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Opinion – Twitter and Meta push to make social media worse

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported another round of Twitter layoffs, including Twitter Blue creator Esther Crawford. The news comes a week after Meta announced a similar paid verification service. Why is Meta copying this seemingly terrible idea?

Along with another 200 employees, Twitter CEO Elon Musk has fired Esther Crawford, the person who headed the launch of his flagship policy, Twitter Blue.

This decision reflects widespread discontent surrounding the new pay-to-get verified service and came just over a week after Meta’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, revealed his plan for an almost identical subscription service for Facebook and Instagram.

Meta’s Twitter Blue-like feature will enable most users to get a verified checkmark next to their name and have their content promoted on peoples’ timelines.

The move, which Musk called ‘inevitable’, is just one in a sea of examples of tech corporations stealing each other’s ideas – no matter how disliked or unprofitable they are.

We’re now all too familiar with the debacle that was Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter but, in an attempt to better understand why Musk’s signature subscription service is now becoming the industry norm, some key details surrounding the deal should be reminded here.

In order to actually acquire Twitter, Musk took out a significant loan which left the company with over $13 billion in immediate debt. Add the fact that the company has not turned a profit since 2019 and has famously struggled to develop an active user base comparable to that of Instagram or TikTok.

During the very public negotiations surrounding the purchase, Musk made clear his biggest concern about the platform: the large number of fake users and scam accounts, what he calls ‘bots.’ A fact he cited multiple times when trying to pull out of the deal, until a court ruling eventually forced him to go through with it.

Now at the head of one of the largest online platforms, the world’s most outspoken billionaire had the task of making Twitter profitable – something a man who routinely compares himself to superheroes should have no problem figuring out.

The central tenet of Musk’s new business model, Twitter Blue, aims to tackle both profitability and the large number of ‘bots’ on the site. If some of the basic functionalities of the website are behind a paywall, then this would eliminate most of the fake accounts whose owners cannot conceivably pay so many monthly subscriptions.

While the limitations of Twitter Blue as a viable source of revenue and as a functioning social demarcator have been exposed time and time since the launch of the feature, one could wonder why these companies are deliberately making unprofitable decisions.

With Blue’s current number of subscribers sitting between 200,000 and 300,000, some business experts have speculated that Twitter would need to increase the number of subscribers by about 80 times to be able to match their stated goal of making the service match 50% of their overall income, the rest coming largely from advertisers.

What’s more, The Verge published a piece in November breaking down a likely scenario where a key selling point of Twitter Blue – reducing user ads by 50% – would actually cost the company so much in advertiser revenue that implementing it would lose more money for the platform than it could ever bring in.

An aspect of this new business model which Twitter’s CEO has neglected to mention so far is that Twitter Blue will naturally create a two-tiered site experience.

The blue checkmark, once a signifier of online fame or notability, has undergone a change in meaning. It now merely indicates if someone has paid to use the app or not.

For those who haven’t paid the fee, they are now subjected to an overall worse user experience by design, where non-paying users and bots are treated the same, their tweets being ‘demoted for the benefit of verified accounts.

Last week’s news of Twitter making two factor authentication a paid feature, as well as Meta’s announcement that it will enact its own ‘pay-to-get-verified’ scheme show that this is not a one-time experiment but a more important change in the industry.

This trend entails leaving behind a free model funded by the collection and sale of users’ data for a new subscription-based system, where users will certainly end up paying to use features which were once free to them.

So why would Meta steal this idea from Twitter if it’s such a bad business strategy?

Well, it might not be such a bad one, at least for Meta’s own immediate priorities.

Companies like Amazon can serve as an example of why tech corporations may not always see profit as the immediate goal.

Central to Bezos’ rise to power was his decision to purposely operate at a loss for much of Amazon’s lifetime. Along with its alleged copying of competitors’ products, this served to price-out smaller businesses who would never be able to match its extremely competitive prices.

Due to the speculative nature of tech, Amazon did not need to prioritise making money at all. It was much more important to stamp out the competition and gain a larger share of the overall online shopping market – a guarantee for stake-holders that it will inevitably bring in money if people have no choice but to use the site.

We are seeing a similar event unfold at Twitter and Meta. These social media magnates understand that people’s lives are now fully dependent on online platforms – we are hooked.

Taking the bet that if they slowly transition their platforms towards a fully paid experience, users are likely to eventually purchase a subscription.

With this, Musk and Zuckerberg are telling investors that they aren’t making money, but will rig the space so that it would be impossible to not eventually make some’.

Wishing for a permanently free Meta and Twitter experience may be in vain, as both seem intent on pushing tiered, paid subscription models into the mainstream.

However, I am hopeful that the growing societal cost of these apps may push consumers to start seeking new avenues for community and self-expression. Social media platforms have shown us they will continually prioritise market dominance and control over developing services the public actually wants. When does it become too much?