The End of the Honest Internet

Ed Zitron 11 min read

The concept of “free” social networking is a kind of unspoken social-financial contract that only exists as long as operators understand the value that users are creating.

A user posts for “free,” but recognizes that they are a user rather than a customer. While a user might act (or feel) like a customer, that’s nothing but an illusion. Most social networks have one customer — the advertiser. The social-fiscal contract that we accepted was always predicated on the understanding that we were both the user and the used. That our posts were fodder for advertisers, and that our presence would be monetized.

In return, we receive access to a place where we are unrestrained in communication within the boundaries of the Terms of Service, and that beyond our participation, we do not “owe” anyone anything. Most importantly, there’s the understanding that without the (free) contributions of users, the network has no real value — and, indeed, that the network’s most popular and active users are extremely valuable to keeping others on the platform.

Keeping “free” users happy is extremely challenging because you’re not actually giving them anything tangible, yet their presence and contributions provide you with a great deal of value. They are — as Reddit and Facebook have both learned through experience — incredibly sensitive to change, yet expect the levels of polish and sophistication ordinarily found in premium paid-for products.

The problems begin when the person in charge no longer sees the value in their free users, turning into a petty digital landlord that treats the content that other people create as “theirs” and therefore something that they should be able to gatekeep, paywall, or commoditize. Reddit’s changes to its API terms — which killed off popular apps and enraged the community — was the first example I’ve seen of a social network totally forgetting that it needed its users, and that the value of the network (which still needs to compensate its free contributors in some way, even if it’s through “a good site to post on”) is almost entirely driven by its users.

I believe that this is the point that Elon Musk has reached in the last few days. Musk announced Saturday that he was “temporarily” rate-limiting users — with the most onerous limits applied to those who don’t subscribe to Twitter Blue, and those with newly-created accounts.

In practical terms, this meant that users were limited in the amount of Twitter content they could see on their feed (at one point as low as 600 posts in a 24 hour period). Rate-limiting was justified as a way to stop “scraping” from “bad actors” who were “using Twitter to build AI models,” though no real explanation was given beyond Musk’s suggestion that there was a “massive scraping operation originating from Oracle IP addresses,” which could also be explained by someone using Oracle, one of the largest providers of cloud storage in the world.

As with many things Musk has said, this sounds utterly made up. Musk threatened to sue Microsoft for using the Twitter API to train AI back in April (Microsoft had also just dropped Twitter from its advertising platform), a vague attempt to explain the reasoning behind its March announcement that began charging tens of thousands of dollars a month for access to Twitter’s API. April’s threat — and Musk’s sudden interest in scraping and AI — landed within 24 hours of several different articles being published about Reddit’s plan to charge AI models for the use of its content - by which I mean its users’ content - for training purposes.

It’s also worth noting that Musk has a particular gripe with Bellingcat — the award-winning investigative journalism website, which relies overwhelmingly on open-source intelligence (OSINT) to verify and geolocate events occurring in the world’s most febrile conflict zones. Since taking the reins of Twitter, Musk has shadowbanned Bellingcat (at least, temporarily) from search results and denounced the organization as a “psyop”.

For Bellingcat, Twitter is a vital investigative tool. Limiting its access — and that of its employees — to the site would radically hamper its ability to properly monitor and interrogate global events. While I don’t think this was the primary motivation, it’s entirely plausible it was a factor in Musk’s reasoning, given his capricious and vengeful temperament.

Equally plausible is the fact that Twitter’s new CEO Linda Yaccarino, who joined the company officially on June 6, 2023, is not actually that useful.

Yaccarino, the former Chair of Global Advertising at NBCUniversal, has a non-compete clause in her contract with NBCU that constrains her ability to use her industry connections to improve Twitter’s cratering advertising sales, which were down 59% year-over-year back in April according to the New York Times.

While some are suggesting that the most obvious reason for rate-limiting was Musk’s failure to pay his bills, the real one may be far more obvious — that Musk decided he was going to “fix” a problem that had been present for a while, or did not exist. To quote former Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth, scraping “just doesn’t pass the sniff test” to “all of a sudden create such dramatic performance problems,” and it was “the open secret of Twitter data access.”

The rate-limiting system at Twitter (as with many publicly-accessible services) exists to keep the website afloat during periods of high demand. These unexpected peaks have many causes — from the malicious, like a DDoS attack, to the inevitable, like during a global sporting event, to the accidental, like a software component inadvertently flooding another with requests due to a bug. Rate limiting systems are incredibly sensitive at a company the size of Twitter, and changing the amount a client — be they a user, an advertising dashboard, someone using their API, or even internal services that are critical to making Twitter function — can use is an incredibly delicate and dangerous task.

While there’s always a chance that Musk has money problems, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a simpler answer: Musk wanted to stop people “scraping” Twitter, learned what “rate limits” were, and asked for “rate limits to be smaller.” He was then told “sir, if we do this the site will break,” and then when he pushed onward, the site broke.

On Sunday, Molly White — a Harvard Library Innovation Lab fellow and noted Web 3.0 critic — posited that Twitter was “self-DDoSing,” creating a horrifying loop where Twitter’s Tweetdeck client tried to access Twitter’s servers again and again and again. While it’s funny to consider this the consequence of Musk’s failure to pay his bills, it’s far more likely that Musk’s endless, illogical interference (compounded by firing most of the people at the company) caused these problems.

Musk’s ultimate problem is that he does not value any Twitter user that doesn’t pay the company in some way. Those yet to stump up for Twitter Blue are, at best, freeloaders, or at worst, people ideologically opposed to him and everything he stands for. He — like Reddit’s Steve Huffman — believes Twitter to be the owner of the content on Twitter, and that those using Twitter should be grateful that they get to access the website at all. As Yoel Roth said, “…they should never forget that it’s not *their* data - its (sic) ours.”

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Free Bird

Ryan Broderick put it best. Twitter’s popularity comes from the feeling — real or imagined (this is my addition) — that you were capable of affecting culture. Twitter is a place where you can interact with friends, family, enemies, celebrities, crushes and comrades — a “free” melting pot where people share too much and talk informally and formally and everywhere in between. The content created and shared on Twitter is what advertisers sell against, and what makes you and I come back to the website.

We do not come back because of the features of Twitter Blue, nor do we come back for 25,000-character tweets. We do not use Twitter so that we can send payments, or “hang out” with friends, or watch hours-long HD video. Hey, whatever happened to phone calls in the app? Also why did we ever need that?

Twitter’s unique selling point is the fact that it is about as close to “living” online as one can get. You can log on and there are people there babbling away, some of them you know, some of them you don’t. Anyone can share their thoughts — for better or for worse — on whatever they like, at high speed, to a theoretically large audience, or even a small community of followers that they’ve grown. The firehose of content that Twitter provides is its value — the ability to check the temperature of those you know or know of or care about, and to see their reactions to things as they happen.

There is no other social network that lets you hang out with this large a group of people at once, and I do not believe that Zuckerberg’s pseudo-Twitter will be able to capture that magic. Don’t worry. We’ll touch on Meta Threads later.

The point is, Musk is an entitled, ignorant oaf, bumbling into a fragile internet ecosystem and breaking things as he tries to find any way to make Twitter money other than those it has proven to be successful at.

He has hired an advertising executive who isn’t allowed to be an advertising executive to theoretically run a company that he refuses to stop interfering with. His dream is rent-seeking — to directly monetize as many users as possible — without the understanding that Twitter’s success came from the majority of the experience being free. He believes that he can somehow monetize Twitter’s data by selling it to AI companies without any real understanding of the economics of doing so.

Is this something that makes Twitter a billion dollars a year? Is this a real business plan, or just another idea that a halfwit with too much money has conjured up after learning as little as possible about the functions of the website he bought?

He also, somehow, believes that Twitter can become “the everything app,” much like WeChat is in China. For those unfamiliar, WeChat is best explained as a hybrid messaging-fintech app, where you can wish your mother a happy birthday and pay your electric bill in the same place.  A Twitter transformed by this vision is a place where we can live — and pay to live — under his quixotic and capricious eye. He wants every user to send him money, and be thankful that they’re allowed to.

Elon Musk does not understand Twitter. He never has, and thus doesn’t realize that the way to make Twitter more profitable would’ve been to improve the free experience. More people using your website that makes money on advertising and spending more time on said website means more advertising revenue. It would also, ironically, make Twitter Blue a more tempting prospect, because, let’s face it, who wants to subscribe to unlock premium features on a website that’s both fundamentally broken and on a seemingly-unstoppable downward trajectory?

Instead, he’s trying to squeeze every dollar from every user he can through increasingly desperate measures, making the site slower and uglier while allowing the worst people alive to thrive.

A New Nope

So, what’s the alternative? The earliest months of Musk’s reign as CEO of Twitter inspired — or, at the very least, bolstered — a flock of would-be replacements, from the decentralized chaos of the Mastodonverse, to more traditional (and thus, approachable) alternatives like Bluesky and, to a much lesser extent, Post.

And now there’s Meta Threads, which has achieved incredible short-term success in the 24 hours since it first launched, already attracting over 30m sign-ups. On one hand, Threads is potentially poised to replace Twitter as the microblogging king. Whereas Bluesky (which operates with a comparatively-shoestring budget) is throttling registrations to meet demand, Meta can throw billions into scaling Threads. There’s also the fact that Meta boasts billions of users across Facebook and Instagram, who can be easily directed to the company’s new social platform.

The problem with Threads is that Zuckerberg — and Meta, for that matter — is terrible at product development. Threads is a messy, ugly app, with one extremely aggressive algorithmic feed that floods you with influencers asking questions like “what’s everyone up to?” and accounts that aggregate memes. You may occasionally see someone you follow, but they’re quickly drowned out by people you don’t know making the least-astute points a person has ever made. And no, there is no feed just for the people you follow, and while Adam Mosseri has said that one is coming, I am not holding my breath.

The platonic ideal of a text-based social network is one of network effects — the sense that you choose who to follow, and show those following you what you like or find funny or find interesting. In turn, these people follow the people you’re sharing the content of, which is what makes it “your” feed — that you are saying “I want content from these people, and I’m interested in what they think is interesting.” And by showing tweets in chronological order, you suddenly were able to get the temperature of the world at a glance.

Twitter grew from this relatively simple network effect, monetizing it by showing ads by tweets, realizing that interfering with people’s choices (and their own personal filter bubbles) was anathema — as proven by how deeply unpopular the “For You” feed is on Twitter.

Threads feels like what a network entirely made up of Twitter Blue users would look like — cretins obsessed with “engagement” and “metrics,” who do not want to communicate with others so much as they want to juice “impressions of their content.” Zuckerberg aggressively recruited influencers to the platform before launch in an attempt to convince normal people it was “cool,” not realizing that the reason that people use Twitter is because they are, at least in theory, exactly the same as a celebrity or influencer.

Twitter (and any text-based network) is interesting because of the sense — imagined or otherwise — that what people are sharing is real, and the things you are reading are relatively stream of consciousness, or at least stream of chronology. Gordon Ramsey asking what lamb sauce to use followed by a 42-year-old McDonald's social media expert saying “I need nuggies rn” followed by a tweet (or whatever the hell we’re calling a Thread post) about the book Atomic Habits followed by maybe a post or two from your friends serves absolutely no utility. Threads’ feed is entirely built for flooding potential customers with marketing collateral with the vague suggestion that at one point your friend might get involved, just like Instagram and Facebook.

Threads lacks any of the magic of a new social network because it already built its own caste system. If you had a big Instagram following, it automatically guaranteed you a big Threads following, except the biggest accounts on Instagram do not produce the kind of content that makes a network like Threads interesting to use. Twitter’s value was that your thoughts could theoretically stand toe-to-toe with a celebrity or influencer’s. By cramming popular accounts into the network from day one, Meta has decided who will be popular.

This isn’t a fun place to communicate, shoot the shit with friends or catch up on the news — it’s a swamp of “content” made by people who have divorced themselves from human interaction, interspersed with regular people questioning why they’re interacting with it in the first place.

Zuckerberg, just like Musk, has assumed that the value of the network is in what the network provides you, rather than the network being a tool for users to interact with other users. Even if Threads creates a following-only feed, there will be little reason to decamp from Twitter, because the current experience of using the platform is so patently vile that I doubt anyone contributing anything thoughtful or interesting sticks around.

Threads is exactly the same product as Instagram in that you can only enjoy it in the way that Mark Zuckerberg wants. It is not built for people to interact or communicate — it borders on a one-way communication channel where users piss into the void in the hopes that anybody sees their stuff, a thoughtless MacGuffin built by one billionaire to try and sweep the leg from under another.

When Twitter and Instagram launched, people were not primed for what a social network was. Users did not join with the intent of “building followings” or “content creation.” Influencer was a term, but it was not a term that people instantly gravitated toward from day one. Twitter was exciting because it felt raw — almost accidentally honest — and the way that famous or notable people acted didn’t feel like they were following a content marketing calendar. Its chaotic form meant that accounts like Dril and other shitposters were completely at home amid the marketing chum, workplace chatter, complaining, or candid posts from senior lawyers admitting to killing a fox while enrobed in a kimono.

Threads is built to attract people that are concerned about “influence” versus any kind of authentic conversation, and it suffers greatly as a result.

Perhaps we are simply approaching the end of the honest internet, where the magic of happenstance is being squeezed out as financial interests find ways to dominate real human conversation.

Threads isn’t built for you to talk to other people — it’s built to inject insipid “content” into your life and interfere with as much of the human experience as possible. Perhaps it’s because Zuckerberg already saw how unprofitable Twitter is and decided the only way to do this would be to make a significantly worse experience.

More fundamentally, Threads isn’t a social network. It’s a marketing channel for the least-interesting people on Earth. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a text-based Instagram — a mediocre algorithmic nightmare of content slop that barely resembles entertainment.

And I can’t wait for it to fail.

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