Who does a Twitter subscription platform appeal to? Investors? Definitely. Some Twitter users? Certainly. Twitter itself? Not so much.
The Twittersphere was all atwitter this week over a Twitter Careers post stating a new team, codenamed “Gryphon,” is building “a subscription platform.” After the internet noticed, Twitter edited the listing to remove these mentions, only to reinstate them later. Maybe the company realized its furtive edits only added fuel to the fire. Maybe someone on the team remembered that a second job posting with the same juicy details was still on LinkedIn. Or maybe Twitter remembered that the internet always remembers. (The Internet Archive shows the job posting existed at least as far back as May 19.)
Either way, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Also, in this case, you’re not the genie’s master — CEO Jack Dorsey is, and his wish for a subscription platform has to ultimately satisfy investors, users, and Twitter itself.
What investors want
This one is easy. Subscriptions are all the rage — Wall Street is obsessed with software-as-a-service companies. Indeed, Twitter shares closed up 7.34% on Wednesday after the job listings made headlines.
Never mind that the listings offer no concrete details about the mythical Twitter subscription platform. The first listing states that the Gryphon team is “closely collaborating with the Payments team and the Twitter.com team.” The second one says the team wants “to rebuild some of Twitter’s services to produce a subscription management platform.”
Still, numbers don’t lie. In Q1 2020, Twitter generated $808 million in revenue. Of that, $682 million (84%) came from advertising. A subscription service could seriously diversify Twitter’s cash flow.
Twitter says it had 166 million “monetizable daily active users” in Q1 2020. In other words, it generated an average of $1.62 per user per month in its most recent quarter.
The play is dead simple. Investors would win if Twitter could convert even some of those users to a paid subscription that costs, say, $5 per month.
What users want
Twitter would have to offer users more than just an ad-free experience to get them to pay. Even the holy grail addition of an edit button would not be enough.
Poll: Would you pay for a @Twitter subscription with the right features?
What features would you want?
— VentureBeat (@VentureBeat) July 10, 2020
Some have suggested Twitter simply copy Patreon or Substack. I’m not so convinced. If Twitter incentivized users to charge their followers for exclusive content, soon there would be nothing of value left for the masses.
So, what else? The biggest ask from users might be reducing hate speech, harassment, and general toxicity. Many Twitter users claim they would gladly pay Twitter if they could skip the cesspool part. But anything to do with moderation should be available to all users, not just those who pay.
A user with a Twitter subscription must have a better experience without negatively impacting the rest of the platform. There can’t be a knock-on effect of paid Twitter users keeping content to themselves. Similarly, a Twitter user having a subpar experience should not be told they must pay to fix it. A user without a Twitter subscription can’t have a more toxic experience simply because they don’t want to, or cannot, subscribe. At the risk of sounding dramatic, that would kill Twitter as we know it.
What Twitter wants
From Twitter’s perspective, a subscription platform has to generate more money than ads would — without alienating the general user population. Put simply, Twitter doesn’t want to create a user class system.
Taken to the other extreme, Twitter can’t start charging all its users. The service would disappear overnight, even if pay-to-play priced out all the toxicity on the platform. Twitter’s power exists beyond Twitter.com. The fact that everyone — with or without an account — can view tweets is paramount to ensuring Twitter remains relevant to public discourse. Engagement is 10% — the other 90% is clout.
That’s why it’s so hard to figure out what paying for Twitter would mean.
After all, a Twitter subscription platform is not a fresh idea. Twitter was exploring a paid version in March 2017. Hell, Twitter Japan was openly discussing a premium content model in November 2009. The fact that nothing has materialized in more than a decade is telling in and of itself.
Whatever Gryphon is working on — if it ever sees the light of day — Twitter must be able to justify it to investors and users in 280 characters.
ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.
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