To my beautiful and smart and funny and generous subscribers,
As you probably know, I like to do two things: my tweets and my substacks.
Late last year, this South African fellow bought Twitter and he’s spent the last few months making small changes that people seem to hate and creating bad news cycles for himself by using his personal Twitter account to take sides in the culture war. This has been exhausting but for the most part I have found some of the histrionic claims about how he has “destroyed the service” to be underwhelming. None of the changes really felt like they fundamentally changed the core functionality of Twitter or the value proposition of being on it.
That changed yesterday when Musk, in a pique of anger at Substack for rolling out Notes, a sort of internal Substack social media platform that is built on short text messages, instructed Twitter to begin throttling Substack links and banning engagement with tweets that linked to Substack.
A lot of people got very mad, and it looks at the moment like, at least for the time being, he has backed off.
But speaking for myself, the damage, to a certain extent, is already done.
I want to address two posts I wrote on the eve of Musk’s takeover of Twitter. The first made three predictions, two of which proved accurate. Musk did offer Trump his account back and Trump indeed refused the offer. And Musk did indeed immediately cave on his promise not to have any moderation. But the third prediction—“this has all been overblown and in the end, Musk isn’t going to make many changes that significantly alter the Twitter experience”—I now admit I got wrong.
The post had some caveats but I basically argued that Musk wouldn’t upend the apple cart in truly idiotic ways because he wanted to make money and he had other investors and those investors would keep him on the straight and narrow. That proved almost immediately to be wrong. He used his personal account to outrage liberals and made for many the simple act of using Twitter a statement about their own values. There is a reason companies generally try not to get caught in politically polarized fights. Sometimes they can’t help it, but most of the time they can and so they avoid it. Musk jumped in feet first—and to no one’s surprise but his, advertisers recoiled and revenues plummeted.
But even then, his behavior was more about how he used Twitter on his account. If you wanted to ignore the political salience of the service as a whole and just blocked his account, you could avoid that. And most of the other changes were just small, bug-filled rollouts.
The verification nonsense he started to pull was bad. Not because I, Ben Dreyfuss, must be verified for a site to be worthwhile but because verification makes the site a better place. It sucks not to be sure if the things you are reading are true or not. Twitter’s community notes have been a good and noble effort at debunking fake nonsense on the site, but a lack of verification at all just makes the experience of reading tweets harder.
So that was bad, but again, it didn’t really interfere with the core functionality or the value proposition of tweeting.
The war against Substack (even if there is a temporary ceasefire) is different. It is an actual shock to the system.
Twitter is a chatroom where people discuss things. Sometimes those things are other tweets. Sometimes those things are live sporting events or award shows. But mostly they are articles or news stories hosted somewhere else. Interfering with the ability of users to do that is a fundamental change to the experience.
Old Twitter’s most infamous screw-up was when they waded into these waters by originally banning links to the Hunter Biden laptop stories. That rightfully pissed off a lot of people and history has shown that those critics were right. Old Twitter did back away from those bans and, as far as I know, never did it again.
But I’m sure that that event did drive a lot of conservative Twitter users to other social networks, because even if Old Twitter unbanned those particular stories and was chastened enough to refrain from banning other ones in the future, they had demonstrated the ability to do it and at least once the willingness to. The future is long and maybe one day they might be willing to again.
Twitter was a public company though, and for myself, I felt their contrition would be backed up by a general desire not to lose users and the revenue they help generate.
Twitter now is not a public company. Musk’s co-investors have, apparently, been unwilling to serve as a limiter on his disruptions. Given that, even though he appears to have backed down today, I am much less confident that he has backed down forever.
And here’s why this matters, particularly to Substackers.
In the second post I wrote last November about Musk’s purchase of Twitter, I made an argument that journalists and writers would be unable to leave Twitter en masse because over the last decade they had built up personal audiences on the site. Not just star columnists. I’m talking about regional reporters and Slate copyeditors and Garden & Gun staff writers. They didn’t have massive huge followings but they had 800 followers or 5,000 followers or 80,000 followers. That personal brand audience is an asset in these fields. For me and others, it allowed us to start substacks and build a subscriber base. But they even mean something to people who don’t strike out on their own. A personal following helps you negotiate raises. It helps you get invited on the radio or cable news or podcasts. It helps you get book deals.
A social following is an asset, but it is not a moveable asset. You cannot exchange your Facebook page followers for TikTok fans. To leverage one for the benefit of the other, you have to engage in the long, arduous, and inefficient work of cross-promotion. Most people wouldn’t do that and they also wouldn’t be willing to go back to the olden days when writers at a digital publication were 100% dependent on the whims of the home page editor to get their stories seen. So, I figured, the threat of a mass exodus of journalists was very unlikely to happen.
“The media,” I wrote, “will continue to be dominated by Twitter because the people who work in the media have individual interests to not only continue growing their Twitter audiences but to protect the value of that audience.
But everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, as the saying goes. And the idea of policing links on Twitter in a way that makes it impossible for people to share their work, makes it considerably harder for people to justify to themselves the time they spend on that site.
I don’t use Twitter just in a strategic business way. Thankfully, I don’t have to because I don’t have the self-control to follow the audience development tips I give to brands. I am addicted to social media. But I can at least tell myself naive stories about how those thousands of hours I waste talking about bullshit on Twitter have at least some utility because I am growing and engaging with an audience and that increases the book value of my asset.
And of course it’s not just that. I have met thousands of interesting people on Twitter. I have gotten to have conversations with people I have admired for decades. I have made hundreds of friends, dozens of IRL friends, and occasionally I’ve even dated people I met on Twitter. It’s made me a funnier person, a better writer, and a more agile thinker.
But, if I’m being honest, it does those things far less now than it used to.
To continue the asset metaphor, my Twitter followers are a huge asset, but they are not my only asset. Another asset is my time and energy; my content. How I invest those things is one thing I do have agency over.
I have lost confidence in the wisdom of investing those things in a platform run by Elon Musk. Who knows what I will or won’t be able to do with my audience down the line? And not just me, of course. Independent writers of all stripes as well, but also everyone who in some way leverages their personal audience. Influencers should be worried. Journalists with staff jobs should be worried. People who sell bobblehead dolls should be worried.
Musk has introduced doubt about the future security of their assets.
Those people—us—are huge Twitter power users. And as everyone knows by now an overwhelming majority of engagement on Twitter comes from people interacting with power users. Musk’s actions yesterday created the perfect condition for a bank run among some of his most valuable users.
That is not smart business! I don’t understand what thinking went into it and am left with the likelihood that no thinking went into it.
That is scary!
Say what you will about Facebook, but Facebook is a real company. They have plans and ideas and whiteboards and levels of management designed to make sure that changes to their products are done for a reason. Sometimes their plans are terrible and their changes suck and they kill them later on. But they at least have a theory of the case. And if you accept that they are just a company that is trying to increase its stock price and maintain its position in the marketplace, then you can see that though often incompetent, they aren’t irrational. They aren’t drunks walking down the street kicking over garbage cans.
Since taking over Twitter, Musk has shown that he sort of is a drunk walking down the street kicking over garbage cans. A lot of people saw this before me and, you know, they were right and I was wrong.
All of this is a long way of saying that yesterday’s moves scared me because I don’t have a staff job anymore. Despite what people think, I am not independently wealthy because of my father. I make 100% of my income from this substack. I’m also not the most hirable person in the world at the moment because despite a lot of achievements and recognition from my time working at Mother Jones, my personal tweets and sense of humor have proven, well, let’s call it controversial.
And I actually don’t make that much money from Calm Down yet. This year I will make about half of what I made at Mother Jones in 2020. I am incredibly grateful for that support but the real only way I am actually able to do this is the promise of growth. Maybe one day—hopefully sooner rather than later—I will make enough money to leave the small Idaho hometown I had to return to in 2021.
Musk’s recent actions make me less confident that day will come.
This is the part of the post where you could imagine me saying that I am leaving Twitter for good. I am not. That would be a lie to your or myself or both. But I am actually going to make a concerted effort to spend the time I usually spend doing fire tweets, doing more fire substacks—and fire Substack Notes, the Twitter-ish Substack feature rolling out next week.
I hope Notes takes off and develops a user base outside of just substack writers. One of the joys of social media—and there are joys!—is talking to people who don’t do what you do, who have life experiences outside of your own. If it’s just you and people who do the same thing as you talking to each other, then it might as well be Slack. I’ve gotten to play around with the beta of Notes a bit and product-wise it has a lot going for it, but like every other platform, it will come down to who uses it.
I wish Old Twitter didn’t have to go away, but in a lot of ways the culture of Old Twitter has been gone for some time, and it seems like the product of Old Twitter is not long for the world either.
Musk yesterday effectively gave Substackers a choice: use Twitter or use Substack. He apparently told Matt Taibbi, one of the chosen journalists he gave the Twitter Files to, that he should simply post his articles on Twitter. In this, Musk overplayed his hand. If you’re going to invest in your future on either Substack or Twitter, the choice is obvious: Substack.
Thank you, dear readers.
The last thing I want to say is this: thank you. To all the people who subscribe to this Substack, thank you. But especially to the paying subscribers, THANK YOU. I appreciate your support in ways I probably cannot articulate properly. You are very smart and very good-looking and I am very glad you exist.
And to my still somewhat good-looking and smart free-subscribers, it would mean a lot to me if you considered upgrading. If you can’t, I understand. But if you could, that would be amazing and my appraisal of your looks and intelligence will instantly increase.
To get you started, I am offering a sale on year-long subscriptions.
But if you happen to be really rich and just want to give me more money out of the kindness of your heart, sign up to be a founding member! What are the benefits? You get priority access to Heaven. (And I’ll think you’re the most intelligent and gorgeous person on this Earth.)
It’s just an insane misunderstanding of the platform he bought.
He wants Twitter to be the world’s source for news.
But he essentially declared war on the people who report and wrote the news.
The verification deal was one thing, but outlawing any way for writers to actually benefit from their contributions to the platform. Telling Taibbi to post his articles directly to Twitter (and pay $8 for the privilege) is just madness.
He is truly a Reply Guy at heart, and sees the world (and the platform) from that perspective.
Finally, two things I love, acknowledgement that I'm a good looking, sexy mother-fucker; and Elon Musk is a dumbass. Substack notes here I come!