After a seven-month saga, and a visit to Twitter HQ carrying a bathroom sink, Elon Musk now owns Twitter.
In April, digital rights experts warned of the dangers of online spaces being subject to the whims of billionaires. Many have expressed concern that under Musk’s leadership, online safety, public debate and democratic participation on Twitter may falter, while there is fear that misinformation and hate speech will rise.
But Twitter is about more than just news and politics. It’s also a place for culture, creativity and community. Digital platforms wouldn’t be worth anything without those who populate them with content, so what are Musk’s proposed changes going to mean for creative industries?
After quickly firing executives and among fears he might reinstate Donald Trump’s account, Musk announced the first major change to Twitter less than a week after acquiring it: users will have to pay for the blue check.
“Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit” Musk tweeted. “Power to the people! Blue for $8/month.”
Nothing says “power to the people” quite like paying Twitter’s new feudal overlord your monthly dues. It may just be the epitome of modern capitalism that Musk can create a wealth hierarchy for something that was previously free, and call it populist. It is also darkly ironic that a billionaire whose company has blocked efforts by employees to unionise is claiming to be a man of the people.
In addition to a blue checkmark, Musk has promised that those who are willing (and able) to fork out for the privilege will also receive “priority in replies, mentions & search”. Musk claims that this will “give Twitter a revenue stream to reward content creators”.
It’s tempting to laugh at the absurdity of this suggestion, and content creators themselves were quick to point out the logical shortcomings of requiring them to pay a fee based on a feeble promise that they might be rewarded later.
For anyone who isn’t chronically on Twitter, the blue tick is only available to “verified” users – anyone can apply to be verified, but you have to meet certain requirements, including being “authentic, notable and active”. Over the years, the blue check has become perceived as a status symbol, but it’s also an important misinformation prevention measure, and a way to prevent trolls from impersonating famous people online. It wasn’t a perfect system, but undermining the verification process by putting a price tag on it will undermine trust, and ultimately lead to an increase in misinformation, with possibly drastic outcomes for safety both online and off. It certainly won’t help creators.
Musk is also reportedly planning on launching “Paywalled Video” to let people charge a fee to access video content, with Twitter taking a cut. It has been reported the team working on it have flagged it as high risk, citing issues with copyright, safety and legal compliance. None of these risks serve creators in the long run. But Musk’s Twitter charges forward, and is slated to launch within two weeks. It’s very “move fast and break things” a la Facebook of the early 2000s.
It’s likely this feature would be used for adult content, especially given Twitter has historically been one of the most friendly platforms for nudity and consensual pornography. In theory, this could be a big step in supporting sex workers and adult content creators. But there’s concern that Musk could turn out to be a perfidious friend, only an ally to marginalised creators as long as it might make him a buck.
Paying for verification and for video content would mark a significant shift for Twitter and its relationship to content creators. But in the off-chance that these ideas work, an increase in profit for Musk does not necessarily translate to supporting creative and cultural workers, nor general users. In fact, if the other major (and more profitable) social media platforms are anything to go by, it’s more likely that Twitter under Musk’s leadership will find yet another way to wedge itself between audiences and creative or media workers to capture the value that flows between them.
This is an issue that Digital Rights Watch has been actively considering in a recent community-based research project examining the imbalances of power in the internet economy. After talking with people across creative and cultural fields, we found that the growing power and profit of big tech platforms is undermining creative industries, rather than empowering and liberating people in creative industries as was promised in the early days of the internet.
One participant in the research, Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Eilish Gilligan, said that “digital platforms get so much value from the contributions of artists and creators – it’s what makes them vibrant and interesting. And while the platforms are making billions in profit off the backs of creative workers, the artists themselves are left without a livable wage.”
Despite Musk enthusiastically tweeting “Creators need to make a living!”, does anyone really think that the richest man in the world cares about supporting creatives?
Given that Musk needs to come up with about $950m in annual interest on the debt he accrued when buying the company, it’s hard to imagine how his priorities will be anything other than economic.
Digital platforms are the essential social infrastructure of modern life, and the cultural content that populates them is what makes them interesting and worthwhile. Rather than hoping Musk will pass on some crumbs to creators, we need to start strongly considering what publicly controlled platforms might look like. Why should we willingly let yet another billionaire build his own nightmare playground to exert power and control? We deserve to have a real say in shaping how online spaces work, and who they work for.