Elon Musk's Pay-to-Play Strategy Will Make Twitter Clubby- Have Nots Will Suffer
Elon Musk plan to distinguish users along financial lines will weaken Twitter and increase the divide between between the haves and the have nots.
Twitter Inc. is set to charge users $8 per month for the privilege of having the blue-tick honorific put on their account. We know this because Elon Musk said so, one of of many proposals the world's richest man has put forth over the past year aimed at improving the social media platform and its profitability.
The key difference is that Musk is now the owner, chairman, and chief executive officer. What he says, goes. Unless he changes his mind, which he's wont to do. Or he's simply joking, which also happens. This feels pretty real, though, given that he's talked about it quite regularly in the past.
The point of the blue tick is to confirm that the person or organization is whom they purport to be. Users generally want to know that the senator tweeting about tax policy is really an elected representative, or the sports star announcing their retirement is legitimate. This builds on the assumption that we don't really care if Joe from across the street really is Joe from across the street — unless he becomes famous and influential, in which case a blue tick may follow.
Musk calls this delineation a “lords & peasants system.” Joe from across the street has just as much claim to legitimacy as POTUS44. He's right. You and I may not care about Joe's identity, but his neighbor may want to know whether a hoard of zombies really was seen marching down the street where they both live. And the blue tick not only brings authenticity, but also accountability. Musk's own tweets were used against him in legal battles, and being able to confirm they truly were sent by the Tesla Inc. CEO was key to that process.
Yet Musk, in his desperation to introduce a subscription service instead of relying solely on ads, may be conflating the need to broaden verification with the desirability of a premium offering that caters to well-heeled users who want more from the platform.
Among the other benefits of Musk's Twitter Blue service would be priority in replies, mentions and search, and a paywall bypass for publishers, he further tweeted. If this is indeed how the product rolls out, then what Twitter is building would be a pay-to-play platform that amplifies those with money and by definition diminishes those without. A current version of Twitter Blue, for $4.99 per month, offers a different set of features, including bookmark folders and an undo button but is not a prerequisite for the blue checkmark.
This faux-socialism is akin to Marie Antoinette suggesting that peasants who have no bread instead eat cake. It's tone deaf, at best, possibly dangerous at worst.
Consider a human rights activist in a repressed nation who uses the platform to share videos of corruption and abuses. Beyond being unable to afford $96 per year,(1) they might not have access to the payments systems required to pony up, and may have legitimate reasons to not wish to share the personally-identifiable information that goes with paying a monthly fee. By contrast, a diplomat or information minister of that same nation is more than willing to foot the bill for the right to shout down critics and whitewash allegations of corruption.
And in some cases, it may not even be legal to charge for such authentication. India, for example, is set to require that all social media users get verified by the platform. While the rules don't specifically ban charging for this process, it's likely that complaints and legal challenges would ensue if a Western technology giant tried to extract $8 per month from Indian consumers for something legally mandated.
Then there's the issue of value for money. This is not just some esoteric matter of those who find value will pay for it, and those who don't will not. Twitter Blue is less than a third the price of LinkedIn Premium, the subscription service that gives job-seekers a leg up in the job market. It's priced just under that of content services from Netflix Inc. and Spotify Technology SA, the success of which lends credence to the idea that Twitter too can get away with charging a monthly fee.
There's a huge difference, though. Your enjoyment and value from Netflix or Spotify doesn't come from how many other people are on the service, it comes from what the company itself provides. Twitter, being user-generated, benefits from the millions of users who flock to the site to share ideas and opinions. Deliberately or inadvertently cutting swathes of people out of the conversation lessens the platform without necessarily making it cleaner or safer.
While it may not sound very egalitarian, it does make sense to delineate users. What Barack Obama or Donald Trump write has more weight than the musings of Joe from across the street. It is also reasonable to try to recalibrate that balance in favor of Joe. Real-name verification is one solution, though problematic for those who truly need anonymity to preserve their safety.
Charging for the privilege, and giving free passes to select groups like politicians and journalists, isn't the right approach. Blue, as it's laid out, will succeed in dividing Twitter further between the haves and the have nots.
Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. Previously, he was a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.