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When I was a kid, I wanted to be popular.
I wasn’t popular, obviously. I was overweight, I had a personality that oscillated between friendly and moody, and my interests — metal, video games, and anime — were not exactly in line with the youth of a British private school. I also outright rejected most mainstream interests — modern music, sports, or anything else that one might find common ground with another person — and then decided that other people were the problem. I believed that my lack of popularity was a problem caused by an insufficient amount of curiosity on their part, rather than the truth that they found me boring or annoying, and that nobody owes you their attention.
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In short, I wanted what I liked to be popular, and when it wasn’t, I considered it a personal sleight versus a cruel truth of the universe.
This is the paradox of the inherent jealousy of the cool kids’ table. Popularity is fickle and ever-changing, and more often than not requires actual effort to fit in. One can find niches where one can grow popularity, or indeed, grow popularity through popularizing a niche that people didn’t know they’d like, but these things do not happen automatically, and usually come from a great deal of patience.
And I took years to realize that I just wasn’t particularly likable because I neither liked myself nor had enough curiosity about others. I craved status — acceptance on a skin-deep level that mostly just meant that people knew who I was and were nice to me because of that. This is the problem of fitting in. Unless you naturally fit the norm, you won’t fit in without changing who you are, how you act, or what you like.
What most people really want is to be liked and accepted — to be validated as a person and to be treated with interest and respect. We all love the feeling of being admired and having our views shared, but if it doesn’t feel like anyone actually likes or cares about us, it all feels a little bit hollow.
The internet has massively increased the number of places one can find acceptance — both in niche communities like subreddits and, of course, Twitter. As I’ve written before, Twitter is unique in its ability to create a global hangout space — an eternal dive bar where, if you’re willing to search, you can find a community (or communities) of people who accept who you are, even if you tweet about being a Smiling Man.
As I’ve also written before, Twitter creates a particular madness when someone directly connects their self-worth to how many likes and retweets they get:
The problem is that the attention that you feel on Twitter is extremely addictive. The feeling of having someone — or potentially hundreds of thousands of people —hang on your every word can be deeply intoxicating. One can attribute a great deal of meaning to likes and retweets — that you’re intelligent, important, or “right” on an existential level — and conversely one can attribute so much more to the negative feedback one gets. Twitter can create an incredible sense of both intellectual invincibility and vulnerability that can drive someone quite mad. Many people are desperate to be liked by everybody, and many more people are desperate to be respected by everybody.
Thanks to the nature of its (very) public replies, Twitter adds another layer of popularity: who cool/important/notable people actually respond to. As a result, there’s a desperation to be seen at the top of someone’s replies — to have a response that gets you the attention either of the original poster or the engagement of those replying. Getting no response to a reply is a gutting experience for some. It probably feels like a digital recreation of trying to sit down at the popular kids’ table and everybody turning their lunch trays away.
The intelligent response is, of course, to consider whether what you said was funny or interesting, or question whether you added anything to the conversation.
The alternative path is to assume a cruel algorithm is deliberately throttling your reach, or that an unfair system is stopping your beautiful posts from being seen by people that would — given the chance — engage with them in an instant.
This is the logic that explosive tech founder and Twitter CEO has used to unsuccessfully sell subscriptions to Twitter Blue — the $8 (or $11, if you buy through the app) monthly subscription product that gives you the blue checkmark which once signified notability, but now means that you have either $8 or $11.
On 4/20 — a joke that only a disconnected 51-year-old oaf would possibly laugh at — Twitter removed all legacy verified checkmarks, leaving only those who opted to pay for Twitter Blue. Roughly a day later, roughly 28 net new users had subscribed to the service, which has a few hundred thousand subscribers.
Elon Musk then chose to “give” Twitter Blue to celebrities like LeBron James and Stephen King, both of whom stated clearly that they did not pay for the service. In an act of desperation, Musk then gave Twitter Blue to every single account with over 1 million followers, including multiple dead celebrities like Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman. Most celebrities that received Twitter Blue reacted the same way — saying that they did not ask for it and would not be paying for it.
In 24 hours, the blue checkmark went from a capriciously-awarded form of notoriety and verification to a digital dunce cap. The majority of Twitter Blue subscribers have 1000 or fewer followers, and those who have paid for the service to have their posts “prioritized” in replies are now finding that despite theoretically receiving more views, people still aren’t engaging with their tweets. In fact, the common complaint from Twitter Blue users (Bluesers?) is that their view counts have increased dramatically without anything to show for it.
This is because none of these people are actually concerned with earning popularity — they, much like Musk (who also refused to accept that Twitter users just didn’t like his posts that much) believe that they are already interesting, funny, and cool and that the only issue was exposure. Ironically, Musk made the problem worse back in December by adding view counts to tweets, making users intimately aware of the number of people that saw your tweet and said “not for me, thanks.”
Elon Musk has succeeded in inverting the blue checkmark, turning it into a symbol of desperation, irrelevance, and entitlement. Anyone that needs to pay money to promote or prioritize their posts clearly hasn’t succeeded in engaging with people with good-quality content. As a result, the vast majority of Twitter Blue content is crap — unfunny, irrelevant or outright annoying — meaning that users who might otherwise want features like longer posts or an edit button won’t want to be associated with other Blue users.
Musk has created marketing quicksand. Twitter Blue’s post quality will likely never improve because the base layer of posters consists of AI guys, cryptocurrency bros, “meme” accounts, and freaks calling for the death of trans people.
Every day that Twitter Blue exists in its current form it becomes more noxious and less marketable. It’s functionally undemocratic, but also fairly bad at being kleptocratic. By charging a relatively low amount of money a month, you effectively neutralize any real benefit of paying for prioritization. While one could argue that it’s “better” to be seen first on a page, it’s far more likely that people will just ignore Twitter Blue users entirely.
Sidebar: From what I can see, Twitter Blue posts aren’t always prioritized anyway.
This post by David Sacks, for example, seems to have plenty of non-Blue subscribers at the top. The same goes for this post from the NFL. This post from ESPN SportsCenter has two Twitter Blue users at the top of the replies. However, this post from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is entirely dominated by Twitter Blue users.
In nearly 15 years of working in the public relations industry, I cannot remember a time when a company has so thoroughly destroyed its brand outside of outright scams like Theranos and FTX. The closest parallel I can think of is Gerald Ratner, the scion of a British jewelry empire, who, in 1991, nearly destroyed the family business after a conference speech went disastrously awry. Ratner described the company’s products as “total crap” and cheaper than a sandwich (adding that “the sandwich will probably last longer than the earrings”). Sales evaporated, as did almost £500m in company value. By 1992, The Ratner Group was teetering on the brink of oblivion.
Twitter, while imperfect, did actually make money from advertising. The checkmark system, while obtuse and obfuscated, did the job of verifying people and making it clear whether someone was who they said they were. Even Twitter Blue, while not particularly successful, was a useful product with features that people liked.
Musk hasn’t just weakened the company — he’s done so in a way that is personally and professionally embarrassing, betraying both a lack of understanding of Twitter and a total lack of business acumen.
Creating a program for buying popularity that’s cheap enough for hundreds of thousands of people to purchase is a terrible idea. Lowering the quality of the content that you are selling advertisers on tying their brands to is outright irresponsible. Even if you had absolutely no clue about how to run a social media business, it is blatantly obvious that you would, at the very least, take a minute to say “Okay, why do people pay us money?” and, perhaps, ask the people that are paying you what it would take to get them to pay you more.
It’s also fair to ask why Musk would think that a subscription-based business would work.
The largest subscription businesses in the world (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, and so on) make somewhere between $10bn and $32bn a year, and their subscriptions are both the center of their product and have a much higher price point. Twitter has around 350 million active users, and it would take around 49.1 million of those users paying $8 a month to replace Twitter’s last-reported public revenues of $1.1bn in Q2 2022. And, to be clear, the site still lost $270min that quarter.
Twitter Blue has roughly 630,000 paying subscribers (including those paying a discounted yearly rate), and Twitter’s revenue has fallen 50% since October thanks to a decline in advertising. It’s also important to remember that Twitter has to pay a quarterly interest payment of around $300m thanks to the debt that Musk took on to acquire the website. Framed another way, Musk would need 12.5 million Twitter Blue subscribers to pay the full $8 a month each quarter to cover this debt.
In short, Musk needs to increase Twitter Blue’s subscriber base by 1,882% just to level-set the company — and that’s before considering that Twitter hasn’t been profitable since 2019.
Elon Musk is a terrible businessman. He has terrible instincts, makes terrible decisions, creates terrible cultures, and does not seem capable of successfully launching and growing a product when he’s at the helm. His acquisition of Twitter has been an unmitigated disaster as a direct result of his decision-making.
Twitter Blue was never a particularly attractive prospect at $8, and now associates you with the least proficient posters of all time. And Musk’s desperation for attention paired with his sheer incompetence creates a near-constant feedback loop of poorly-conceived ideas delivered badly, followed by thousands of posts mocking him.
That’s because Musk is the prototypical modern Twitter Blue subscriber. He’s desperate for attention and validation but has no interest or curiosity in the thoughts or interests of anybody that doesn’t already agree with him. He has become the popular kid, with exactly the depth of respect that popular kids received in high school — childish, transient, and petty admiration based on one’s wealth or status.
Twitter has become a referendum on Musk’s legend — a direct evaluation of his ability to run a business, and an enumeration of how many people truly support him.
What’s crushing is that Musk can’t use his elevated status or money to buy the love and admiration of Twitter’s userbase. While this may be a financially disastrous situation, it’s also become an alarming and constant reminder that most people find Elon Musk to be annoying, boring and cliché.
When you think about it, Musk spent $44bnto create a real-life version of the nightmare where you’re naked in public. He’s arguably become the most exposed human being on the internet, and his punishment will continue until he chooses to log off.
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Right now, Musk should be worried about Bluesky, a fast-growing (and currently invite-only) app that successfully recreates the very basic formula that Twitter is based on. Founded by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, the app is almost identical but lacks the legions of thrice-divorced conservative demagogues and AI-generated avatar accounts that litter Twitter.
Crucially, it seems their product strategy appears to be “invite tech people and shitposters from Twitter and see what they do,” and it seems to be working. Growth stats aside, Bluesky feels like what’s good at Twitter - which, as Musk has repeatedly failed to see, is a certain community of funny/interesting/enjoyable posts that are worth interacting with. It seems to be a product created and run by people who actually used Twitter and who actually enjoy posting, and thus I’m quite excited.
It’s also hilarious how little effort it took to create even a slightly viable Twitter competitor. Mastodon failed by being clunky - any network that requires a guide to set up an account is dead on arrival. Substack Notes had a chance, but they blew it when they made following someone the same thing as following their newsletter, as well as their absolutely atrocious answers around content moderation.
If Bluesky truly takes down Twitter - or even meaningfully cuts into its market share - it should be considered a huge blunder by literally every major tech company. They may be the first to realize that what makes a social network like Twitter successful is the posters, which is arguably one of the most obvious things in the world. Then again, that would also require tech leaders to use the products they run, which might be too much to ask.