The town square is burning: Why advertisers and audiences should leave Twitter

An oft-repeated adage is that Twitter is like a digital town square - an overtly optimistic comparison that didn't ring true during the platform's heyday, and seems positively quant now that Elon Musk is the self-elected mayor, Mumbrella's new deputy editor Nathan Jolly writes.

Twitter isn’t a town square at all. Under the control of Musk, Twitter is closer to a urine-soaked, graffiti-scrawled bathroom stall on the outskirts of a crumbling town square, built in a dystopian version of Sim City. Player one was so keen to grab the controller and start rebuilding that he didn’t bother reading the instructions. After all, how hard can this game be?

He started off, as many do, by spouting vague promises of a utopia, but quickly got bored and is now building rows of nuclear plants around the perimeter of the town square while selling megaphones to citizens silly enough to pay full price to yell into an abyss. 

Musk’s latest attempt to blow up what was once a quite useful service is to limit the amount of tweets that unverified (read: non-paying) users can read, to just 600 a day – generously pushed out to 1,000 a day after the inevitable backlash. Musk’s reasoning for the limit, to “address extreme levels of data scraping and system manipulation” is as vague and nonsensical as it sounds, and considering Twitter now helpfully gives users “suggested tweets” that see the limit scuttle along even more quickly, it has made the platform basically useless. Even the most casual scroller will hit their limit within a few ten-minute sessions.

After the limit was enforced, the message was so poorly communicated that Google searches for ‘Is Twitter down?’ jumped by 3,880%, as confused tweeters assumed the service was broken. A few more incidents like this, and the #deletetwitter hashtag will be trending for a while yet.

Since Musk took over ownership of the service last November, which, it bears repeating, he did begrudgingly, he has made a number of counterintuitive dummy spits, as if to punish Twitter’s most loyal users for his own impulsiveness and lack of due diligence. Every time Musk announces a change, the platform becomes less user-friendly, people call for others to #deletetwitter, and we are left scrolling though a far more hostile space. Twitter was never good, but it’s certainly never been this bad.

Next, Twitter will begin charging users for TweetDeck, a useful but simple dashboard interface not likely to inspire a rush of new subscribers who simply cannot live without it.

None of this is working. Mashable reports just 68,000 paid subscribers worldwide as of April 30 – a figure that is actually down from the initial curious 150,000 that signed up the first week. Twitter is losing paid subscribers, not gaining them.

Since enforcing a subscription model, Musk has not only severely limited the visibility and reach of tweets by users that don’t wish to pay for the joys of posting on Twitter, he has also eroded the verification service that once doubled as a necessary security check to stop impersonators and fake news sites. Musk dismissed the previous verification system as a “lords and peasants” system, and then attached a financial hurdle to it! Now anyone can pretend to be anyone else for the price of a subscription — even “verified organisations” must pay for the honour of avoiding imitators — and purchasing a cloak of officialdom has never been so easy, or so cheap. In attaching an arbitrary monetary value to the blue tick, he has completely removed any value it might have once had. After all, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Realistically, this is all, in part, a juvenile trolling exercise from a bored billionaire, designed to show users that, when it comes to his expensive new toy, Musk is the alpha and we are all mere beta-testers. He can turn off the tap at any point. He runs security in the town square. But, much like driverless vehicles or unmanned trips into space, there are real-world dangers involved every time he tinkers under the bonnet.

Take, for example, the personal war he decided to wage against the very media companies that once gave Twitter its legitimacy as a trusted platform. In late April, Musk started tagging the likes of National Public Radio in the US as a  “state-affiliated” organisation, placing them alongside China’s Xinhua news agency and Russia’s RT outlet. In Australia, SBS and ABC copped labels declaring them “government-funded media” outlets, as did the BBC in the UK.

In response, NPR completely stopped posting on its 52 official Twitter feeds, and began directing listeners to its other social media platforms.

The ABC and SBS both remained on the platform, but were forced to issue clarifications.

“FYI: The ABC is a publicly funded broadcaster, governed by the ABC Charter which is enshrined in legislation,” explained the national broadcaster. “For more than 90 years the ABC has always been and remains an independent media organisation, free from political and commercial interests.”

The platform’s advertisers are also spooked.

About 625 of Twitter’s top 1,000 advertisers, including big hitters like Coca-Cola, Jeep, and Unilever, pulled all spend on the platform once Musk took over as owner. HBO Max was once the top advertiser on Twitter, shelling out close to A$18 million on ads last September alone. In January, a few months after Musk had started his menacing, it spent just over A$80,000. This is a 99.6% reduction in monthly spend! Then again, at least they stuck around… 

Those advertisers that have stayed, like HBO Max, have had the luxury of seeing their ads served alongside hate speech. According to a report from non-profit Media Matters, companies such as The Wall Street Journal, Nokia, Apple TV, Amazon, Mailchimp, and the NFL are paying for advertisements that are running alongside tweets from Holocaust deniers. Gulp!

This type of slip-up seems inevitable, especially considering the ordinance teams in charge of monitoring such mishaps are among the estimated 90% of Twitter staffers that have been laid off since Musk took control.

“There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society,” Musk wrote in late October, when trying to attach a higher motive to his misjudged acquisition. 

“That said,” he quickly clarified, “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”

Eight months later, Twitter has become exactly that: a free-for-all hellscape. Well, free for those who pay a monthly fee, that is.

Seeing how quickly and savagely Musk has ripped the carpet from under his 400 million users serves as a timely reminder not to build a brand or a business around an audience that someone else controls.

Your Twitter followers are only yours as long as the platform allows. In 2005, Tila Tequila was once the most popular user on MySpace. She may very well still be, for what it’s worth. When was the last time you thought of Tila Tequila? When was the last time you thought about MySpace?

Musk has indicated time and time again that he is a free speech advocate, a position that implies a sense of freedom but often imposes the opposite.

By giving a platform to unchecked hate under the guise of free speech, he is making it clear that his town square is now the Wild West, and any gun-slinger with a few dollars a month for a blue tick can act with impunity. 

He has reinstated hundreds of banned accounts, including Donald Trump’s, and given disgraced Fox pundit Tucker Carlson a platform on which to host an inflammatory ring-wing talk show. 

This all flies strongly in the face of his pledge to make Twitter a place “where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.” He’s half right – violence is often the opening gambit, not a resort.

At what stage will brands and organisations realise that Twitter is simply no longer worth the hassle? That it no longer provides the reach they require, and instead leaves their message open to unfettered, public attacks from anonymous users, with no hope of recourse or discourse. Any complaint about online abuse sent to the Twitter email receives an auto-reply with a poo emoji. This is not a metaphor.

For organisations that represent, or consist of, community members already under attack, Twitter is a burning town square, not even courteous enough to declare martial law.

“You may have noticed we haven’t been using Twitter much lately,” the official NITV Twitter account posted in late May. “We’ve decided to take a break from it. We’ve had enough of the racism and hate that we see and experience every day on this platform. It’s just not a place we want or need to be, particularly during a time when things are heavy enough.”

The station then directed its users to follow it on Instagram and Facebook – platforms that at least attempt to lay guardrails to protect its users.

Social justice charity Life Without Barriers also left the platform in late May, citing a responsibility to denounce “any form of harm, including racism, discrimination, and targeted attacks”, all of which are rife on Twitter.

“We believe we have to make a choice about the environments in which we seek to collaborate on social justice and, for now, we do not see Twitter as a safe and constructive place to do that,” the not-for-profit wrote in a statement. It also pointed readers to its Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn pages.

Massive brands have left in droves, but smaller ones that perhaps mistake the platform’s ubiquity for usefulness are remaining – perhaps too scared to remove itself from the town square, perhaps still under the belief that you need to be on Twitter to reach the masses.

This is no longer the case. The user-base has dwindled, young people are using platforms we don’t even know about yet, and aligning yourself financially with Twitter, even as an advertiser, might just be the very opposite of the message you’re hoping to impart. 


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