The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Misery may love company, but it’s tough for Twitter to monetize

The Twitter logo appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Nov. 29. (Richard Drew/AP)

Twitter’s stock-in-trade is misery. Mind you, that’s not the company’s exclusive line; the service does have its heartwarming moments. But the main attraction is its firehose feed of awfulness: Terrible news. Viral outrages. Mobs calling for the sacking of some distant stranger. Performative “dunking” on political enemies by people who appear to be reliving middle school.

Users are constantly threatening to exit this demoralizing stew, though they rarely follow through. Instead, they nurse wistful hopes that somehow, Twitter will stop being so terrible.

Those hopes were refreshed Monday morning, when we learned that Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, had resigned. My social media feeds overflowed with suggestions of how Twitter’s new leader, Parag Agrawal, could fix all the problems users complain about. But in replacing Dorsey, the board wasn’t looking for someone who could make Twitter users happy — it’s unclear anyone could. The board wanted someone to make money for shareholders.

Those two problems are linked, of course. But there’s no guarantee that fixing one will resolve the other. Indeed, there’s no guarantee that either really has a solution.

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Pause a moment and reflect just how odd a business Twitter really is. In one respect, it is by far the most influential social media service, commanding astonishing mindshare among powerful elites. The media is obsessed with it. Corporations cringe before its outrage campaigns. Donald Trump used it to end-run all the usual political gatekeepers and make himself president.

But as a business, it’s close to a flop. Some 80 percent of tweets are produced by only 10 percent of users — and even the most avid participants seem to loathe its main product. Listening to Twitter users talk about the platform is like listening to addicts in recovery: They log on seeking a dopamine rush of outrage, and leave feeling exhausted and awful, yet always go back for more.

This is not an addiction with wide appeal, at least compared with other social media. The number of active monthly users appears to have stalled (the company stopped reporting them in 2019), though the number of “monetizable daily active users” has increased by almost a third since the beginning of 2020.

Yet the company isn’t actually monetizing those users all that well, even though its demographic — young, educated and affluent — should be highly desirable. Twitter’s share of the digital ad market is tiny compared with giants such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, and its revenue growth is inferior to its smaller competitor Snap. Since going public in 2012, Facebook’s stock has soared almost ninefold. Twitter, which went public a year later, has … not even doubled.

That’s not surprising when you consider the nature of the Twitter feed. Little text snippets aren’t a great way to sell products, especially when they’re constantly drowned out by other, newer snippets. Then there’s the nature of those other snippets: As writer and analyst Ben Thompson points out, where Instagram is aspirational, Twitter is informational. And the information Twitter emphasizes tends to make people angry and upset — not the best mood in which to sell them your product.

Thompson, among others, suggests that ads are a dead end for Twitter. Instead, the company could switch to a subscriber model, making the most of its devoted (or addicted) user base. New York University business school professor Scott Galloway argues that moving to a subscription model, at least for accounts with lots of followers, could fix much of what ails both the company and its users: give Twitter a stable source of recurring revenue, and relieve the need to drive engagement and ad impressions with polarizing negative content.

It’s an attractive idea. There’s a notable difference between the tone and type of content produced by subscriber-supported publications (including The Post) and the hot-take clickbait once churned out by the yard at publications dependent on ad impressions.

That said, during the Trump era, my industry did very well off of an endless stream of outrage-of-the-day pieces. The prose might have been a little more sober, and the reporting a lot deeper, than those of the click farms, but we were feeding the same basic appetites, and not necessarily more nutritiously.

Will it be any different for an anger machine such as Twitter? Reorienting the company toward paying users would focus the company on serving their needs, rather than hordes of fake accounts or anonymous trolls. But how much better would we really behave on such a service? Don’t we keep going back because we love the misery, if not the company?

If, as I suspect, the answer is yes, one question remains: How many people would pay to be constantly agonized by an algorithm? Conceivably, demand for misery might prove as inelastic as for any other addictive drug. But it’s also possible that a move toward subscriptions might finally give Twitter’s addicts what they say they really want: the push they need to quit.

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