​Elon Musk’s version of Twitter splutters, but where are the alternatives? - Hindustan Times

​Elon Musk’s version of Twitter splutters, but where are the alternatives?

Nov 18, 2022 10:47 AM IST

If this is indeed the beginning of the end for social media giants Twitter, perhaps the only thing left to do is tweet about it?

Elon Musk walking into Twitter headquarters on October 27, holding a kitchen sink, has quickly become a defining image. If there was an element of his hand being forced, by having to honour the deal he first mooted, it seemed well hidden behind the wide grin. Things have been capricious since, at Twitter’s global offices.

Twitter has said the company is losing $4 million each day. (File photo | Reuters)
Twitter has said the company is losing $4 million each day. (File photo | Reuters)

Flagging off an increasingly erratic leadership, were the global layoffs. Twitter now faces a class action lawsuit, as a result. Those layoffs have since been expanded, with 4,400 contract workers cut. Earlier today, the Elon Musk imposed deadline for an “extremely hardcore” Twitter 2.0 has not exactly worked out as planned – hundreds of remaining Twitter employees have not clicked “yes” on the Google Form that was shared in the email, and do not agree to the vision of “working long hours at high intensity” and “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade”.

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It may be concerning that employees who haven’t accepted this new vision statement might be let go as well, further reducing Twitter’s workforce, including entire departments and teams. For instance, Twitter no longer has a communications team. The smaller workforce strength may become a challenge in case technical issues crop up during the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar, which begins in a few days, and is expected to drive a lot of interaction on social media platforms.

In the much longer term, there is increasing evidence that Twitter as we know it, will cease to exist sooner rather than later. A lot of that has to do with the product, and the content on it. It is perhaps no surprise that at the time of writing this, #RIPTwitter is trending.

A disastrous change of course

Twitter Blue has not worked out as Musk had hoped, which has complicated attempts to monetize Twitter’s active user base. The launch of Twitter Blue’s verification for anyone with a credit card turned into an expected disaster, with high-profile individuals and companies finding authentic accounts overrun by recently verified trolls.

Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s former vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has criticized Musk’s initial moves. “I think Elon thought he was going to come in and solve everything and very quickly he’s going to work out that it’s far more complicated. It’s pretty evident from every public action that he’s taken with this whole acquisition: he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” he said on The News Agents podcast.

Elon Musk first insisted that an $7.99 per month subscription to Twitter Blue would be mandatory to retain the verified check (that’s the blue tick). Pitched as a $20 subscription, but a following a twitter argument with author Stephen King, businessman Musk quickly lowered the price.

Twitter Blue has since been shelved temporarily, but there is confirmation that attempts are being made to make it Live again on September 29. In India, this would likely be priced at 719 per month, at least that is what the indications were before the temporary pause was enforced.

Musk is also reportedly considering putting Twitter behind a wider paywall, with limited free minutes of access available to users every month, but nothing has been said about it since.

Warning signs, and a new direction?

Twitter Blue and the new verification process was always destined to be a disaster. The newly verified accounts included someone masquerading as Nintendo with a photo of Mario flipping everyone off. A verified fake George W. Bush profile. An imposter Eli Lilly account promising free insulin for everyone. Even a verified account of God.

This was always building up to a scenario where any account can attain a blue tick, simply by paying a subscription fee. With moderation teams significantly smaller after the recent layoffs, dealing with fake accounts is now a stiff challenge for Twitter.

“You’re not rolling out widespread verification – you’re merely rolling out paid subscriptions,” said screenwriter and producer Randi Mayem Singer, in a reply to tweet by Musk. That was as clear a warning as there could have been.

“Giving everyone blue checks will be chaotic, and within a year, Twitter will become MySpace. Just because I can steer a car with my feet while blindfolded doesn’t mean I should do it,” a prediction by Christopher Bouzy, founder of Bot Sentinel, an online platform that tracks activity on Twitter, has come true sooner than expected.

Earlier, Twitter followed the “authentic, notable, and active” criteria for verification which included content creators and influential individuals, news organisations and journalists as well as accounts of governments.

The next attempt, Twitter will hope, is more successful. “Rolling out soon, Twitter will enable organizations to identify which other Twitter accounts are actually associated with them,” says Musk. Exact contours of this, including possible subscription costs, remain unclear for now.

Elon Musk indicates the edit button will be made available to all users. There is talk of longform tweets, as well as video content behind a paywall.

A lot of catching-up to do

At the end of October, the data compiled by Datareportal for the world’s most used social media platforms pegs Facebook (2.934 billion monthly active users) with a huge lead, followed by Instagram (1.386 billion), WeChat (1.299 billion) and TikTok (1 billion).

Twitter suggests there is a big spike in monetizable daily active users since October, pegging that demographic close to 300 million.

Bot Sentinel analyses more than 3.1 million accounts and their activity daily. “We estimate 877,000 Twitter accounts were deactivated, and a further 497,000 were suspended between October 27 and November 1. That’s more than double the usual number,” says Bouzy.

Musk’s larger plan, at least that’s the insistence, is to liberalise Twitter’s content policies for what he classifies as freedom of speech. There have been indications previously banned accounts may be allowed to re-join the platform again.

Why are the big bucks drying up?

Advertisers are adopting a wait and watch approach, which means the advertising revenue for Twitter will slow, for the time being. Brands including Eli Lilly, Volkswagen, Pfizer, Ford, Stellantis, and United are not advertising on Twitter. Advertisers are wary of content moderation changes and return of accounts that were previously banned.

“No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes,” Musk said, soon after taking charge at Twitter, referring to the upcoming content moderation council.

Twitter has said the company is losing $4 million each day, now.

“Twitter started haemorrhaging advertisers the second that they got whiff of the idea that Elon Musk would take over the platform,” says Nandini Jammi, co-founder of Check My Ads Institute, an advertising industry watchdog.

Advertising, so far, has contributed as much as 90% of Twitter’s revenue. Data by Media Radar, an ad sales intelligence platform, pegs Twitter’s advertising earnings close to $1.1 billion between January and August, with almost 10,600 brands on board. In 2021, Facebook raked in around $115 billion in ad revenue, while Instagram accounted for $30 billion.

The Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks online trends, points to a 500 percent increase in racial slurs in tweets in the hours after Musk took over and employees were fired. “Evidence suggests that bad actors are trying to test the limits on Twitter. Several posts on 4chan encourage users to amplify derogatory slurs,” they say. Since then, NCRI also reported a spike in antisemitic tweets.

Changing goalposts?

For all of Musk’s insistence that it was all about the money and revenue, there seems to be a not-so-subtle change in tack. Most of his recent tweets talking up the good work his regime is doing at the social media company (even as the empire seems to be crumbling around them, rather quickly), seem to revolve around usage statistics.

“And … we just hit another all-time high in Twitter usage lol,” was another tweet from Musk, earlier today. Could this just be a case of vanity metrics, which tend to make performance look better than it actually is?

It must be noted that he’s often been called out for peddling half-baked stats about Twitter usage, including by own employees who have since been fired. This coinciding with the rise of verified fake accounts, doesn’t make for a pretty picture.

High-profile users aren’t hanging around

Celebrities aren’t hanging around. Model Gigi Hadid, the Oscar-winning actor Whoppi Goldberg, comic book creator Erik Larsen, Grammy winning musician Toni Braxton and retired professional wrestler Mick Foley, some prominent names who have exited the Twitterverse.

“It’s been fun Twitter. I’m out. See you on other platforms, peeps. Sorry, this one’s just not for me,” tweeted Grammy-winning singer Sara Bareilles. Hadid took to Instagram to explain her decision. “I can’t say it’s a safe place for anyone, not a social platform that will do more good than harm,” she posted.

If not Twitter, then what?

For users, is there really an alternative to fill the void? Chances are, the name Mastodon would be familiar. However, its complicated nature is a complete opposite of Twitter. Benedict Evans, a venture capitalist sums it up, “Suggesting Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter is like suggesting Linux as an alternative to Windows.”

The decentralised nature of Mastodon adds the complexity of choosing servers or get around the interface. But that hasn’t stopped people from stopping by, to have a peek. Mastodon chief executive Eugen Rochko confirms the platform has crossed 1 million monthly active users, this week. That’s 489,003 new users, since Musk took over at Twitter, on October 27.

Rochko confirmed 10,801 new users joined, in the day after Musk took over.

Oh, and by the way, what you post on Mastodon is called a “toot”. And that’s up to 500 characters per post.

It is ideal for users willing to spend time developing expertise of open source decentralised social media. The precise nature of servers (there are shades of chat rooms from online platforms from a few years ago) will make a platform to find valuable information, but widespread appeal may be difficult.

Does Meta have an answer? A switch would mean scattering your online presence across Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. That said, none of them still have the real-time positioning which Twitter does. But it may just be a working alternative if you’ve to keep up with friends and family amidst the increasing advertising and content curation – chances are, most of them will be on Facebook already, such is the legacy of the much-criticised social media platform that Mark Zuckerberg has evolved over the years.

While the approach may be very similar to Mastodon, Discord also has theme focused servers – but most users may find it complicated, and a bit geekier than Twitter. Here, there is no concept of “follow”, and instead, users must join servers (this of these as larger groups) around themes and interests. It can be quite handy if you have enough interest to painstakingly find you way around it.

Google shuttered its last social media product, Google+ in early 2019. Since then, there has been no word from the tech giant about any plans to attempt a social media comeback.

There may still be hope from former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s latest social media initiative, BlueSky. The app is currently in the beta test phase and had a 30,000 strong waiting list as of Oct 21, before Musk walked into the Twitter HQ. Safe to assume, that’s grown much longer since.

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