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Twitter has entered a new era under new ownership as of Oct. 27, 2022, and ever since it’s been rough going for the sixth largest social network. What does the future hold? The answers are far from certain, but here’s more about what we know, and some thoughts about what it might mean for users.
Twitter is a platform where strangers can chat about any subject, and probably its biggest gift to the social media world is the innovation of the hashtag, which allows people to search for content on a specific topic.
Twitter is unique in social media in that almost all profiles are set to “public.” By contrast, the vast majority of Facebook users have a private profile, because they use it primarily to communicate with friends and family – and if there’s a post they’d like to share more widely, they can set individual posts to “public.” Groups and Pages provide other ways of using Facebook to communicate with a wider group of people, as an individual or as an entity, business, or public figure.
Twitter is a lot simpler in that there is no difference between a business, individual, organization, or public figure account, and you choose whether your tweets are “protected” (that is, visible only to your followers) or public. What’s more, unlike Facebook, there is no attempt to require people to use their real names when creating accounts — and when you follow a Twitter account, it is not mutual. That is, if you follow someone on Twitter, they are not following you unless they choose to “follow back.” Users can “retweet” others’ tweets they find particularly interesting or relevant, and tweets can contain links to published material on the internet, photos, and even short videos.
People are on Twitter overwhelmingly for news, especially breaking news – so much so that Tweets often become part of news stories when, for example, an eyewitness to a disaster tweets images and video from the scene, or a public figure (such as a celebrity, politician, sports star, etc.) makes a statement about something topical. What’s unusual about Twitter is that ordinary users can communicate with public figures, and may even get a response. Journalists can tweet out their work, and political pollsters can make predictions, directly to users. The algorithm works to prioritize tweets that people indicate interest in by “liking” them, or by retweeting.
These features level the playing field, making it possible for anyone on Twitter to gain followers by being clever, funny or insightful. More importantly, they’ve made Twitter a favored medium for politicians, journalists, and other public figures especially. So Twitter plays a major role in setting the “narrative” when it comes to politics, a fact that makes it particularly attractive to anyone, including foreign actors, who wish to push an agenda or spread misinformation. All of this is why Twitter’s worldwide influence far outstrips its size.
The new owner bought Twitter for what many experts consider an inflated price, and is under immense pressure to make Twitter profitable – and fast. Reducing costs and taking in revenue are top priorities.
Twitter has laid off massive numbers of employees, as much as half the staff. Obviously, the huge reduction in payroll costs is meant to help the company become more profitable, but what happens when there’s no one left to do the work? According to some reports, some surviving employees quit in protest, and Twitter tried to re-hire some of those who were laid off.
Naturally the next order of business is to attract more advertising dollars. But this has always been something of a challenge for Twitter – it’s never been a particularly galvanizing medium for small-budget advertisers. In fact, Twitter has struggled to become profitable, and hasn’t posted a profit for several years. The average Twitter advertiser is a large corporation with a huge ad budget, and Twitter makes up a very small portion of that budget.
But the uncertainty of the social network’s future is making advertisers skittish – in particular, it is unclear if content moderation will be prioritized, and no advertiser wants their messages on a platform full of hate speech and harassment. Many major advertisers paused their Twitter buys immediately after the network was sold, and it’s doubtful their concerns have been adequately addressed. The immediate future looks pretty dire — in fact, Insider Intelligence is predicting a 39.1 percent reduction in ad revenue over 2023-2024. And Twitter laid off even more of its global content moderation team in January 2023, which continues the erosion in confidence that Twitter has a plan to handle hate speech and other unsavory content.
As far as users, Insider Intelligence found flat growth in 2022, or 386.4 million monthly active users worldwide — this includes the estimated 875,000 users who deactivated their accounts immediately after Twitter was sold. Insider Intelligence projects a 3.9 percent drop in 2023, and another 5.1 percent drop in 2024.
Most social media platforms have some form of verification for public figures and major brands – that is, proof that the profile is actually representing the person/company it claims to be. On Twitter, the “blue check” of verification has been coveted, and especially important because anyone can begin tweeting under just about any name (although the terms of service do prohibit direct impersonation). Journalists, politicians, major organizations, and celebrities are among those who often received blue checks. Because Twitter is an important platform for news, these blue checks are an important safeguard against the spread of misinformation.
Previously, Twitter has bestowed verification on its own, and there has also been a process by which people could apply to become verified. But that changed under the new owner. Twitter has since unveiled a new system that charges users a monthly fee for verification, and in return promises priority in replies, mentions and search, the ability to post long video and audio, half as many ads, the ability to edit tweets, and “paywall bypass for publishers willing to work with us.” The owner has offered another justification for paying for a premium version of Twitter — it is to “make the platform the product, instead of you.”
It is absolutely correct that in all social media invented so far, the user is the product – our eyeballs on ads, for starters, but most importantly the data on what we like, our interests, our demographics, and how advertisers can and should target us is incredibly valuable. While it may be somewhat creepy to receive an ad on Facebook for a product category you just searched on Amazon, most of us have made peace with the idea that digital privacy is an illusion. We understand that we pay for “free” social media use by giving up some of our privacy. And, some aspects of the bargain aren’t all bad – personally I’d rather see ads for live music events (which is something I’m really interested in) than for, say, pharmaceuticals.
So will people pay up? Experts are doubtful. We’re pretty invested in our free access to social media, especially as it’s clear our digital information will continue to be collected no matter what. And another problem is that $8 is a pretty low cost for doing business for foreign actors wishing to sow misinformation — or for any disgruntled Twitter user who wants to make a point by buying Twitter Blue in the name of a celebrity or major company, as has happened to Lebron James, Pepsi, and Eli Lilly, among others (although the company has taken steps to prevent more such impersonations).
As far as a “paywall bypass for publishers willing to work with us,” that is already a feature of some articles tweeted by print outlets such as newspapers and magazines, as an effort to entice more people to subscribe (and sometimes as a public service, in coverage of breaking news events such as hurricanes). But print outlets already struggle to raise enough advertising revenue in the digital age. That print outlets would freely give Twitter the ability to bypass their paywalls as a perk of the new blue check system seems unlikely. Why would these outlets allow Twitter to get paid for access to their journalistic content?
To say the least, these initial steps do not seem to be particularly well thought out, and the reaction from average Twitter users as well as those with “legacy” blue checkmarks has been overwhelmingly negative. Meanwhile, the stance of the company continues to evolve when it comes to verification — for now “legacy” blue checkmarks remain, although a curt new message appears when you click the blue check: “This is a legacy verified account. It may or may not be notable.” As of December 2022 Twitter announced further refinements to their verification system and is adding gold checkmarks for some business accounts, and gray ones for government accounts, although these have yet to appear.
Several years ago, Twitter found itself embroiled in a public debate about free speech when it began making decisions to ban certain polarizing political figures for incitement to violence. The new owner is a “free-speech absolutist,” and it appears this means that public figures and others permanently banned for violating the network’s terms of service (against hate speech, misinformation, or incitement to violence) will be allowed back onto the platform.
Last fall Twitter met with a group of civil-society leaders concerned about possible changes to Twitter’s content moderation procedures that might result in more hate speech, disinformation, and harassment on the platform. Since then, a process for banned individuals to get their accounts back has been floated, as has a “content moderation council” with diverse viewpoints. Some users who have been banned have been allowed back on the platform, where many promptly re-offended and were banned again. But so far there is little consistency evident in how Twitter is making such decisions.
Content moderation, harassment, and misinformation are major challenges for any social media network, but these problems are especially acute on Twitter because it is primarily used for news, and because most profiles are open. And Twitter’s content moderation teams, like every other part of its workforce, have been decimated in layoffs. Proliferation of hateful or unsavory content will make Twitter much less appealing to average users, while opening the network to legal challenges worldwide.
Twitter has already unveiled a new navigation, where users can shift between a “for you” timeline, which are tweets recommended for you by Twitter (notably, this is the default), and “following,” which is your own curated feed, made up of accounts you’ve followed.
There are many rumors, some more substantiated than others, about further upcoming changes to the way Twitter works. These include things like long-form tweets, changes in navigation, and other alterations to the user experience. A rumored “Coins” feature is supposed to allow you to provide monetary support to “creators who Tweet great content.”
Where is Twitter headed? What might all this turbulence mean for users, and for social media generally? Speculation is rampant, and of course it’s impossible to predict with any certainty – but here are some possible scenarios.
Twitter could decline precipitously. Twitter could eventually become another MySpace — a social network that continues to exist, but that no one uses much anymore. This could be due to continued losses of users and advertisers, because the service could cease to work reliably due to a lack of engineers and other employees, or some combination of these factors. How long could Twitter remain relevant in that case?
Twitter could go under completely. Twitter could eventually reach the point where, because of some combination of debt, lack of employees, and/or legal challenges, the new owner is forced to pull the plug. Sounds extreme, but remember Google +?
Somehow the new owner could make Twitter work. So far, the new owner’s decision-making has seemed capricious at best, but the possibility exists that he could turn things around one way or another. But how? Bankruptcy might be a way out of the mess — some experts think it might even be in Twitter’s best interest.
Twitter could devolve into a platform frequented by mostly far-right users and bots. If hate speech and misinformation proliferate on Twitter, as many experts fear, this could drive a mass exodus of users – leaving far-right users and bots in the majority. The quality and quantity content on Twitter from real users would decline considerably, further worsening the cycle. To what degree would Twitter’s influence remain under such a scenario?
Another social medium, existing or new, could take Twitter’s place. There are at least two new social media, Mastodon and TribelSocial, vying to take advantage of Twitter’s troubles and spring to mainstream prominence. A thumb in the wind seems to indicate that Mastodon is ahead in this battle, but many users seem to find it too complicated. Major success of one or more of these new social media could hasten Twitter’s decline or even demise. Is an entrepreneur inventing another Twitter-like platform right now? Are other, more established social media getting ready to launch Twitter-like features or even entirely new platforms?
Twitter could be sold. The new owner would take a huge loss, but may at some point may be ready to be out of this. Could a someone else rebuild Twitter and regain the trust that has been lost, all while dealing with the same old problems with how to make it profitable?
This article will almost surely become out of date unusually quickly for this blog. But one thing will remain true: the Twitter debacle raises important concerns about the fragility of some of our most important public spaces, many of which are privately owned – and how open they are to manipulation.By Shelley Johansson, a former staff member Visit Shelley on Google+.
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