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Journalism and the subversion of social media
Future News 153: Turning a f***ing tanker!
Why was Twitter taken private? Because it had to – because the changes Elon Musk would have to make would spook the sometimes fickle and often reactionary public markets. Elon knew this and he told the world about it well before he started making vast changes to the social media platform.
The billionaire had been through it all with NASDAQ-listed Tesla, where he found himself in hot water with regulators and shareholders when he infamously claimed in August 2018 that he was going to take the company private at $420 per share.
Here’s what Musk told the SEC and everyone else who was paying attention in April 2022:
“I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.
“However, since making my investment I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”
More than a year after this filing and over six months since Elon took over the reins at Twitter for a cool $44bn, we now very much get the sense of the changes that he had in mind.
Mass layoffs (1,500 employees are left from a high of 8,000), unbannings, the removal of ‘legacy’ verification badges as Twitter Blue was pushed more aggressively, Twitter’s free API service came to an end and an ad-share model with creators was unveiled.
The platform has also been merged into the mysteriously named X Corp, which has reportedly purchased thousands of high-powered processors, GPUs, in order to build a generative machine-learning system.
Meanwhile, Elon is still looking to appoint a new CEO of Twitter by the end of 2023 (unless he’s still content with appointing his dog to the position). The transition away from Parag Agrawal’s regime has been fast, sometimes chaotic (at least looking in from the outside) and, overall, exciting.
As Elon recently conceded to the BBC’s North America technology reporter James Clayton, “it’s not been boring…it’s been quite a rollercoaster.” And in the entrepreneur's defence, Twitter only occasionally turned a profit and he’s ‘in the middle of turning a f***ing tanker,’ to quote Succession’s Logan Roy.
Though Elon claims the vast majority of advertisers had returned to spending on the platform and cash-flows could turn positive in the next financial quarter, uncertainty and anxiety continues to surround Twitter.
NPR and PBS had enough last week, suspending their operations on the platform. Likewise, the BBC had to publicly lobby Twitter to re-think its labelling of the broadcaster as ‘government funded’, reigniting a debate around the enforcement of the licence fee in the process. The New York Times, however, will be staying put.
The perennial question for journalists on Twitter is where else can you go? Many have spent more than a decade building up their social graph on the platform, but they can’t take it with them.
The natural crossover was Substack, but Twitter made moves to limit the interoperability between the platforms and then seemed to relax its new restrictions.
With the launch of Notes, Substack is being accused of copying Twitter, while Elon’s platform could be accused of emulating both Substack, with a new 10,000 character-long limit on posts, and YouTube, since Twitter Blue subscribers can now share 60-minute-long 1080p videos.
Substack’s CEO has flatly denied the claims, hitting back at Elon to The Verge: “We think writers should be able to freely share their work. It’s one thing to react to us. It’s another thing to kind of take it out on writers, many of whom are your own users,” Chris Best said.
Top Silicon Valley VC Andreessen Horowitz is stuck in the middle since it’s an investor in both Twitter and Substack. “We’re talking throughout all of this,” Best said when he was pressed on Marc Andreessen’s own involvement. Independent journalists like Matt Taibbi, who worked with Elon on the Twitter Files, were more vocal on the issue. Taibbi would quit Twitter for Truth Social (at least for the time being).
The initial launch of Notes, meanwhile, saw a flurry of self-promotion, with fellow Substackers sharing their most recent posts and plugging their newsletters.
The move comes after the company launched a crowdfunding round in March and effectively conceded that its pre-money valuation has dropped 10% to $585m when compared to 2021. When I pressed co-founder Hamish McKenzie and Substack for an answer on shareholders rights, I was met with silence.
This raises more questions about Substack’s overall cash-burn and, overall, without further backing from institutional investors, how long can the show go on for?
This is especially true amid the ongoing tough macroeconomic environment, with inflation concerns still surrounding every major financial deal.
Of course, this does make Substack a potentially attractive M&A target. Could a media business which doesn’t have a strong newsletter footprint come and snap it up? Or could we see Twitter and Elon go in for the kill? It is meant to be the year of M&A deals after all.
On the decentralised side of social media, federated platform Mastodon hasn’t posted on its official blog since December 2022, when it announced the sharing of its links on Twitter were banned and its account on the platform was suspended.
But it has been unbanned sometime since then, posting Mastodon links as late as 13 April when Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo joined the platform. The New Scientist and ZDNet have published favourable recent pieces on Mastodon, but otherwise mainstream media coverage and general interest of the platform has substantially fallen in the first half of 2023 after reaching an all-time high in November.
Elsewhere there is Minds, which launched in 2015 and has more than five million members. I only came across the platform after hearing founder Bill Ottman on the Joe Rogan podcast the other day.
This was his third appearance on the show and Ottman explained that Minds wasn’t fully decentralised, the platform is very much focused on free speech and the moderation on Minds is very light. These are the problems the organisation claims to be solving:
Rampant censorship and algorithmic bias
Excessive centralisation of power
Invasive surveillance techniques
Severe lack of transparency
Flawed economic models
Polarising, addicting and toxic online behaviour
Moving back to the centralised world, Post, another alternative to Twitter which specifically focuses on ‘premium publishers’, launched publicly this month.
The platform has some stringent rules in a bid to foster ‘high-quality conversations’. Outlets will eventually be able to generate revenues through micropayments on Post, a long-held ambition of publishers on social media.
Andreessen Horowitz also backs Post, which is run out of New York by former Google executive Noam Bardin alongside 40 other employees. It’s very early stages for the company, with bosses looking to hire a team of new engineers.
On the more established end of the social media scale, the Twitter-Substack row gave some much-needed respite to TikTok following a bruising encounter between its CEO in America and the US Congress.
Shou Zi Chew was grilled by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce at the end of March on child safety, data sharing and usage and the app’s relationship with its parent company ByteDance.
Governments and politicians across the Five Eyes Intelligence alliance, including the UK, the US, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, have been advised to delete the app from their devices. The BBC has urged its staff to make a similar move, despite the corporation having one of the fastest growing followings on the platform.
Despite the rampant drama in some areas of the social media industry, the biggest platforms, namely Facebook (and its sister platform Instagram) and YouTube, are enjoying a relatively peaceful first half of the year.
UK media watchdog OfCom published its latest consumption survey in March, finding that 80% of all adults in the country used YouTube, while 93% of youngsters (16 to 24-year-olds) used the Big Red Button.
Notably, this was higher than Instagram (91%), Snapchat (88%) and TikTok (85%). And with the roll-out of its Shorts vertical since September 2020, YouTube is hoping to fend off its rivals and peers in the short-video space.
If you are after certainty and growth, YouTube looks like a great horse to back. Twitter, on the other hand, is currently offering up all the thrills and spills you might find at your local casino – it’s exciting, but sometimes a bit scary at times.
The Mail on Sunday Saves The Day
Talking of gambling and horses, the UK held its most famous race over the weekend, The Grand National. Hosted in the outskirts of Liverpool at The Aintree Racecourse, protestors were able to delay the race by running onto the track, climbing fences and attempting to glue themselves to all-manner of objects.
Police and track security were quick to deal with them after the Mail on Sunday was able to infiltrate the group of ‘eco-zealots,’ as the paper dubbed them. With more than 100 arrests, the outlet declared victory:
“This newspaper exclusively revealed two weeks ago how activists from the campaign group Animal Rising, which was previously called Animal Rebellion, planned to use ladders and bolt cutters to storm security fences, then glue themselves together as a human barricade and sit across the course.
“We discovered that ringleaders had already conducted two secret reconnaissance missions of the racecourse to pinpoint security weaknesses and were organising a network of safe houses to accommodate protesters before the race.”
The BBC’s Big ‘HR Exercise’
Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted another coup for the MoS after it revealed that BBC News bosses had sent letters to senior presenters with the offer of taking up voluntary redundancy packages. The piece concentrated on the BBC’s chief presenter Huw Edwards and Sophie Raworth, who will both headline the corporation’s coverage of King Charles’ Coronation in May.
Edwards took to Twitter on Sunday afternoon to play down the reports: “Reality check. A standard HR exercise by @BBCNews (one of many over the years) is just that. A standard invitation to consider applying for voluntary redundancy. Nothing more.”
Remembering A Great Innovator
To coincide with the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which has brought relative peace to Northern Ireland, Channel 4 aired Alison Millar’s documentary, Lyra. The film is based on Lyra McKee who was shot and killed during rioting in Derry on 19 April 2019.
Having worked with Lyra over the years on several small projects, including The Muckraker blog, she was a great innovator and connector who was one of life’s great optimists. Though she decided to base herself in Derry for personal reasons, she had a score of connections, friends and supporters in London and the rest of the UK.
Having looked back through our messages over the years, Lyra was no fan of VCs investing in news media operations, despite my arguments to the contrary, and she always had something nice to say about someone in the media industry. She would also try and inevitably link you up with one of her journalistic connections.
How would Lyra have reacted to the unprecedented joint statement between the DUP, Sinn Féin, UUP, SDLP, Alliance Party and Green Party condemning her death? She would have issued a Freedom of Information Act request to each party to find out how much public money they spent on it.
Birmingham City University continues to hold an annual memorial lecture in her name, while the Centre for Investigative Journalism established its own bursary scheme to remember Lyra in 2019. You can check out some of Lyra’s writings on journalism here via The Online Journalism Blog.