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Twitter Builds a Wall

Elon Musk’s platform will take its cut or die trying.

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

On Wednesday, Substack announced a new feature called Notes, giving its newsletter writers a Twitter-style feed for posting short messages. Within a day, Substack writers started having Twitter problems. Tweets weren’t embedding in their newsletters. Tweets containing links to Substack were behaving weirdly too. Substack wasn’t sure why — and Twitter no longer has a functioning press office — but it had a hunch. “We’re disappointed that Twitter has chosen to restrict writers’ ability to share their work,” the company’s founders said. Writers’ livelihoods, they wrote, shouldn’t depend on platforms “where the rules can change on a whim.” Popular Substacker and Twitter Files collaborator Matt Taibbi went straight to the source, didn’t like what he heard, and announced he was leaving the platform (Twitter, not Substack):

Since Elon Musk bought Twitter and fired most of its staff, it has been malfunctioning more or less constantly in small and seemingly random ways. Recently, however, Twitter has been breaking itself in more fundamental ways and with a clearer sense of purpose. This week, the company is asking thousands of developers who have built apps around Twitter to start paying for the privilege, effectively pricing out small app developers, hobbyists, and academic researchers (many large apps, like the Twitter client Tweetbot, have already been forced off the platform). The company is continuing to threaten to phase out “legacy” account verification in hopes of pushing users and organizations to pay for their checkmarks; unverified the New York Times after the paper said it wouldn’t pay; and incorrectly designated NPR as “state-affiliated media,” a label previously applied to foreign propaganda outlets.

These abrupt, often half-baked changes certainly feel like whims, but they also tell a clear story about where Twitter is going and what Musk thinks Twitter fundamentally is. They’re paranoid, defensive, and often petty, and reflect a belief that Twitter is constantly being taken advantage of: by competitors, developers, and even its own users. Twitter is now playing a zero-sum game and giving platform isolationism a try. Musk is building a wall.

The gap between Twitter’s influence and its financial worth has been a consistent problem for the platform. Its simultaneous usefulness as a grassroots organizing tool and a venue for commanding elite attention have combined to make it a strange, powerful, and often vexing force in politics. Twitter — or more accurately, Twitter users — can influence financial markets, set news agendas, build or destroy reputations, and fundamentally bend the culture. Musk knows this as well as anyone. He has used it to promote his companies, pump his stocks, and push crypto, resulting in many billions of dollars of economic activity. He used it to attack critics and try to influence politics. He used it to build his own valuable reputation and then to do incredible damage to said reputation.

In both strict and colloquial senses of the word, an enormous amount of value has flowed through Twitter. Meanwhile, it has always struggled as a company. Its advertising business was minuscule compared with Google’s and Facebook’s and was basically orthogonal to the platform’s real power and influence, which was shared among its most prominent users, including people like Musk, and which it couldn’t really sell to brands. For users, this was basically fine and probably a good thing: Who wants to be effectively monetized? Who cares if management hasn’t figured out how to skim more off the top?

For executives, it was clearly vexing. For shareholders, it was a major problem. In the course of trying to build a social-media company, Twitter ended up with a piece of infrastructure. It was important to a wide range of people and institutions, but that importance was derived from their collective, often begrudging presence. Twitter’s longtime bet was that more aggressive paths to monetization would destroy what it did have, driving away users and leaving shareholders with even less to be happy about. So it muddled along. And then came Elon.

From the start, Musk made an opposite bet. Rather than worrying about driving people away, he started coming up with ways to charge them, most visibly by wishing into existence an entirely different business model with Twitter Blue, using blue check marks for leverage. This seems deeply intuitive to Musk, whose December tweet warning that there would be “no more relentless free advertising of competitors” was briefly turned into official policy before being reversed under pressure. His move against Substack suggests he’s still thinking the same way. It might do damage to a small competitor; it will also make Twitter, where a wide range of Substackers find new readers, a measurably worse place to keep up with the news or find things to read.

To users, Twitter’s recent changes tend to read more like threats than invitations. In the broader internet and media ecosystem, Twitter is taking the platform equivalent of a hard isolationist turn and shutting down its borders. Early results have not been promising: Twitter’s ad business has cratered, and according to recent estimates, Twitter Blue has around 500,000 subscribers, which doesn’t come anywhere close to making up for lost ad revenue. Musk himself recently valued the company, which he purchased for $42 billion in October, at just $20 billion.

Musk has destroyed a lot of Twitter’s literal worth. In his stubborn attempts to claw some back, he has shown no reluctance — and in some cases seems eager — to sacrifice any value created by Twitter that does not accrue to him. It’s clear this week, as he continues to antagonize partners and started to follow through on promises to make users, developers, and institutions pay, that Musk has no other plan but to double down. Twitter will take its cut or die trying.

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Twitter Builds a Wall