currency on Twitter. Checkmarks were intended to increase that, but Elon mistook that for a commodity. In the expansion of Twitter Blue to include checkmarks for sale, they wrecked something fundamental to making Twitter’s rapid information stream work and instead sold snake oil versions of trust in pursuit of a new revenue stream. Predictably, it degraded Twitter as a service both for readers and the influential creators who make the site go.
Like a lot of social platforms, Twitter as a service functions because of what we call the Power Curve of Participation, where a small number of users produce the vast, vast majority of what you see on the site.
The numbers aren't going to be exactly the same across social platforms, but let's charitably say 5% of users produce 99% of what you see on Twitter. When you let people get fake verification and use that status to hijack brands that spent years cultivating their image on the service, they'll rethink their presence there. If they leave, Twitter has less content.
So you have to infuse networks with trust at the architectural level. Every action and function should be built with trust in mind. Trust that readers (again, these are the 99% who are mostly lurking and reading) know what they're consuming comes from an authentic person. Trust that creators know what they build on the site will be safeguarded by the platform.
The last 48 hours here have shown a vision of post-apocalyptic Twitter. Total free for all, where identity can be bought and reliability can be opaque to people without making them have to do a ton of work they aren’t used to doing. I've had to triple-check so many handles this week for information I saw in my feed. Not for accuracy of content, but of person.
You should question information and even sources. Those are good social media habits. But this is more fundamental. Is this person, supposedly verified by the platform on which they're posting, actually who they're representing themselves to be? That’s not an information question, that’s a question about the fundamentals of the site itself.
Despite everyone telling them it would be a disaster to make verification pay-for, Twitter forged ahead. But in doing so, it’s important to see they shifted the burden of verification and trust to users who (and I cannot stress this enough) DO NOT have the tools to do that work.
Twitter gets its money and calls it verification. But the user experience is ruined.
That is a bridge to nowhere.
The talk this week was about advertisers pausing spending on Twitter due to all the dumb changes Elon and his suck-ups have implemented. But it’s easy to focus on the real dollars lost without realizing a much bigger service collapse is possible, far worse than the loss of some ad dollars and capable of leveling the site in a matter of weeks.
It's not isolated to Twitter, but ad-supported platforms need lots of users who are constantly engaged with the product. That drives up ad rates because more people means a bigger audience for sponsored content. Twitter makes more money if it can demonstrate it has a large, active audience because that is more valuable to advertisers in a time of fractured media.
What happens if creators get sick of the chaos and decide to leave? It's game over. Again, we’re talking about 1-5% who make most of the content on Twitter. So an exodus is an existential crisis for Twitter. Feeds go dead except for scammy content. User rates drop, lowering returns on what little ad spends remain.
So bottom line, it doesn't take a giant mass exodus to crater ad revenue. It just takes a pretty good chunk of that 1% of users to leave. They take all their interesting content with them to TikTok or somewhere else. Creators leave, feeds die, lurker readers leave out of boredom or frustration with a service now populated by scammers and bots, which decreases audience totals and thus lowers ad revenue, which makes Twitter more desperate to implement policies that drive away creators, and so on. Rinse and repeat.
It's a death spiral scenario for Twitter.
Nobody at Twitter corporate asked me, but if I'm trying to turn this around I build whatever I launch around increasing trust—increasing reasons for creators to stay and keep building. Creators make Twitter place go. They should be seen as partners, not sources of rent extraction. Elon’s lords/peasants bullshit about verification makes nice rhetoric but sends the opposite signal by saying that everything (including what we label trustworthy) is for sale.
At the same time, upping trust also increases user value. People would be less likely to get fooled, which means they don't feel foolish. They feel reasonably solid about their ability to judge good/bad info here.
Not to sound like a walking koan but if a site loses its usefulness, people will not use it.
Enhancing the experience for creators and making them want to stick around is better for everyone. What makes me upset is Twitter is being ruined by people who don’t understand how the site works. Twitter is not perfect, but many of us have built something there and love the service. But Elon came in and went for the short-term sugar high, commoditizing one of the things that made Twitter work well and in the process stripping away a big layer of verification and trust.
So that power user group using Twitter to inform (journalists, politicians, academics, experts in particular areas)? They’re that 1%, and I'm torn on what advice I'd give if asked whether they should stay. Lots of good people have already left.
Twitter is a lesser experience for it. It has entered the death spiral.
I promised a reason to stay, and believe it or not it’s in the words above. There is a vision for the service that works to restore and then build trust. Twitter, when it’s popping, really can be a remarkable place. It’s not the site we’ve gotten the past few weeks, but I’ve been on it since 2007 and have seen with my own eyes that it’s possible.
So my reason for staying and my hope is that we can get back there despite this period of pain. It will be impossible if we leave, though. We’ll guarantee the service’s demise, and so I am choosing to stay and fight it.
I have personal reasons for this. The reason I'm staying for now is that it's still the rare place I can consistently hear from underrepresented voices. I don't want them siloed. I want to amplify them. It's honestly one of the best things about Twitter over the years. Following people not like me has been enlightening, and some of the alternatives are just not populated with the kind of diversity I can get on Twitter. Certainly it’s possible to find diversity in the fediverse, but it’s much more difficult work and lacks the casual serendipity of Twitter.
The best vision of Twitter is it offers us diverse perspectives and expands our minds, and that has for years been worth the tradeoff despite Twitter’s considerable flaws. It's my best argument for staying. I'm not going to flee to some white Twitter knockoff suburb.
But I understand why people are leaving. If you can’t trust what you see on Twitter, or if you question the very reality depicted by your feed? This a huge problem for a service that is built on information-sharing. And that’s before we talk about the real abuse that has always been an issue with service. For some, the balance between expanding your mind and dealing with Twitter’s flaws has changed a lot this week and is no longer worth it. I get it.
I am trying to remain optimistic. But I am looking at the ad and trust situation, and I am watching users flee. It feels like Twitter is on a short fuse; to be honest I’m not sure the service makes it to December at least as a usable product.
I hope I'm wrong. 🙁
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