Why would anyone subscribe to a social media platform?
The lost quality of "Doesn't Make Me Wish I Was Dead"
Last week a reader asked what kind of trajectory I thought Twitter was currently on, now that the complete “technical collapse” of the site seemed off the table. My sense is that the range of possible futures for Twitter is still extremely wide, from “purchased for use in intelligence and influence operations by the Saudis” to “purchased for elaborate fraud reasons by the shady holding company that now owns Kik, Whisper, imgur, DatPiff, and WorldStarHipHop,” but am willing to make a firm prediction: Twitter will not ever hit its Elon Musk-assigned goal of making half of its revenue from subscriptions.
This is not, I admit, a particularly bold prediction. When Musk bought Twitter he told employees in an emailed memo that “we need roughly half of our revenue to be subscription,” and raised the price of its existing subscription service, Twitter Blue, to $8/month. According to The Information, as of early February Twitter Blue revenue had jumped from $4 million to $28 million after the price change, leaving subscription revenues still roughly $1.4 billion, with a “B,” short of the goal Musk had set in his early email to staff.
Read Max: Still smaller than Twitter Blue
There are some obvious reasons for this failure. The features of Twitter Blue include the ability to edit tweets or write tweets longer than the standard 280 characters, as well as user-experience improvements like fewer ads. But the main selling point has always seemed to be that subscribers would be awarded blue badges attached to their accounts--the same blue badges that had for years signaled that the identity of a Twitter user had been “verified,” a process that for somewhat obscure reasons had become the subjects of immense psychodramatic import to prominent technology executives.
Unfortunately for Musk’s lofty hopes, these verification badges, objects of resentful V.C. obsession though they may be, are not actually particularly important to normal human users of Twitter, as Twitter Blue’s anemic revenue figures confirm; and yet the badges, rather than anything else about the Twitter Blue, continue to remain the focus of Musk and his team’s tinkering.1 Perhaps focusing on improving Twitter Blue’s other, possibly more useful features, or introducing new ones, would help make its value proposition more apparent? But why do that when you can change the site logo to a decade-old meme.
A lack of new or worthwhile features, and a relentless obsession with the perceived social value of the verified badge, are certainly good reasons that Musk’s bid for Twitter subscriptions is failing. But allow me to propose a slightly different, more holistic framework for explaining Twitter’s problem.
It’s hard not to feel like we’re reaching the end of a long era of the social web. “The feed” as the organizing principle of social media seems to have reached something like its final form: As John Herrman writes at Intel, all of the major social apps have gone through a sort of carcinisation process, evolving separately but nearly identically into the same, perfectly adapted configuration of design and content--i.e., short, attention-grabbing videos from strangers in an endless, barely navigable scroll, into which targeted advertisements can be sold. Twitter may have invented the feed, but TikTok has perfected it:
The big social apps now feel increasingly the same because they’re filled with the same stuff: content their users didn’t ask for made by people they don’t know on platforms they may not even use. Where they used to see posts from people they know, now there are algorithmically suggested videos from somebody made for nobody. […] As a result, we now live in an era of omnipresent cross-platform video chum, churning away in each platform’s little designated TikTok zones and seeping in from their edges and floating up from the bottoms of their feeds. The social giants have become uncanny platforms full of uncanny content; in the process of becoming TikTok but worse, they’ve also become worse versions of whatever they were to begin with.
Now that every major social-media platform has converged on a single business model and strategy--and the result is so obviously annoying and soul-deadening--appealing and differentiating stories (i.e., investor pitches) can be told about other business models and strategies. “Subscription model” is one of those stories: Substack, for example, which recently launched a Twitter-competing feed called “Notes,” loves to tout its distance from the TikTokicized platforms. (Twitter, in turn, has retaliated against Substack by making it impossible to retweet tweets with Substack links, and making it difficult to embed tweets in newsletters.)
While I subscribe to many individual Substacks and Patreons (not to mention news publications and streaming networks), I currently (and very happily) subscribe to only one social network: The movie-tracking-and-review site Letterboxd. (If you’ve never heard of Letterboxd, it’s basically “Goodreads for movies.”) A Letterboxd subscription costs me $20 year; in exchange for my money I’m given a handful of useful features, like notifications when a movie I want to see is added to a streaming service I subscribe to. (And, yes, I am also awarded a good-boy badge indicating that I am a paying customer.) But the real reason I pony up is for a quality beyond straightforward “utility,” a quality I usually refer to as “Doesn’t Make Me Wish I Was Dead.”
What is DMMWIWD? It’s an attribute that exists somewhere between “user experience” or “culture” or “values.” In a limited sense it might be thought of a gloss for “enjoyable”--and Letterboxd is certainly a site that I enjoy using. But maybe the best way to define it is in the negative: DMMWIWD is defined by a lack of an adversarial relationship. Letterboxd is not my enemy, which is more than I can say for most social-media platforms I use; I am not constantly trying to subvert or overcome its design, or to avoid its pitfalls or traps. It works in a mostly transparent way to help me do the thing I want to do (i.e. shitpost about movies and read shitposts about movies), no more and no less.
Tellingly, Letterboxd is an “old-school” (as in, 15 years ago) social network in that, unlike the opaque and anonymous TikTokicized feed, nearly all of what you see is generated by people you have chosen to follow. You see some people you don’t specifically follow, but the paths by which new posts or new users enter your feed are clearly marked: you know who liked or commented on what. And, maybe most importantly, when you have finished reading the posts that you have indicated an interest in seeing, you are not given anything else to do. Your session is over; it’s time to go.
There’s something that feels sort of ironic about this: You would expect a paid product to give you more, but it’s precisely the limitedness of Letterboxd, its lack of an algorithm suggesting new content to me ad infinitum, that makes it feel more valuable to me. This is what it feels like to pay for the product instead of being the product: There is an experience and a service with relatively clear limits that I obtain in exchange for money, rather than a series of traps to avoid or puzzles to solve in exchange for the possibility that I might forget for a few hours at a time all the things that give me anxiety.
I don’t mean to over-praise Letterboxd, which has many problems of poor design and implementation. Nor do I mean to over-disparage TikTok which, despite what Meta and its ilk have done in its name, remains a lively and creative video platform that generally (please note the use of lower-case letters to distinguish the literal/practical characteristic from the rhetorical/formal quality) doesn’t make me wish I was dead. But simply not making a person wish they were dead is insufficient to achieving DMMWIWD; TikTok may be an O.K. way to spend time, but experiences with it are non-adversarial only to the extent that it renders users so completely passive in the face of its endless, uncontrollable feed that there is no plausible avenue for adversarial use.
The overall point here, I guess, is that subscription services (or publications) whose utility is nebulous or minor must rely on DMMWIWD to entice subscribers. (This is Read Max’s entire business model: not making you wish you were dead, for $5/month or $50/year!) But the defining characteristic of the TikTok-style feed is that it eliminates the possibility of DMMWIWD.
Twitter, of course, has not achieved DMMWIWD since 2012 at the absolute latest, and Musk, despite his belief in subscriptions, seems intent on making this worse. The “For You” tab introduced to Twitter by Musk’s team in January isn’t (yet) as video-heavy as its equivalents on Instagram or TikTok, but it seeks to provide the same kind of high-engagement, low-friction, fully passive, bafflingly unnavigable experience. Who would pay for a subscription to this kind of cheap endless feed?2
Of course, it makes sense: while the experience of a Twitter “For You” seems somewhat at odds with the Twitter power user’s experience of the site as a space of densely-knit social entanglements between various different types of neurotics, it is a reasonable if unimaginative strategy for bringing in new users and increasing the kinds of metrics intended to measure “engagement.” Even the most dimwitted private-equity MBA, noticing the format on which all of Twitter’s larger rivals have converged, might suggest this kind of thing.
What I don’t really understand is Musk’s plan to introduce both a TikTok-style “For You” feed while also positioning subscriptions as an existentially important source of revenue for his website. These seem like, functionally, opposite models for a social-media platform. Endlessly forcing new “viral” or “viral-like” content of unclear provenance into a person’s view (most recently with an apparent design change that removed attribution from retweets) is, as Instagram’s “Reels” have shown, an effective strategy for squeezing slightly more attention-blood from the user-stone. But it’s a really terrible one for getting people to pay.
When a number of prominent institutions in news and entertainment, including The New York Times and LeBron James, refused to pony up for Twitter Blue even on pains of losing their verification badges, Twitter simply merged the distinguishing description, so it was no longer possible to tell the difference between “legacy” verified accounts (held by one type of annoying guy) and Twitter Blue verified accounts (held by a different type of annoying guy):
This could be seen as an effort to make Twitter Blue seem like an attractive proposition, by suggesting that your favorite verified accounts in key Twitter influencer categories such as “senile politician,” “horny athlete,” “Russian Embassy,” and “I Think That Guy Used to Be the Social Media Director at a Now-Defunct Media Start-Up Circa 2013? Or Something? I Don’t Actually Remember Why I Follow Him” may have paid for their checks, rather than having been arbitrarily awarded them at some point in the last decade. “Legacy” verified accounts spent the weekend trying to remove the badge so no one would mistake them for being the kind of people who might pay for Twitter Blue. (In the end, only one verified account had its checkmark removed by fiat: The New York Times.)
Who besides, of course, the people who want to be inserted into it. In this sense the better comparison point to Twitter isn’t Letterboxd but LinkedIn, which (as I understand it) promises to boost the reach of your posts if you pay for its subscription service. This whole business model is so alien to me that I cannot even apply the logic of DMMWIWD to it, except to imagine that the kind of people who use LinkedIn as a social (rather than professional) network do not wish they were dead when they use it, and actually enjoy it.