What a year you’ve had. Not just, you know, The Purchase. But the fall from grace. The Personal Brand Damage. On your own platform, thousands are even speculating whether the idiotic Ed Norton character in Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion is based on you.
As 2022 draws to a close and 2023 begins, you are no doubt giving some thought to a Re-Boot. A way to shut up the radically-expanded universe of people that now feel free to second-guess your every move.
Let’s see if we can’t help shut ’em up.
If you’ve learned one thing from your Twitter adventure this year — other than the benefits of negotiating such a sweet package from Tesla that the rest of this, well, doesn’t really matter that much to you—it’s what commentators round the world are now saying they realized all along.
To wit, it now seems clearer than ever that Twitter’s fundamental flaw lies in its combination of two things that have never co-existed easily in the Twitterers: relatively free public discourse, with all the nastiness that can entail, and a business model based on advertising by nastiness-averse brands.
This suggests, as of late 2022, and in your own eyes, that it can only have two futures: one, as a relatively unfettered free speech venue paid for primarily by users, and, two, as what it had become up until your half-cocked bid to control it: a relatively-moderated free service supported by general awareness marketing, which is to say, by the biggest and most conservative (in the small ‘c’ sense) of organizations, well-known companies.
But what if there was a third way? What if Twitter decided to re-model itself not as a full-service micro-blogging offering with one-size-fits-all rules for users, but as an underlying technology platform that hosts a number of gateway providers, which regulate access and each set their own payment and rules (including none at all), so long as their users are compliant with local laws?
Gateway models works for payments systems all over the world, as well as various other kinds of services from telephony to the Internet itself.
Here’s how this might work:
- Twitter gets out of the direct-to-consumer business. Instead, it adopts a purely B2B model whereby it provides access to its platform to other companies — call them ‘Flocks’, though surely a creative marketer can come up with a better name — who in turn provide access to individuals.
- A Flock purchases a resellable access license from Twitter, perhaps priced based on bandwidth, assuming liability from the posting activities of its users, and heeding the laws of the land/lands in which it operates. Twitter might simply offer a pay as you go model, taking say 20% of a Flock’s revenues — along the lines of social media’s most recent breakout hit, OnlyFans.
- Each Flock is then in the business of turning a profit, either by charging users for an ad-free service, or by delivering ads that target the particular demographics it serves (say, young moms, coastal elites, or Die-Hard MAGAs), or selling user data, or some combination of the above. (Unlike Twitter itself, it can gather demographic data in the sign-up process in return for free access.)
- Is there a risk one or two Flocks come to dominate the whole platform, reaching a scale whereby it can price others off it? Possibly — but very possibly not, especially if Twitter were to run the initial or periodic bandwidth auctions in such a way as to maximize its own profits, which it might decide means encouraging competition, giving its best prices to smaller bidders.
- Members/users who get access through Flock A would see all of each other’s Tweets (or whatever they might call them, but why mess with the one bit that’s working?) (note to rising Twitter competitor Mastadon — not ‘Toots’). Or the Flock were to give them the option of blocking certain types of content, like the popular Block Party app — or from other Flocks. This would have the natural advantage of avoiding material from, say, Flock B that they don’t want to see (e.g. porn, or a certain brand of extreme politics).
- What if a user wants to see everything, trolls and all? That depends on the different users each Flock markets itself to. Like-minded Flocks could also cut deals with each other, allowing access to their users (and even advertisers) in return for access to another’s — much as two individuals with different phone providers are able to call each other. Some — for example, one that had traction with a certain group of celebrities, who are verified and do not have to see advertising — might charge for this access. Other Flocks could choose whether to pay, or pass the costs along to their users as a premium service — again, no hard and fast rules, whatever the market will bear, as long as it’s legal.
- Meanwhile, Twitter gets to sit back and focus on the core of its offering — tech, not user rules or advertiser relations — maintaining its network with fewer people, or perhaps a group of developers who come up with new modalities that could be rolled out to interested Flock companies, or decide whether or not to support service variations their customers, the gateway providers, might develop.
This model has one thing above all to recommend it: it keeps both governments (not your best friends these days), and what has come to look like a natural monopoly, Twitter itself, out of the business of defining a speech code that works for everyone.
It would allow for the creation of, in the form of individual consumers grouping together with different view preferences, a true market for free speech. A disgruntled former US President, to take one example (random, of course!), could incite his or her followers to questionable activities — or a group of journalists should decide to bury a story (random!!) — and Twitter as the underlying platform doesn’t need to worry about taking responsibility for either, or blowback from taking any kind of action.
All that would fall upon the Flocks/access companies, each of which could deal with the risk of lawsuits (criminal or civil), in whatever ways it wishes.
If one Flock chose to allow a particularly controversial Twitter storm — say a potentially libellous accusation against a public figure — the other Flocks could choose, based on their own brands and commitments to their users, whether or not to display it. Flock B could ban a troublesome user, and Flocks C or D could decide whether or not to take that user on instead. A Flock that took on the most controversial types might struggle to attract advertising, and rely entirely on user fees — though this might limit their own size and make it difficult to run a successful business.
At the end of the day, speech of whatever kind is an output that the speaker wishes to have consumed: that is, a product.
Some might be so interesting, particularly the thoughts of celebrities like yourself (maybe start an Elon Flock?) as to attract wide, general audiences, who will either pay up directly or accept some level of interruption marketing to receive the service for free (YouTube is doing very well offering this option).
Other products might be so toxic — those that encourage hatred against an ethnic group — as to be illegal: the proverbial equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater. In extremis, this might be enough to get a Flock kicked off the platform by Twitter itself.
But now the dispute is between two companies regarding compliance with the law and their own contract — far more manageable than having to do so with millions.
Others might only appeal to a limited audience that many find objectionable— think OnlyFans’s adult entertainers, many of whom cater to obscure fetishes — and put off advertisers: but have such great value to its audience that high fees and limited distribution to other services.
The final point to recommend such a model is that it would allow you to achieve what your were hoping to build (a public square with greater openness to free speech and more product innovation) with what you and your creditors need (a healthy, growing business) and what the world needs: a place to communicate, and learn, and make life better.
That’s the idea, Elon. Yours for what you paid for it. Good luck, and don’t let this interfere with a good night’s sleep.
You only have the future of free speech counting on you.