Twitter has never understood the Creator Economy
The real incentive that keeps creators glued to any particular platform is its ability to help them make money.
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Twitter has never understood the Creator Economy
From the very moment Elon Musk announced he was buying Twitter, we’ve been bombarded with predictions about how he would change the product, but it wasn’t until after the deal closed last week that his plans for the platform began to take shape. And what’s his first priority right out of the gate? Charging power users somewhere between $96 and $240 a year to keep their blue verification check marks.
I was surfing Twitter when the news broke, so I got to see the eruption firsthand: thousands of verified users immediately declared that they would never pay for such a service, especially since it undermined the very reason verification existed in the first place.
What interested me most was another line of criticism against the decision, one best articulated by the writer Susan Orlean: “Ummmm shouldn’t Twitter be paying US since we provide ALL THE CONTENT.” Nate Silver had a more acerbic version of the same take: “I'm probably the perfect target for this, use Twitter a ton, can afford $20/mo, not particularly anti-Elon, but my reaction is that I've generated a ton of valuable free content for Twitter over the years and they can go fuck themselves.”
This points to a problem that plagues not only Twitter, but also most of the other large social media platforms that were founded sometime between the mid-to-late aughts — they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the value exchange between creators and platforms.
Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram believe that their value lies in their product features, and that the key to prolonged user growth is to simply keep rolling out new bells and whistles that will improve the user experience. But while those features did help in attracting the first wave of users to these platforms, they eventually produced diminishing returns, especially as other platforms copied them.
Instead, the real incentive that keeps creators glued to any particular platform is its ability to help them make money. As the Creator Economy matures, content monetization will play a bigger and bigger factor in determining which platforms attract the best content creators — and by extension the users who consume their content.
And when it comes to content monetization, Twitter has always been woefully terrible. Let’s take a look at some of its biggest stumbles on that front:
Vine was arguably Twitter’s biggest missed opportunity. Launched in 2013, the six-second video app became an instant sensation, particularly with younger users. Its tight constraints bred entirely new genres of sketch comedy, and its biggest creators became micro celebrities in their own right. Some even managed to land major brand deals.
But Twitter failed to invest in the app, which resulted in a dearth of new features. What’s worse, when top Vine stars approached Twitter about paying them directly, its executives ultimately decided not to. Many of those stars then left for YouTube, which by then had a robust partnership program. Eventually, user growth stalled out and then cratered, and Twitter shuttered the app in 2016.
Today, many of the top YouTubers are former Vine stars — including the Paul brothers, Zach King, and Drew Gooden. Twitter had recruited some of the best video talent in the world and then let it slip through its fingers.
One could argue that Substack’s rise is due to Twitter’s inability to service its star users; its founders bragged that they recruited their first round of writers based on their Twitter following and engagement. Here’s how CJR explained it:
[Substack has] a system, created by a former employee named Nathan Baschez, that measures a Twitter user’s engagement level—retweets, likes, replies—among their followers. This person is then assigned a score on a logarithmic scale of fire emojis. Four fire emojis is very good—Substack material. Best and McKenzie will reach out and suggest that the person try a newsletter.
Substack pitched these writers on the idea that they’d finally be able to monetize the audience that they’d built up on Twitter, and indeed many of the most successful newsletters on the platform were initially super charged by their large Twitter followings.
Twitter’s 2021 acquisition of Revue seemed like an acknowledgement that it needed to provide a native, monetizable platform for writers, and indeed I had high hopes about how Revue would get integrated into the platform in such a way that the newsletters could capitalize on Twitter’s social graph. But other than a few early updates, Revue has remained mostly stagnant, with no new major features launched in the last year. What could have been Twitter’s answer to Substack and Medium instead seems like yet another abandoned product.
Super Follows became a punchline before it even launched. The idea that users would pay for premium tweets is laughable, and yet I had high hopes that the platform would launch other features that would make such a feature worth it. For instance, it could have been integrated with Revue subscriptions so that newsletter writers could add premium tweets as an extra perk for subscribers.
Alas, Twitter’s engineers weren’t as imaginative, and the feature seems to have landed with a complete thud. I’m on the platform all the time, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a creator who was hocking a Super Follows subscription.
Of course, if Twitter really wanted to help creators make money, it would simply share a portion of all the revenue it generates with them. YouTube began sharing around 50% of its ad revenue with creators over a decade ago, and as a result it’s the oldest social platform to still have a stronghold on young users.
But some have argued that YouTube has an unfair advantage, in that it can run ads within the videos themselves, making it easy to attribute ad revenue to individual creators. It’s not like you can sandwich an ad into a 280 character Tweet, right?
Tell that to the engineers behind YouTube Shorts. Because Shorts videos max out at 60 seconds, the platform can’t introduce pre-roll or mid-roll ads to the feature, and yet YouTube launched a revenue-sharing structure last month:
Under the new plan, YouTube creators will be able to capture a portion of the revenue generated from ads that run between Shorts videos. YouTube plans to put 45 percent of the revenue generated by the ads into a pool that will then be distributed to creators based on their share of total Shorts views.
This is a payout system that was already pioneered by music streaming services like Spotify, and it’d be relatively simple for platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok to follow suit. They’d just need to set aside a fixed percentage of their monthly revenue and then distribute it based on the level of engagement generated by their users.
So why haven’t they? Because they’ve grown so used to capitalizing on the free labor of creators and they don’t want the short-term hit to their profit margins. But with user growth stalling out, I don’t think Twitter or any other platform can afford to ignore their creators’ needs for much longer. The tables have turned, and creative talent will no longer be taken for granted.
What do you think?
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Snapchat gives its creators further incentive to decamp to other platforms where they can make more money. [Insider] From the article: “In 2021, they said they were paid around $15,000 for every 150,000 views. Now, however, they said they earn around $15 per 150,000 views,” That’s fucking pathetic.
"According to data from Similarweb, Rumble now sees more than 10 times the traffic of Trump’s Truth Social and close to 100 times the traffic of Parler." [The Atlantic]
A good profile of one of the most influential YouTubers in Indonesia. [Rest of World]
Complex Media deserves credit for launching the rare YouTube series that's managed to break into the mainstream. [Vanity Fair]
This is an interesting move from a publisher that saw a lot of early success with paid subscriptions. Is this a sign of subscription growth stalling out or an effort to meet increased advertiser demand? [Axios]
ICYMI: Was Randy Cassingham the first member of the Creator Economy?
In 1994, he launched This is True, one of the first email newsletters, and grew it into a thriving business.
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at email@example.com. For a full bio, go here.
I just disabled my Twitter account this morning - I've been an active and faithful user for 15 years. I've no faith in the new owner's capability to implement any good change. In fact, I think that team will ultimately make things much worse and then discard it like a very expensive toy.
But what do I know?
Isn't it the job of the media company to ensure integrity? One could argue that every single user deserves a blue check.
Really well researched with arguments I support. Thank you. I guess we have to make other platforms work, or create the platforms. Thanks to Anna for suggesting Spaces. I have a friend formerly of Bloomberg working on his own app design. This is difficult to do though -- he's well connected but facing tons of hurdles. We can still use big platforms to move people to the ones where the true content is I guess. I wouldn't be sad if somehow people start reading longer text again...but I'm not holding my breath :)