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I used to write 5 second reviews that were just about the same size as Twitter posts. For example, here are my reviews of left- and right-wing politics:

A liberal knows exactly what’s right for you and is eager to conduct a grand social experiment to prove themselves wrong.

A conservative … optimistically believes “it’s always been done this way” because someone in the past hit upon the best possible solution. (Of course, that person must have been a liberal.)

Predictably my experiment in micro-blogging failed to produce much engagement. Turns out the magic of Twitter isn’t SMS-length posts, but “unfortunately, as you probably already know, people”. Not just your friends, but seemingly everybody. And that means you can’t predict what will happen when you publish. (I gave a talk about how powerful that sort of feedback can be.)

What really kicked Twitter into high gear was that you could mention LeBron James and LeBron James might respond! Or maybe someone from his PR firm. That’s not important though. What’s important is that you can show your friends that LeBron James responded to you! Considering the bizarre things celebrities do on Twitter, it could very well be LeBron James himself and that’s kinda awesome.

But people being people, some of the accounts that look like celebrity accounts turned out to be people who grabbed the celebrity’s name for a handle. In response celebrities sometimes added “real” to their name in order to create a handle, which didn’t really help. So Twitter came up with the simple solution of “verifying” celebrity accounts. And that pretty much solved the problem. :ballot_box_with_check: = an official account.

Only, there are still people involved. So Twitter needed to decide who could get a checkmark and who would be denied. You might imagine they’d give it to anyone. Just send a copy of your ID and we’ll add this mark that proves you are who you say you are. But that’s a lot of work and so Twitter just handed out checkmarks to people they could easily verify. Presumably they reached out to LeBron’s agent and made sure they verified the right Twitter account.

I don’t think Twitter understood what they’d created, but the checkmark became a prestige symbol. LeBron needs a checkmark because people were impersonating him. I don’t need a checkmark because I’m a nobody who is not at risk of being impersonated. Unless. . . I managed to become an important person! The final piece to the puzzle is that people couldn’t quite work out what criteria Twitter used, but it clearly had something to do with getting a lot of followers and engagement.

You might be the guy who got a checkmark because he got 3 million retweets for posting:


Even if you think all this sounds a bit idiotic, the symbolism can be incredibly powerful. For the most online crowd, having a Twitter checkmark was the ultimate sign you’d made it. It was valuable.

To summarize:

  1. Twitter got value from having celebrities around to (potentially) engage with normies.
  2. In order to protect that value, Twitter gave celebrities a special mark to prove they are who they say they are.
  3. Twitter also awarded the mark to normies if they managed to get a lot of followers or engagement.

While it’s clear that people derived value from the system, it’s never been clear how Twitter could extract that value as revenue. Ads, of course, but there has to be more. Right?

The answer, as it turns out, was the Greater Fool. Elon Musk bought the entire company for $44 billion.

This post is theoretically a “review” of Twitter. If I were reviewing pre-Elon Twitter, I think I’d give it 3 :star: Satisfied. There’s something sorta wonderful about a place where LeBron James and a guy who begged Wendy’s for a year of free chicken nuggets are given the same award in recognition of their achievement. More of that and less of “we’re Tweeting to save the world” and I’d be a lot happier about the whole thing.

But we are in the Greater Fool timeline where LeBron James posts:

Welp guess my blue :heavy_check_mark: will be gone soon cause if you know me I ain’t paying the 5. :man_shrugging:t5:

This is what we in the business call a world-class troll. We’ve arrived at the point where Elon thinks it’s a good idea to charge the most frugal man in the NBA $8 a month. “Paying the 5” doesn’t refer to the cost of being verified, but to an episode of Martin Lawrence’s show in which he refuses to pay a $5 increase in his rent. It’s hard to see any way that LeBron benefits from the check mark. Other companies pay him millions of dollars to pretend to use their product and Twitter got him to authentically use their product for free.

Elon responded by comping the subscription cost for several celebrities. That’s . . . not a win. If you have a product that costs as little as $8 and a billionaire publicly declines to pay the price, maybe don’t draw more attention to the situation. I’m not sure how CEOs could lack a basic understanding of behavioral economics, but Elon is not alone in this.

In spite of all this discussion of celebrity and checkmarks, my problem with the new Twitter is the utter incompetence of the new CEO when it comes to community management. It offends my professional sensibilities. You never know when he’ll do something off the rails like hobbling posts that link to a competitor.

Of course that’s also why I stick around. Everybody understands the sick attraction of watching a train wreck. But imagine what it must be like for railroad experts to watch one preventable accident after another. There’s a feeling of utter helplessness, but also morbid curiosity. The good news is that the running string of Twitter disasters is mostly only going to hurt people invested in Twitter. Honestly, most of us would be better off just giving it up.

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