David Heinemeier Hansson

March 28, 2023

Why is paid social media a bad idea?

It'll soon cost $7/month to fully participate on Twitter. Musk has announced they'll start reserving presence in the For You tab solely for paying customers from April 15th, limit participation in polls to just those customers, and soon also give preferential showing in replies as well. Legacy blue-checks will not be spared, and will in fact lose their old privileges. The price is the same for all. Bold!

All of the usual characters from the Musk Sucks Show are up in arms about this, of course. Something about how charging money for a service is a transgression against Musk's allegiance to free speech, I think? Hard to keep straight all the rationalization on why everything the man does is Literally The Worst Thing Ever.

(This is the part where it's customary to insert a caveat that I Also Don't Think Everything Musk Does Is Great, but I'm not going to do that, because it's fucking stupid. I don't think everything ANYONE does is great. Not my good friends, not my coworkers, NOT MYSELF. This preemptive distancing from controversial figures when they do something you actually agree with is just so performative and pathetic.)

As previously declared, I don't really have a stake either way. I think there's a good argument that the world is better off if Musk truly does run Twitter into the ground! But I think it's also worth acknowledging that he hasn't run Twitter into the ground, at least not yet. Despite the endless proclamations that the end was near following the dramatically decreased headcount at the company last year.

Further, I also absolutely commend the man for taking big, bold risks when it's primarily his own money on the line! And this is exactly one of those fascinating bets that I've long wished for someone to take.

The bet is this: Can you fund a social network with user payments? In contrast to the current established wisdom that only targeted ads will do it. We don't know! Nobody has ever tried to do it at this scale. All the attempts have usually been baked in from the beginning, thus posing a real challenge to reaching critical mass. But Musk is now going to try the experiment on a network that already has critical mass. THAT'S INTERESTING!

You'd think that such an experiment would have lots of backers. Especially amongst those who've been skeptical about what targeted ads have done to the internet in the past decade-plus. And certainly amongst those worried about "misinformation" from "foreign actors" (or whatever de jeur jargon is used to whine about adverse political outcomes). Because these concerns all jive with Musk's changes.

I for one am a fan of any experiment that might shine light on a path out of the ad infestation that's currently possessing the internet. And I'm also a fan of business model experimentation in general. Triply so when they're happening in free and competitive markets.

That's what's so fascinating about Twitter right now. Musk gave his most ardent opponents the perfect motivation to seed and cultivate alternatives. And we've gotten those! Mastodon has seen tremendous growth, even if it's still a tiny dot in comparison to Twitter. 

Isn't this a good thing? Isn't that the market working as it should? People voting with their feet, if they don't like the offering from the first fellow?

I think it is. So I'm happily voting with my seven dollars to see where this experiment goes. May you live in interesting times!

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.