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Why Elon Wants to Make Them Pay

Nice Twitter account you got there. Shame if something happened to it.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Elon Musk’s first week as Twitter’s owner has been chaotic. He purged its leadership and began planning bone-deep staff cuts. On Friday, with less than a day’s warning, thousands of employees were terminated via email. Between trollish tweets, he posted hints about what he might do to the platform and how he planned to overhaul content moderation.

Musk also settled on his first major change to how the platform actually works and makes money. “Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit,” he tweeted. Users will soon be able to get verified by signing up for an $8-a-month subscription, which would also give them “priority in replies, mentions & search, which is essential to defeat spam/scam.” Eventually, currently verified users who refuse to pay will lose their status.

This is, in a narrow sense, a continuation of a preexisting plan: Last year, Twitter debuted a subscription plan called Twitter Blue, which gave users a few extra features, including an edit button; Musk is just raising the price and throwing in a blue badge with the deal. Spiritually, however, it’s diametrically opposed to how nearly every large social platform, including Twitter, has been fighting to remain relevant — by paying their most valuable users to post. In 2020, TikTok committed to distributing a billion dollars to creators. The next year, Meta did the same. Snapchat doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in 2021. Twitch makes its most popular streamers millionaires. Alphabet has paid out tens of billions of dollars to YouTubers since it started sharing ad revenue more than a decade ago.

Twitter’s efforts were modest and late, starting with a paid newsletter feature, a tip jar, and “Super Follows,” which let popular accounts charge for access to exclusive posts. Still, like its peers, facing slow growth, industry headwinds, and intense competition, Twitter had been reduced to begging its power users not to leave, assuring them that their contributions were valuable and coming up with ways to get them paid. New Twitter is, in effect, telling them to pay up.

The author Stephen King summed up a common sentiment: “Fuck that, they should pay me.” His thinking aligns with the industry and its favored business model: Popular users posting popular stuff keeps millions of users engaged, which lets social-media companies sell ads.

King is an outlier on the platform. He’s famous and has millions of followers, many of whom are devoted fans. The same is true of Musk, but his relationship with the platform is both much deeper and weirder than that of a typical celebrity. Musk is quite possibly the most engaged user on the platform. It’s a core part of his public persona and played a central role in how he built his fortune. When he sees other users post articles and news clips, the headlines are often about him. It’s a place where lesser elites interact with Musk the way their most interested followers interact with them. Twitter doesn’t surround a superlative user like Musk, it churns beneath him. Then, and especially now, he exists outside its normal logic.

Musk’s status as the ultimate power user — the bluest check, the most verified guy — gives him a particular perspective on what the platform is and what it’s for. Every social-media user is tempted by solipsism, but Musk’s potential blind spot encompasses the experiences of all but a narrow slice of the platform. Musk’s alien experience of Twitter has informed his every move so far, and it will help write the platform’s future. Space metaphors are apt with Musk: Centibillionaires are perhaps the closest thing Earth has to visitors from a planet unlike our own, and now one of them has taken control of one of its arterial communication technologies. Musk spent recent years as one of the only members of the platform who, as he tweeted and feuded and tried to make jokes, held in the back of his head the thought that, if he really wanted it, it could be his.

It bears noting here that, in the short process of writing this column, Musk bounced from $2 to $20 and then back down to $8, but “adjusted by country proportionate to purchasing power parity.” Things could change. He also tweeted later in the same thread that charging for verification would “give Twitter a revenue stream to reward content creators,” later tweeting that “creators need to make a living!” Plenty of users noted an apparent conflict here, which is that, as it stands, the closest thing Twitter has to “creators” are popular verified users, who Musk just said he’ll start charging rent.

This is easy enough to resolve, though, and typical of the way Musk talks about all his companies, in various tenses simultaneously, to audiences that include skeptical fund managers as well as people who believe he’ll personally shuttle them to Mars, where he will also become their friend. Charging for blue checks can be understood as Musk’s best guess at how to solve imminent problems for his new company as it exists right now: a stagnating firm for which Musk very recently and admittedly overpaid operating in a brutal advertising environment that needs to find new sources of income if it hopes to service its considerable debt, much less actually make money. In isolation, back-of-the-napkin math suggests that charging verified users won’t make much of a dent, and anything that threatens Twitter’s underlying advertising business, which accounts for 90 percent of its revenue, is risky as hell. A forensic profile isn’t necessary to explain what’s happening: Prodding around for new ways to charge customers while dramatically cutting costs is basic leveraged-buyout behavior.

Using subscription revenue to reward an undefined class of “content creators,” on the other hand, is a plan for an ambitious future Twitter that does not yet exist and that Musk would like to manifest, somehow, after he’s done firing half of the company’s employees and placating his creditors: an “everything app” with a YouTube-style creator economy but also payments and crypto and taxis and shopping and freedom of speech and lots of “human happiness,” et cetera. (Oh, and Vine! And Cameo! And porn?) It’s more hyperloop than Tesla — a bit like asking Musk about Space X’s next contract with NASA and getting a response about the future economic system on Mars. Musk’s tense-shifting can be misleading, but it has served his companies well — the way Musk tells specific stories about the future provides energy, and capital, to his enterprises today. Teslas still don’t fully drive themselves after years of Musk insisting that the technology was imminent. For critics, it became a meme. In the meantime, Musk sold a lot of cars to customers who would mostly say they’re satisfied. It’s not too hard to imagine a certain kind of customer paying to subscribe today to a Twitter that exists, for now, as a Muskian hypothetical.

Back in the present, Musk’s alien experience on old Twitter might explain not just his chaotic behavior at the helm, or his plans for new Twitter, but his interest in the deal in the first place. He’s one of the most popular users on the service, which could be why he’s so obsessed with bots, who fill up his Twitter replies by the thousand.

He’s an extremely public and controversial figure, which means his Twitter experience involves lots of people with blue checks — journalists, short sellers, rivals, politicians — saying things about him that he believes to be unfair, calling him a dumbass, or declaring him dangerous, which might explain some of the visible streak of contempt in his early moves. (Other social-media firms, including Facebook, have experimented with paying for content from news organizations, whose business models they helped destroy but whose favor they desired; in contrast, Musk may effectively tax them millions of dollars a year.) At the same time, his feed is overflowing with worshipping fans and high-profile suck-ups, which might explain, well, everything else.

But for Musk, as a user, Twitter has also been an incredible tool for making money. He’s used it to promote his companies, pump his stocks, attack his rivals, and go to war with regulators. It’s where his supporters and fans, many of whom buy his cars but also shares in his companies, gather to hear what he has to say — it’s helped him build his extremely valuable reputation. By the time he bought it, Twitter had already been worth billions to Musk as a marketing tool, and he had never paid it a dime. Twitter helped Musk become wealthy enough to buy Twitter! You can see how he might convince himself it has untapped potential as a business.

Twitter, as it existed from 2006 until late October of this year, was widely and correctly understood as a mass-audience internet platform that made money by charging advertisers to reach and manipulate its users into buying things. It was simultaneously a social network on which millions of people could engage with things they were interested in or cared about in thousands of diffuse but energetic subnetworks that kept them coming back. This was the thing that the leadership of old Twitter didn’t want to screw up, and it made them seem aloof and allergic to change. It wasn’t a democratic institution in any sense of the word, but its leaders were at least a little bit afraid of its users, some of whom they looked to for cues about what features to build and problems to solve — hashtags and replies but also harassment and, uh, harmful impersonation — with the rest representing a silent monetizable majority to grow, or at least preserve.

While the sort of value Musk got out of Twitter — monetary, reputational, significant — is rare and has little to do with the most common experience of the platform, his relationship to the platform is aspirationally relatable to the people he interacts with in real life and on the site himself. Musk and his small cadre of sympathetic advisers narrowly but correctly understand Twitter as a tool that can be used by public figures to make money and acquire power. Venture capitalists use it because it helps them build public profiles but also because it helps them with deals. (Some pay good money for ghostwritten tweets!) Politicians use it because it lets them bypass the press — it’s hard to imagine Trump’s term in office without it, and its value to him was immense. Pundits and some journalists owe Twitter for raising their profiles, which has made coverage of this whole situation fraught and occasionally embarrassing. (In fairness, a direct and accurate way to describe this situation is that a very wealthy and powerful person has functionally purchased a tool that is extremely valuable to the function of the free press around the world.)

Among the 400,000 or so verified Twitter users, there are plenty who use Twitter in transactional or profitable ways without paying for advertising: brands, people who think of themselves as brands, people who have to be there for their jobs, people looking for jobs, people looking for dates, people running scams. There’s something to the idea that you can’t understand Twitter’s full value without taking into account its external influence — again, consider Trump, whose campaign paid for Facebook ads but who actually attempted to govern with Twitter — as well as the related observation that YouTube, a social network that creates and distributes immense value within its marketplace, in the form of creator payouts, seems to exert much less direct influence on the broader culture relative to its massive size and revenue. Most Americans don’t use Twitter at all. But they certainly hear about it.

It’s an insight! Is it a business plan? The vast majority of people who are on Twitter don’t derive much or any material value from the platform, which, according to Twitter’s most recent public filings, prices their attention to advertisers at about two dollars a month. The few that do will soon be given a choice to make based on admittedly imperfect information: Is whatever they’re doing there worth it? And will it stay that way? By asking heavily invested users to pay to remain or become verified and to remain or become visible — to maintain their brand, whatever it is — Twitter is treating this group of users almost exactly the way it has treated its other most important customers for years: advertisers. You get what you pay for. 

Jessica Lessin, founder and editor of subscription tech site the Information, tweeted, “Watching @elonmusk + Co take over Twitter is like watching a business school case study on how to make money on the internet. Amazing that at some level it is so basic.” Among the obvious lessons, she said, was charging power uses “what they are willing to pay.” And maybe it will really turn out to be so simple! Musk charges, blue checks pay, most everyone else sticks around, and then, uh, some other stuff happens and Twitter is worth its $44 billion price tag and more.

But whatever “@elonmusk + Co” believe they understand about Twitter’s captive upper echelons risks obscuring what makes the platform interesting, or even tolerable, to a much larger base of users. There’s been plenty of indignation from verified users about Musk’s ransom, and, whether Musk ends up calling their bluffs, they do have a point: Their work contributes to Twitter’s bottom line, and thousands — in some cases millions — of other users have explicitly expressed interest in their presence. I expect a lot of those users will still pay; I also expect that their conversion into de facto advertisers will make their relationship with the platform worse, and worth less, to them and their followers.

Musk’s “peasants,” of course, the actual most important group of users in aggregate, have been characteristically excluded from this conversation. Maybe they’ll be enticed, en masse, to pay to join the blue-check club, either because it seems worthwhile or because the checkless experience on the platform gets sufficiently worse. It seems just as plausible that forcing everyone to think about what Twitter is worth to them, and what they’re worth to it, might not be so wise and that they’ll just do what casual users always end up doing eventually, without saying a word, and move on.

Why Elon Wants to Make Them Pay