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Column: Elon Musk’s Twitter and the con of online media

Elon Musk squints and looks up.
Elon Musk (pictured after testifying in a Delaware court in 2021) is coming to a realization those who work in traditional media reached years ago: Content is never free.
(Associated Press)
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Before we get into Elon Musk and his bizarre attempt to drive everyone of any prominence off the website he now owns, let us breathe deeply and remember that most people, celebrated or not, are not on Twitter.

I realize Musk is the richest man in the world and so anything he does is of interest to those who aspire to make wild amounts of money. Still, it’s good to keep in mind that whatever he plans for the so-called social media site he just purchased really won’t be that big a deal — since only 23% of American adults use it (and 25% of those are responsible for 97% of the posts).

If you want some comps, 23% of American adults also plan to quit their jobs within 12 months, are having absolutely no sex, meet the CDC exercise guidelines, have shared fabricated news (intentionally or not) and prefer winter vacations.

It is probably not the same 23% who are doing all of these things (though there is surely some overlap). But let’s stick with apples to apples: Compared with Americans who use Facebook (65%) or Instagram (40%), Twitter is small.

And could be getting smaller even as we speak; Musk’s recent proposal to charge for the blue check signifying a verified account, along with his own membership in that 23% who share fabricated news, has many people fleeing from the site.

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Or at least talking about fleeing the site. As is often the case on Twitter, it’s hard to tell what’s real or not because beyond sharing cute pet videos and screaming at each other about politics, there’s nothing people on Twitter like to do more than discuss how much they hate Twitter.

Which was always a bit weird and now seems, well, crazy. I mean, every time you tweet something about how much you hate what Elon Musk is going to do on the platform he currently owns, you are sending a mixed message at best. Like it or not, he is the captain now; we are providing content for him.

And soon we may have to pay for the privilege.

There is a shameful pleasure in seeing Netflix humbled, but no one wants a free fall for the only streamer focused on one product: creative content.

July 20, 2022

I cannot claim to have the business success of Musk, but messing with the blue checks may not be the best way to go. One of the things that has made Twitter a cultural force despite its relatively small numbers is media amplification. People including presidents, the pope and Taylor Swift use Twitter to make statements or react to events, knowing that other platforms will then disseminate that information. Without the blue check, news organizations will no longer be able to treat posts a bit like mini-press conferences.

On the flip side, journalists sharing information and reaching out to sources via Twitter use the blue check to verify their credentials; what news organizations will do about their reporters’ accounts under Musk’s proposal remains to be seen.

Musk’s pay-to-verify proposal reflects the realization of something those of us in legacy media have known forever — content is never free. “We need to pay the bills somehow,” he pleaded in a Twitter exchange with author Stephen King on Tuesday. King had informed his following he would not be paying $19.99 for a blue check — and that furthermore, the site should be paying him, a well-compensated writer writing on Twitter in a way that draws users and advertisers.

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Musk countered with a personal offer of $8 a month, which he then extended to everyone else. He may have lost King, but what a savings for the rest of us!

The great Twitter exodus — just like Musk’s ever-shifting plan-of-the-day — may or may not come to pass. But either way it will not affect most Americans; it is just the latest example of platforms-once-known-as-new-media realizing that there really is a piper, and she doesn’t accept crypto.

Netflix hit a similar wall a few months ago when it realized not everyone in the world wants to pay for its services. After hemorrhaging subscribers, the company has shown growth in the last quarter, but as any television writer in town except Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes can tell you, the glory days of nine-figure deals and perpetual greenlights are over.

More than 85% of Americans have at least one streaming service, but the competition to be that one is increasingly fierce. And in terms of new content production, the industry is contracting. Turns out, too much TV is not great for business; it just makes everyone want to comfort-binge ’90s sitcoms and British murder mysteries.

‘Competing for eyeballs’ used to be just a silly metaphor; now it’s a real fracas among streamers and every other kind of media, and my eyeballs have had it.

May 21, 2021

As various streamers swap libraries, hike their rates and make their original business model “premium” while experimenting with lower price points that include advertising, cord-cutting is turning out to be just as expensive and confusing as cable TV.

And now it includes commercials! Which, unlike in the old DVR days, you cannot fast-forward through!

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So if you’re mad about the notion that people are being asked to pay to be verified on Twitter, just remember that other people are also being asked to pay for a streaming service that now includes commercials.

The more things change … the more people realize someone has to pay the bills.

Legacy media, including The Times, learned this lesson the hard way. In the early days of the digital revolution, many networks, news organizations and publishing platforms put their content online for free in the oblivious belief that it would act somehow as a second platform. And wouldn’t that be great for marketing the real product? Hahahaha.

When it turned out that digital was the only platform for a growing number of viewers, many organizations, including this one, had to begin charging for what they once gave away for free. Not a great business model, kids! But one you can see being played out every time someone grouses that they really wanted to read that article/see that show except they “hit the damn paywall.”

That’s right; digital content is not magic. It does not create itself, and people expect to be paid for their work.

Even on social media sites. If we’re being honest, it’s been a long time since the term “social” was an accurate description of platforms so widely used for advertising, marketing and promotion. Many Twitter users, including me and The Times, may enjoy the freedom of expression, conversations and sense of community the platform provides, but we are also using it to direct users to products they must pay for.

Many are horrified at the notion of Elon Musk taking over Twitter, in part, because social media is unregulated and we have no idea what to do about it.

April 16, 2022

Influencers — and those auditioning for the role — are the inevitable collision of social and marketable made manifest. Under capitalism, there is nothing that cannot be monetized somehow, including the shared pics of your kids’ graduation, and if it can’t be monetized somehow, it won’t be around for very long.

And whatever you do, don’t click on an advertisement on social media — a year later and those damn Title IX skirts are still following me around everywhere.

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It will be years before we begin to understand the impact these platforms have had on our culture, but one thing they did not do is create a new economic model. The people who built these sites did so to make money and that money has to come from somewhere.

Musk claims that adding a premium subscription fee to Twitter will alleviate some of the difficulties people have had getting verified — eight bucks a month and you’re good — and that money will “give Twitter a revenue stream to reward content creators.” Now, I don’t know what exactly he means by “reward” — it could mean money or amplification or a trading card with Musk’s face on it.

The point is, Musk is all but admitting that Twitter, like Netflix, is no longer anything like “new media.” If you’re trying to figure out ways to increase subscription fees while attracting advertisers, well, welcome to the world of old media, Elon.

Which brings up another hoary media concern: I wonder how long companies like Macy’s are going to want to spend money on a platform that allows its users, including its owner, to spread disinformation? Or engage in hateful trolling disguised as free speech? One of the many things Twitter is good for is organizing a boycott.

Instead of writing letters demanding protections in states with draconian abortion laws, showrunners should have a look at the state that just pushed back.

Aug. 4, 2022

The only thing that’s new, really, is the notion that the content providers, who were already working for free, are now being asked to pay for the privilege of creating the content that will pay the bills.

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There’s nothing social about that; that’s just capitalism run amok. Perhaps the small percentage of Americans who use Twitter will refuse to pay — tweeters of the world will unite; we have nothing to lose but our blue checks!

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