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Elon Musk: "We're aspirationally not dumb"
But what about non-aspirationally?
(Note: Within a day of this post being published, Twitter’s chief information security officer, chief privacy officer, chief compliance officer, and head of trust & safety all left the company.)
Yesterday afternoon (ET), Elon Musk hosted a Twitter Space, moderated by Twitter ad sales chief Robin Wheeler.The goal was to allay advertisers’ mounting concerns about Twitter’s direction under its new (ahem, mercurial) founder and his merry band of
Much digital ink has been spilled about the exodus of brands from Twitter since Musk took over the platform. Corporate giants General Mills, Pfizer, Audi, and others have all fled Twitter ads (at least temporarily) while they await more clarity on the company’s future. Ad agencies were no less twitchy:
Nearly all of this business anxiety can be directly traced to Elon Musk’s own actions. He:
denounced permanent user bans as “fundamentally undermin[ing] trust in Twitter,” before U-turning and announcing a new permanent user suspension policy for impersonation (only days after saying “no major content decisions…will happen” before a new moderation council could convene, which hadn’t yet happened)
stated that he has a legal case to sue activist groups — whom he accused of “trying to destroy free speech in America” — for convincing advertisers to leave Twitter, issued a bizarre poll asking whether advertisers should support “freedom of speech” vs. “political ‘correctness’”, and then promised “a thermonuclear name & shame” of the advertisers themselves “if this [boycott] continues”
tweeted (and then deleted) a loonie conspiracy theory about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, engaged in spats with Democratic politicians, and encouraged his 115 million followers to vote Republican in the midterms
On top of all this, he’s made what the British might call “a dog’s dinner” out of his newly announced Twitter Blue policy. To take a step back on this one, Twitter verification (the notorious blue checkmark) has long been a mess, as Twitter’s own Head of Trust & Safety half-acknowledged:
But whatever it was before, it’s an order of magnitude worse and more confusing under Musk’s new $8-per-month Twitter Blue plan. He’s alternately presented this plan as:
A) light extortion: if you don’t pay the monthly $8, your tweets will be banished to the equivalent of the “probable spam” folder
B) a premium tier unlocking longform audio/video and fewer ads
C) a way to eliminate bots
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He’s done all this while simultaneously allowing anyone to pay the $8 to get the blue checkmark, regardless of who they are and without undergoing a verification check. Per the Twitter Blue FAQs:
Accounts that receive the blue checkmark as part of a Twitter Blue subscription will not undergo review to confirm that they meet the active, notable and authentic criteria that was used in the previous process.
Which all sounds very weird, but at least corresponds to Yoel Roth’s idea of “getting rid of” notability labels. But just hours after Roth’s tweet, his colleague Esther Crawford announced that, instead of “getting rid” of notability, Twitter would just package verification into a separate label on some users’ profiles:
A feature that Elon summarily “killed” via tweet the next day, less than two hours before his Twitter Spaces event:
Prompting a very Trump-ian “Dear Leader” walkback from his team:
While all of this was happening, users were immediately pointing out countless examples of the obviously harmful consequences of allowing just anyone to pay $8 to get a blue checkmark that many people already associate with humanness / authenticity:
Worse yet, the Twitter Spaces call itself was not confidence-inspiring: one marketer told Digiday that “hearing the ineptitude live is shocking.” This was, perhaps, a reaction to a barrage of wobbly Musk statements like this one:
Robin Wheeler: Actually, you tweeted earlier today something about there's going to be dumb things coming in months. I assume that is... Well, because you're moving so fast, right?
Elon Musk: Obviously, the intent is not to do dumb things. We're not aspirationally dumb. We're aspirationally not dumb. But despite being aspirationally not dumb, we will still do dumb things.
Indeed, as Digiday further pointed out, he already has done dumb things:
Musk also welcomed feedback from advertisers and invited them to reply to his tweets if there’s something they don’t like. However, he’s already blocked some that have tried. Last week, he temporarily blocked Lou Paskalis, president and chief operating officer of the Mobile Marketing Association, after the prominent marketer tweeted him asking about brand safety concerns related to the content moderation team’s layoffs.
The backdrop against which this drama is playing out is that Twitter was already a sort of fringe ad platform for most brands, even before Elon Musk bought it. In terms of ad spend, there’s Facebook (~$115 billion in ad revenue last year), Google (~$150 billion), Amazon ($31 billion), and then everyone else.
Twitter is in the “everyone else” bucket, with about $5 billion of ad revenue last year. As one observer put it: “For the majority of agencies, Twitter is not a media plan necessity.” Or to borrow Columbia Business School professor Len Sherman’s pithier formulation: “In my humble opinion, to use a very technical term, their business sucks, and they need a radical transformation.”
Martin Sorrell, who founded (and, until a few years ago, ran) WPP, the largest advertising group in the world, was similarly blunt: “Has the uncertainty around Twitter caused advertisers to question whether they should be advertising? Yes, I think you'll see that in their numbers. But is that of material importance [to them]? No.”
As Sorrell’s righthand man, ex-WPP Chief Digital Officer Rob Norman, put it in a recent New York Times op-ed:
Unfortunately for Mr. Musk, Twitter is a bit player in comparison with other advertising-supported media platforms…Twitter lacks the mission-critical status of its competitors, and few advertisers would be significantly affected by a complete withdrawal.
Perhaps the biggest problem Mr. Musk faces with Twitter is Mr. Musk.
In short, Twitter desperately needs advertisers. But they don’t need Twitter much at all.
People who don’t understand this, like serial Twitter philosopher-kings Paul Graham and Balaji Srinivasan, see conspiracies around every corner, but the truth is far more banal: right now, Twitter just isn’t worth the headache for many brands.
Making matters worse is that the people widely seen as the “adults in the room” at Twitter have either resigned, been fired, or are starting to channel the strained comms strategy of a hostage undergoing a forced confession.
Take, for example, Yoel Roth’s claim yesterday that, contrary to popular perception of a spike in hateful language on Twitter in recent weeks, Search has actually seen a 95% drop in slurs:
This claim presents brands with a rather disquieting dilemma: either Yoel Roth is somehow gaming the metrics to achieve this abrupt (nearly overnight) 95% reduction in impressions of hateful tweets, or Twitter’s Head of Trust & Safety was entirely out to lunch beforehand. Neither option is a particularly appealing one if you’re deciding where to allocate millions of dollars of advertising budget.
I know this from painful firsthand experience: I spent the past four years or so leading Oracle Advertising’s brand safety products. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, much of my time was spent brainstorming ways to persuade terrified advertisers and agencies that running ads on major national outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal was brand-safe, relevant, and wouldn’t result in any significant customer pushback despite the traumatizing nature of the news itself.
As anyone who has worked in the brand safety or suitability space knows well, most large brands and agencies are extremely risk-averse. In some cases this is for very good reasons, as The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz wittily explained: “Proctor & Gamble can’t allow its ads for Charmin, targeted at the Upscale Panera Mom micro-demographic, to appear below frothing diatribes about annihilating all Muslims.”
But in other cases brands’ timidity is more knee-jerk and less considered. When presented in the abstract with the notion of supporting civic institutions like the press as they cover important racial justice issues, brands and agencies are generally all aboard. But when push comes to shove, many of them would rather compile a slapdash custom keyword block list that prevents their ads from showing up on some of the most trusted sites in the country than to run any risk of their CMO calling them up to ask why their ad appeared next to content about police brutality or mass protests.
Leave aside for a moment the fact that — as I have covered ad nauseum in this very newsletter (see here, here, and here) — brand safety itself is a nebulous concept whose usefulness is very much in question. And, indeed leave aside the fact that Twitter’s own research found that “divisive content” shown adjacent to advertising has no material impact on end users:
Results showed no evidence of any effect on brand favorability when ads were adjacent to any of the studied categories of divisive content, regardless of the distance of the adjacency.
Leave aside, moreover, the fact that Twitter’s text-heavy format renders it far more easily parse-able by automated brand safety and contextualization technology than its image- and video-based peers TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, et al.
None of this changes the underlying calculation for brands. They are already worried about the volatility of user-generated content in general. They are especially worried about this content on Twitter, where the links between follower and followed are far weaker than on Facebook and Instagram; the usernames are frequently pseudonymous, rendering abuse less costly for the abuser; and the tone is often combative and vitriolic. (See “getting ratioed” for more on this.)
Twitter is a calamitous petri dish of snark and oneupmanship in search of a business model catering to the genteel business class. This chaos frequently makes the platform an intoxicating destination for its users, perhaps performing a similar role that public executions once did for under-stimulated city dwellers. But Elon Musk, who famously penned an open letter to advertisers vowing that Twitter would not become “a free-for-all hellscape” on his watch, is quickly discovering that just because he spent $44 billion on his perfect shitstorm of a platform doesn’t mean Charmin will pay him a penny to sell its toilet paper there.
And their content policy is no better. In an uncharitable newsletter in 2018, I called it “a mosaic of unenforced guidelines constructed under duress following various bouts of public criticism and whose account-banning threshold seems designed solely to ensure that it could never inadvertently ensnare the president of the United States.”
It certainly does for me.