Bloomberg Opinion — Twitter Inc. has expanded its paid-subscription service known as Twitter Blue to the U.S., allowing subscribers to undo tweets and more for $3 a month.
That is all very nice and will appeal to the site’s power users (think politicians, influencers and journalists), but the new features are pretty trivial. Twitter will still show inane personal updates and spam with the odd gem scattered here and there, leaving you feeling like you’ve inhaled a fast-food meal’s worth of empty calories after 30 minutes of scrolling. I’d happily pay Twitter if it would do one thing: hire more people to weed out the spammy content and harassment, and surface more useful tweets about topics I’m interested in. In other words, become more like a publisher than a tech company.
It would, admittedly, be a radical pivot. The magic of social media has always been the never-ending well of free, user-generated content. In 2020 Twitter, Meta Platform Inc.’s Facebook and Alphabet’s YouTube together racked up $108 billion in revenue, a number that keeps on growing because we keep returning to their sites, thumbing our newsfeeds for more dopamine hits.
But even this astonishingly successful business model faces speed bumps. Regulation is coming from at least half a dozen different countries, including the U.S. and from Europe, all aimed at curbing problematic content like viral conspiracy theories and hate speech. Social media firms will have to conduct mandatory risk assessments about the toll their algorithms take on mental health and prove they are cleaning things up, for instance by spending more money on human moderators.
So why not cut to the chase and hire more people to help edit social media feeds into something healthier and more useful overall? Twitter, Facebook and YouTube already rely on thousands of humans to babysit their content-moderation software, paying them about $37,000 a year, according to Glassdoor. That is a fraction of the salaries paid to engineers, but there are not nearly enough of these so-called content moderators. Twitter and Facebook declined to say how many they have, but Facebook is widely reported to have about 15,000, and YouTube said it has 20,000.
Though that sounds like a lot, social media has moved away from using human editors over the past decade, relying more and more on algorithms to oversee the content that hits our eyeballs. In 2016, Facebook fired a team of about two-dozen staffers who edited headlines in its “trending news” section, after a report said they were suppressing conservative news.(1)
Around that time, Twitter also replaced its human-curated “Moments” section with a tab showing trending topics and videos. Human editors could embarrass a company by making it look biased, and they couldn’t handle mountains of content like a cheaper algorithm could. In Silicon Valley parlance, they didn’t scale.
But it’s time for the pendulum to swing back the other way. The recent leak of internal Facebook research has shown that so-called ranking algorithms have too much leeway, fueling teen mental health problems and amplifying misinformation. The need for more effective moderation is taking on greater urgency with evidence than AI can’t effectively counter the negative effects of social media.
Twitter is still “experimenting” with its new subscription product, the company’s product executive, Tony Haile, said on a recent podcast. I hope that means Twitter will try more radical changes, like hiring humans to weed out spam and shape my feed based on topics of interest, something that could be sussed out with a series of questions. (2)
The idea isn’t new. Several third-party data companies use human curators and software to trawl Twitter’s firehose, crafting specially tailored Twitter feeds for corporate and government clients. Those kinds of services aren’t cheap, and Twitter could argue that I should just spend my money on those third parties. After all, Twitter has been free for 15 years, and investing in manual labor would be difficult to justify to shareholders. (3)
But I could still see Twitter building a cheaper alternative to those third-party data companies and charging something like $25 a month or more, roughly what many people pay to access top-tier news publications. It could build teams of specialists in subjects like music, politics and business to edit streams of the most useful tweets for paying customers, and even train algorithms to learn from those editorial decisions.
Vijay Pandurangan, a former Twitter product manager who helped build Twitter Moments, has said the company was working on doing just that back in 2016. And Twitter would not be alone in shifting towards more curation. Snap Inc. already relies on teams of editors across the globe to help choose news stories for its Discover section, which last year saw a 40% growth in time spent by users.
For years, social media has fumbled in the dark for more reputable business models. Mark Zuckerberg’s insistence on being a technology company, despite overseeing a system that makes editorial decisions everyday, has made that effort more confusing. But Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has done some of the most visible soul searching in social media recently, banning all political ads, for instance. He is moving in the right direction with Twitter Blue, and could even lead others in the industry if he takes a bolder approach to selling subscriptions.
Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen has said social media companies need to shift from being machine-led to more human-led. Twitter has an opportunity to show everyone how it’s done.
- Facebook fired its trending news editors in 2016 after a report in Gizmodo suggested the editors were suppressing conservative stories. The person who edited the Gizmodo piece admitted two years later that he had given it a more sensationalized headline to drive more clicks, and that the reporting primarily showed that Facebook’s staff were using “editorial judgement.”
- The Beats music app did that well with new users before it was bought by Apple Inc.
- In fact, even if just 1% of Twitter’s daily audience subscribed to Twitter Blue, that would amount to just $70 million in annual revenue, less than 1.5% of Twitter’s projected sales for 2021, Bloomberg News’ Kurt Wagner points out. The ad business pretty much sells itself.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously reported for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of “We Are Anonymous.”