It's been almost a year since I unfollowed everyone on Twitter and embraced lists in favour of more privacy and control. Since then, a lot has happened in the world of social media and tech. Musk is now at the helm of the little blue bird, promising blue ticks for paying customers and free speech abound. While Zuckerburg is set to lay off thousands of staff at Meta as his grand bet on the Metaverse goes terribly wrong and ad revenue tanks.
And while these tech billionaires try to figure out the next chapter of social networking (i.e. ensure their popularity and profitability), the rest of us have been muddling along, still begrudgingly using their platforms to the best of our abilities whilst algorithms shift, engagement drops and advertising intensifies.
It's been a bit of a roller coaster for those of us who rely on Instagram to do business. Until recently, any small business owner could reach thousands of people for free simply by posting a jolly carousel of images from a new project launch. Not anymore. And not since Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, announced a move to video last year. If you want lots of 'likes' these days, you've got to create mini-movies of yourself. But even that approach doesn't guarantee the same exposure.
Meanwhile, there's been politically-motivated talk this week of ditching Twitter altogether and moving to alternatives like Cohost or Mastodon – newish social platforms that offer something a little different for people who love to network online (and who probably want to protest against Musk). So far, both look clunky and lacking in the simple brilliance that swept Twitter to fame in 2007. So whether there'll be a mass movement of people to ensure their survival and development is anyone's guess. The future of social media depends on what the masses do and also how they respond to what happens next.
Like it or not, social media's success boils down to money. Whether that's achieved through advertising or membership, they all rely on millions of users to run their networks and servers, pay for staff, and ensure ongoing development. No matter how appealing, Cohost or Mastodon's future depends on millions leaving Twitter and financially supporting them.
For too long, though, people have been reluctant to pay for something that's always been "free". Advertising comes with its own problems: current economic uncertainty, privacy concerns, guilty by association, marketing budgets going elsewhere, etc. But attitudes do change.
Take Musk this week announcing a Twitter Blue service for $7.99 per month, a move that would allow users to buy blue-tick verified status. Whilst many of you scoff at the idea of paying for Twitter, don't underestimate the potential millions who'll be happy to do so. The exclusive blue tick has only been available to high-profile accounts thus far, making it lucrative to anyone with an ego, i.e. most of the planet. It's the equivalent of a VIP area at an Ibiza club: only available to a few, seemingly untouchable and special, and therefore something everyone wants. Immediately. At any cost.
Musk, love or loathe him, might be onto something here. Perhaps the world's richest man knows a thing or two about status and wealth. The human desire to belong. To be counted; to mean something. Lord knows what expensive bars or restaurants he frequents, but he'll have seen first-hand the uncontrolled desire humans have to be at the top of the ladder.
But Musk might have done something else. Something huge. Genius, in fact. He may have just changed our attitude to social media overnight, in that we now understand: if we want to access something, we have to pay for it.
Musk might also have opened a door for Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat (many of which are now offering a subscription model, too) – who all rely on advertising to continue to make their fortunes. Meta, for example, reported its first revenue decline this summer and a 36 per cent profit drop. That's huge and shows how precarious the current model for social media really is. Without paying members, how can they survive in their current form?
According to Musk, Twitter was losing more than $4m (£3.5m) per day before his recent takeover, so Twitter Blue – aka paying members – could see the company's fortunes turned around.
It's why LinkedIn has done so well. It might only have 822 million members, but it generated $11.5 billion in revenue in 2021. That's incredible for a network that focuses on the niche of business and recruitment. It gives us the option of a 'free' or 'premium' account, so it's never had to worry about annoying its users. We can choose whether we pay, just like we'll be able to on Musk's Twitter. In exchange, we get access to 'premium' features. It's that clever nod to the VIP area again. We can "see" who's viewed our profiles, connect with very important people, and feed our desire to be at the top of the social hierarchy.
Whilst LinkedIn taps beautifully into human behaviour, it understands that ego alone won't attract paying customers. It realises our natural desire to build our businesses, too, and reach new customers, network and grow. We want to be seen – it's good for marketing. And that's why LinkedIn's wealth of features adds value. We're happy to pay to be 'premium' because we actually get results. We see engagement on our profiles and business pages. We network with people all over the world. It works, and so we stay. And happily pay for the privilege.
So whilst a blue tick would be nice, there has to be more to Musk's Twitter Blue if we're going to part with $7.99 per month. We want more features and a guarantee of a decent reach. Like LinkedIn, we want to feel we're getting good value for money and access to things others might not. But we also just want our favourite social networks to stop trying to be like everyone else. We want them to stick to what they're good at – the very reasons why they got us hooked in the first place – to connect with others worldwide.
Whatever your views on Musk, his recent announcement on paying for Twitter membership could determine the next decade of social media. But ultimately, it's the people and their money that will decide.