Q&A: CSU professor on the future of Twitter, Elon Musk and the power of negativity

Twitter takes over the world

In the weeks since Elon Musk’s $44 billion Twitter takeover, he’s laid off half of the tech company’s workforce, raised eyebrows about his plan to charge $8 for blue verification check marks and has repeatedly emphasized that the platform would need to make big changes to continue to survive. 

The world’s richest man has made almost daily headlines about his plans for what’s considered the “town square of the internet,” stoking concerns about the proliferation of misinformation and lack of a viable Twitter alternative. 

Hamed Qahri-Saremi is an assistant professor of computer information systems at Colorado State University’s College of Business who studies users’ behavior on social media platforms. 

Hamed Qahri-Saremi headshot

Hamed Qahri-Saremi studies social media behavior and offered his expert insight on the turmoil at Twitter.

He spoke to SOURCE about what Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover might mean and why even non-users should care about the acquisition.

SOURCE: There’s a lot that’s been said about Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover. What aren’t we talking about, but should be? 

Qahri-Saremi: One thing that probably should be considered is that this whole thing is new, and that if we take into account Elon Musk’s approaches at the other companies he’s started – Tesla, SpaceX, etc. … – he’s certainly a risk taker, but he also has a record of success.

He’s one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world in terms of how disruptively innovative his ideas and companies have been in their industries.

Another thing to keep in mind is that he seems to have a tendency of saying things and doing things that at first may not seem to be true, and he doesn’t really shy away from taking them back and changing them when they don’t work.

Think about when he announced the Model 3, which was the Tesla designed for a wider audience and sector of customers who wouldn’t typically buy an electric car. Elon Musk came out and said those vehicles would cost around $35,000, but when it came time to actually release the vehicle a few years later, Tesla had difficulty doing so at that price point.

What does this show us? That Elon will test ideas and sometimes take them back. This tendency should be taken into consideration as we analyze the Twitter deal.

Another item to note is that Elon Musk is probably not as popular of a figure as he was because of the recent controversies around him and his personal life, even though he also has a record of being successful in building effective teams and innovative organizations.

When it comes to Twitter, there are also challenges. Social media is different than an electric car company and a rocket company, especially when it comes to regulatory issues. A lot of the things he’s done have raised eyebrows at the FTC, and that can potentially bring the risk of very hefty fines for Twitter down the road.

In a way, it seems like he’s started out with ideas that at least now seem too extreme, and maybe they’ll have to be thought through a little bit more in the future.

An additional bit of context is the discussion point about how to better monetize Twitter. That has always been a challenge. Monetization is one of Elon Musk’s key priorities right now, and if he succeeds in doing that without destroying Twitter, it can actually lead to a more sustainable platform.

Why do you think there was such a strong reaction to Elon Musk’s proposal to charge users for the blue verification check? 

Research shows that account verification is important for stopping false information. The identity of a user also matters when it comes to the virality of content – when you know a source is reliably verified and is trustworthy, you believe and share their content more easily. The blue check mark was at the core of users’ verification on Twitter, at least for the main figures and organizations. So, changing what the blue check mark means could cause some issues with the reliability of content. There should be some proper and reliable way of verifying the user’s identity. Otherwise, it is hard to trust the content that is shared on Twitter. I think his idea of charging for blue check marks is under-developed and unclear, right now.

According to Pew Research Center, fewer than a quarter of Americans say they use Twitter at all. Why should the other 75% of the U.S. population care about this acquisition?

One reason is that many mainstream media figures use Twitter, and it’s also a key source of real-time information and conversation for journalists. In a way, it’s sort of like a “town square of the internet.” 

In addition, Twitter has been a key place for the spread of false information concerning things like the 2020 election and COVID-19. The negative impacts of some of that misinformation were not limited to Twitter users only. Information that is first expressed on Twitter reaches an audience far outside the platform. This led the platform to tighten its content moderation protocols and ban some popular figures, such as former President Donald Trump. This means that whatever Elon Musk will end up doing with Twitter, especially the issues around content moderation policies and user verification, can have widespread impacts beyond the platform itself. 

So, the 75% of the population that doesn’t use Twitter is still affected by it. 

Many people say they’re fleeing Twitter for Mastodon. What can you share about this Twitter alternative? 

Although it is not a new platform, it has become trendy again in the past couple of weeks or so for Twitter users to say they’re going to Mastodon. Structurally, Mastodon is quite different than Twitter. It has been discussed as a more open version of social media, but I don’t think it resolves some of the issues that Twitter has – and I think it could probably make some of them even worse. 

Let’s first talk about Mastodon structure: After creating an account, you have to select a server from a set of servers to join. These servers are essentially smaller social networks based on a particular topic of interest or geographical location. Right off the bat, this feature makes it quite complicated for ordinary users to figure out Mastodon. Moreover, there are not that many servers for users to choose from right now. As the founder said, Mastodon is for the nerds. That was the idea it was built around, not the ordinary users who spend time on Twitter. So, from a technical standpoint it is too complex for ordinary users to use, in my opinion.

Also, these servers are run by other users, and not Mastodon. They have monthly/annual costs, and scalability increases that cost. Therefore, there is a scalability limitation, as once a larger number of people join a Mastodon server, stronger servers are needed that will cost more. On the other hand, there is no clear revenue model that I know of for the users who are running a server to make money off of it. Therefore, I don’t think it’s sustainable to expect people to pay fees to have their own social media network where people just come and talk. There might be some users who value that, but when it comes to a critical mass of users, it’s a different situation. 

Another point to consider is that the success of social media depends on a critical mass of users. The strongest service that Mastodon offers for a server right now costs $89 per month, and it can manage 2,000 active users at one time. Just imagine how many more users are on Twitter at any given time. Therefore, its scale right now is not comparable to Twitter. So, even if some users are willing to cover the cost of servers, the current scale is not something that can be considered as an alternative to Twitter.

In addition, there are the concerns that have plagued Twitter and other social media platforms, which will not go away on Mastodon. Specifically the fact that social media platforms create “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles,” which contribute to the polarization of the society and spread of false information. Mastodon does not seem to be immune to this, since people automatically choose to join servers filled with users who share interest and viewpoints. They can thus create small network structures where they talk about their shared ideas and may not be much exposed to alternative viewpoints.

Therefore, I don’t think Mastodon can resolve the echo chamber issues we had on Twitter; in fact, I have this concern that it may lead to a more polarized and extreme version of the conversations on Twitter. 

Another concern when it comes to Mastodon is that, when you talk about Twitter or other social media networks, there is a central company that’s managing things – including content moderation and user verification. Mastodon does not have this; it’s very open in that sense. Instead, content moderations, if any, are determined by the owner of a given server, who can decide what is acceptable and not acceptable to post on their server. As such, it is not hard to imagine that bad players can possibly have servers of their own where they allow the spread of misinformation as facts without any limitations. 

There’s also no clear user verification policy on Mastodon. Therefore, all the concerns regarding Musk’s recent changes to the user verification policies on Twitter exist on Mastodon too. Right now, we’re not having issues with Mastodon because it’s not that widespread, but imagine that this replaces Twitter, and the difficulties we’ll have when there’s not a central structure.

On the positive side, Twitter, Facebook and social media in general make their revenue from ads, which affects how they design their algorithms. They are essentially ad machines. However, Mastodon is not for profit, so users’ personal information and behavior are not feeding algorithms that are attempting to grab your attention. 

In conclusion, while there are both positive and negative things about Mastodon as compared to Twitter, my overall takeaway is that it cannot realistically replace Twitter. It has been designed for the nerds, and it’s great if you want to have a certain social group of people who are talking about certain things. It’s a different experience from Twitter, and I don’t see it becoming the mainstream replacement, at least in the near-term. People use different platforms for different purposes simultaneously, like Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. I think Mastodon is just another social media platform that some niche groups of users will use in addition to other platforms such as Twitter.  

Do you think Twitter will survive the Elon Musk takeover? 

I think a lot of the emotions and sentiments right now are partly due to the fact that a billionaire took over a public company and people didn’t like it. Elon Musk threw out some ideas that were not popular, he fired half of Twitter’s staff quite abruptly. He made some big changes, such as the case with the blue check mark without thinking it through, it seems. All these have caused major concerns. But, I think in the future, he’ll know the limitations and boundaries of the platform, and he will reverse some of these extreme changes or at least find proper solutions for them. He has already rehired some, but not many, of the fired staff. 

But, if Elon Musk is in all sorts of legal troubles, with the FTC for example, due to some of these extreme decisions, it could be difficult for the whole platform to survive. At this point, with all the people laid off at Twitter, and the heads of privacy and compliance no longer at the company, there are concerns about the decision making at Twitter right now. Some of these decisions can expose Twitter to violations of laws. I believe these are the most major concerns at the moment for Twitter.

On the other hand, while there are some people threatening to leave Twitter, there isn’t really a replacement right now. 

Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic that Elon Musk can figure Twitter out. For Twitter to be successful, it should continue to be the town square of the internet, and it’s not to his benefit to push users away. 

Your past research has delved into the power of negative reviews. Could the same idea apply to more negative content on social media? I’m thinking about how some of Twitter’s most prominent users – like President Donald Trump and Elon Musk himself – have also been its most divisive. 

There is certainly power in the negative, and my research has demonstrated it. 

The way Twitter is structured, you gain reputation by having more followers, so it’s essentially a game of trying to attract more attention. That’s more easily done by saying more inflammatory, negative and extreme things, rather than being positive. Negative has this power over positive, and that’s why it has become more common. It becomes a stronger norm for people’s speech to skew negative, and that has bad consequences for the whole society. 

Therefore, it is not surprising that people who enjoy attention more, like President Trump and Elon Musk, get a more negative and divisive tone. It helps them get the attention on Twitter. They often post things that are controversial, and that tends to fall on a more negative end of the spectrum. 

In the weeks since Elon Musk has taken over Twitter, how has your view changed? 

Earlier on, one concern that I mentioned was regarding the changes that Musk was considering for the account verification and content verification processes and policies at Twitter. 

We now know a bit more about some of those changes. Musk recently announced that the account verification will include three different levels for government agencies, businesses and individual users. It appears that they have to pay for their accounts to remain verified, but the payment will not guarantee a verification and there will be a manual verification process. 

In addition, he reversed the bans put on several controversial accounts, such as President Donald Trump’s account, and allowed them back on the platform. Furthermore, he stopped enforcing the policies for battling misinformation about COVID-19. 

In my opinion, all of these attempts are for monetizing Twitter. As we discussed previously, research shows that negative and controversial content attracts more attention. By allowing controversial accounts and contents on Twitter under the label of “free speech,” I think he wants to increase the traffic on the network to attract more advertisers. 

But, such policies can backfire too. Case in point, Apple has reduced its advertising on Twitter. Apple has apparently even considered removing the Twitter app from its App Store, as claimed by Musk. If that actually happens, it will be a major setback for Twitter, given that many users will not be able to access the app on their iPhones and iPads. A large majority of Twitter users access it on their mobile devices.

Such policies may also bring expensive legal troubles for Twitter, especially outside of the US. For example, earlier this year EU passed the Digital Services Act, which is particularly designed to battle the spread of hate speech, disinformation and other harmful content on social media and digital platforms. It will make the platform owners accountable for such contents. The recent changes that Musk has implemented in Twitter account verification and content moderation policies can increase the spread of such content on Twitter, which can put it on a collision course with the EU. This could be very costly. 

All in all, these changes do not bode well for Twitter, especially in the longer run. It remains to be seen whether Musk changes course again and reverses these decisions. It definitely seems that he is experimenting with different ways to make Twitter more profitable, even if for a short term.

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