How Elon Musk Turned the Blue Checkmark Into a Scarlet LetterReading Time: 6 minutes
Elon Musk’s Weekend-Long Masterclass in Business Failure, A weekend-long masterclass in business failure., Elon Musk’s Twitter Blue checkmark fiasco is a masterclass in business failure.
It’s not that easy to get a hold of LeBron James’ people. Few celebrities are accessible, but James occupies a rarefied strata of fame where even getting his representatives to acknowledge you on some matter or another isn’t a given for most reporters. There are thousands of journalists and millions of other people who would like to ask LeBron something at any given time. Many reporters with serious questions might not even be able to obtain a no comment.
So consider what it must have taken for a reporter from the Verge, a technology website that has essentially nothing to do with the NBA, to quickly get a concise, newsmaking response from James’ people on Thursday. LeBron had previously tweeted that he would not pay for Twitter Blue, the subscription product that Elon Musk is now hawking in order to make a tiny dent in Twitter’s financial woes while alienating large numbers of the platform’s users. But when ‘legacy’ verification checkmarks started to disappear on April 20, as the emoji purportedly became exclusive to paying subscribers, LeBron’s check did not disappear. He or his retinue apparently wanted to be rapidly clear with a Verge reporter about this fact:
LeBron’s media adviser then went on the record that James did not pay, and Musk confirmed thereafter that he was paying for some Blue subscriptions himself, upsetting some of his new fans who are incensed that their populist champion has decided celebrities should get for free a product for which the plebs pay $8 a month. But the celebs look even less happy. On Saturday night, many accounts with more than 1 million followers—maybe all of them—were slapped with Twitter Blue subscription badges. Dead people got them, too, with Musk or someone on his team deciding that Anthony Bourdain, Kobe Bryant, and Jamal Khashoggi should be branded as having paid for Twitter. Living famous people worked furiously to let people know that they had not paid for checks. Chrissy Teigen figured out that by changing her Twitter handle, she could make it go away. Lil Nas X swears ‘on his soul’ that he did not buy Twitter Blue. Jason Alexander is exasperated. Sorta-famous media and political figures offered similar clarifications. CNN’s Daniel Dale noted the restored checkmark on his account (which has since been unrestored) and said: ‘Obviously did not do this.’ And Stephen King could not have been more emphatic:
It’s an astonishing business story. Famous people from every walk of life you could think of have, in the span of a few days, grabbed their megaphones to tell the world they did not pay for a specific product. Imagine if they felt the need to tell you the same thing every time they passed a restaurant they didn’t want to eat at. Most people seem to agree with the celebrities. Available data indicate Twitter has made very little money from Blue in its opening months. Blue has a constituency—Musk fans and some Twitter power users who don’t mind being branded as dorks—but not, it appears, a big one. Both the eye test and one software developer’s query of Twitter’s application programming interface suggest that almost literally nobody who had an unpaid checkmark before decided to pay for one under threat of losing it this past week.
Some people have decided to pay for Blue and its checkmark, which used to signify some cursory level of trustworthiness or authenticity on Twitter and now confirms that the user has $8 and a cell phone. Many current Blue subscribers have been bewildered or angry that the former bluecheck brigade, whom they saw as an entitled elite, no longer want the checkmark. For instance, there is this guy, who believes that weed costs $50 a day and Starbucks writes a customer’s name on a coffee cup not so that they’d know the cup belonged to them, but … because having your name on a paper cup makes you feel special?
Unfortunately, the real reason most people, and especially those of us who used to be verified, do not want the new checkmark is not that exciting. We do not want it because having the checkmark circa late April 2023 is embarrassing. Musk has successfully made it a humiliating thing for someone in most social circles to pay for Twitter. It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 2022, I myself paid for a different version of Twitter Blue, thinking its features justified a few bucks a month.
How did the Twitter checkmark become toxic? It took multiple strokes of business failure: First by Musk making Twitter worse, second by charging more for Twitter Blue at the same time he was making the site worse, and third by making himself an unappealing person for people to associate themselves with in public. The masses are not balking at paying for Twitter Blue because they’re trying to shelter themselves within a crumbling elitist internet order, but because they think Musk is offering an unworthy product and is also a dickhead.
Consider the moves Musk has made in the six months he’s owned Twitter. Musk’s ambition is to make Twitter an ‘everything’ app that users get lost in like Instagram or TikTok. For now, though, Musk assesses that the company he bought at a $44 billion valuation is now worth $20 billion. He has fired or chased off the vast majority of Twitter’s staff and slashed infrastructure costs, including those for data centers the company once relied on. The platform still works in its core functionality of publishing tweets (a win for him!), but things break a lot, outages are more frequent, many users see lots of tweets they don’t want to see, there’s porn spam in the replies to countless tweets and crypto spam in my direct messages all the time, and the conversion of checkmarks to a pay product with no relation to authenticity or notoriety has made it harder to identify and curate good information on Twitter. And that’s before we get to Musk’s (transparently self-serving and half-baked) crowing about ‘free speech,’ his unbanning of racist trolls, his concurrent games of footsie with COVID denalists and anti-trans losers, and everything else. The median user experience, ideological repulsion aside, is degraded. Twitter is a less addicting and more annoying social media site.
Simultaneously, Twitter’s pay product is getting more expensive. It used to be worth $3 or $5 a month, and by the end, it included the tweet edit button, an actual useful feature that has carried over to the new version. The new Blue also offers other features that seem fine. They include fewer ads (a good perk, as the ad experience on Twitter these days is third-rate), longer video uploads, longer tweets, and more visibility in places like the replies to tweets. Perhaps that justifies a price hike to $8. But then the subscription runs into other problems Musk created: The blue checkmark isn’t just uncool now, but to scores of people a mark of shame. If Twitter had spent the last half-year getting better, its subscription offering would be more enticing. Now the value proposition is that it will make a declining place less unpleasant.
Arguably, though, none of that is even Twitter Blue’s greatest problem. Blue could be one dollar a month, and Twitter could figure out spam tomorrow, and tons of people would still have zero interest in the subscription, because they don’t like Musk or the people who follow him around. Musk has made a hard-right turn in his political presentation of himself, and he has been incredibly unfunny about it. He has taken away people’s jobs and reportedly stiffed much smaller businesses on payments. He has publicly mocked and thus sent his sycophantic fans after a disabled Twitter employee he laid off. (That episode became one of the few things for which Musk has apologized.) He has surrounded himself with unappealing yes men who now scold people for not wanting to buy what they’re selling. There’s not great data on how the general public feels about Musk, but he lost when he put his Twitter popularity to a vote. Lately, Musk has said voting in future polls will be limited to paying subscribers.
If any of the above factors were different, Twitter Blue would be doing better. (Not enough to make up for Twitter’s advertising implosion, but better.) A lower cost would help. A better product, one that did not humiliate a lot of people by attaching themselves to it, would really help. And that would be possible if the guy hawking the product had not done everything possible to make himself a divisive figure that lots of people strongly dislike. Instead, Musk took the red pill, caught himself in a horrendous deal to buy a company for way too much money while alienating much of the public, and then worsened his investment while trying to get you to give him more money for it. Musk carries the reputation of a futuristic innovator, but here, he is flailing in the most old-school way capitalism could imagine: He has poorly marketed a product people do not want. What a masterclass.
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