Elon Musk Bought Twitter or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Algorithm

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In the beginning…

Back in 2019, when we were starting Words About Books, we knew that we would need to get involved in social media to advertise the podcast. I went out and registered accounts on all the big platforms, more to reserve the name than out of any intention of actually using them. I had been off of Facebook for years at this point. I did not use Instagram. Tiktok hadn’t quite blown up yet. I occasionally used Reddit, but I was pulling back on that as well. The truth of the matter is we don’t like social media.

You don’t launch a book podcast in 2020 because you love staying up on the latest media trends. I’ve mentioned before a few times that when we launched the podcast, we primarily thought of ourselves as writers. We decided to do the podcast as a way to read more, and maybe generate some name recognition for ourselves. Turns out that podcasting is actually a lot of fun, and that this has quickly become the dominant side project in our lives. Though it was not an instant success.

Months went by, the podcast launched, we were still arguing over who would have to shoulder the burden of being our “social media manager.” To help you understand our journey, I’m going to commit something of a podcasting taboo. I’m going to show you our download stats.

For the first six months we focused entirely on content (which is truly depressing if you go back and listen to the quality of those episodes) and did almost no engagement or advertising. Finally, fed up with the slow progress, I decided to do a little bit of research into social media and give it a go.

I start talking about books on Twitter

All the blogs and books about social media management suggest that you pick a platform and learn it backwards and forwards, rather than attempting to use all of them at once. I chose Twitter for a few reasons.

  • Tweets are public. You do not need to have a large number of followers for a tweet to be seen by a large number of people (though it certainly helps).
  • Tweets are short. Compared to something like instagram or tiktok where every post is a mini-project Twitter seemed low effort.
  • Decent sized user base whose demographics line up with who I imagine our audience to be. Not too old, not too young.

My plan was to get involved in book twitter. We talk about books, so our audience is probably going to consist of readers. I try to find all the popular hash tags in that space. I try to ensure that my shameless trend chasing is at least a little subtle. I wind up learning a few harsh truths.

It turns out that podcast discovery systems are kind of nonexistent. There are a seemingly endless number of companies out there who are promising that their product will remedy this issue. These companies vary widely in legitimacy. The crux of the discovery problem is that any idiot (or in our case, idiots) can make a podcast. There are literally millions of them and almost all of them are terrible. Most people are not going to pick a podcast at random from an aggregator and give it a shot. They are going to listen to something they already have some reason to believe they will like. Either it is a huge podcast like Last Podcast on the Left, or it’s a podcast hosted by someone they already know of and like.

But, I figured if I chased the trends, used the hashtags, and tried to be at least a little witty and charming then maybe someone who saw the tweet would consider looking at this podcast. It worked. It worked especially well when I hit that magical intersection of a topic I was passionate about, had content ready for, and a big Hollywood movie was coming out about it. The Dune trailer dropped right as we released our first Dune episodes.

Nerds love Dune (but they don’t love me)

Hashtag Dune is still a guaranteed impression getter, but when that trailer dropped, oh man, did my impressions skyrocket. We shot up to 400+ downloads in a month.

“Ben,” I said to myself. “You’ve made it, buddy. Time to capitalize on this success!”

We doubled down on content. The people obviously needed more. We made this bi-weekly podcast into a weekly podcast. I committed to writing one tweet per day. How long could it be till this baby started turning a profit?

Well, as you might expect the vast majority of people listened to 5-seconds of our low-quality and frankly annoying Dune episode and shut it off. The spike was in “downloads” not in “listens.” The subsequent parts of Dune received a fraction (1/4, to be exact) of the downloads that first episode did. I’d gotten their attention finally, but I forgot that I still sucked.

Over the next 4-months, our downloads tanked, but they bottomed out slightly higher than the pre-Dune episodes. We had gained some listeners, which was encouraging. After the 4th month of decline in a row I decided that I’d had enough. We’d been working on our content. We’d learned some new tricks. The audio quality had improved. I was going to make those numbers go up even if I had to start taking people’s phones when they weren’t looking and subscribe to the podcast my damn self. Fortunately, except in a few cases, it didn’t come to that.

I become involved with the podcast community on Twitter

You know what stupidly obvious thing had never occurred to me? That there were other indie podcasters out there who were desperate to get people to listen to their shows and that I could interact with them. That we might support one another by listening to each other’s shows. That we might retweet, like, comment, subscribe and review. That we might actually become regular listeners of each others shows.

Fortunately, that had occurred to a lot of other people in the space who had been doing this a little bit longer than me. I stumbled, through a few engagement-bait tweets, into the loving embrace of indie podcast twitter. Follow for follow threads boosted my account to a respectable number. When I tweeted some of those followers actually engaged with me, and that incentivized me to engage with them.

This may seem like a shallow sort of communication, and it can be. It’s not good to have only transactional relationships, but the attention-for-attention economy was a valuable boost to the podcast. Through it I encountered many shows that I do genuinely enjoy and would listen to even if I got nothing in return. I hope at least some of the podcasts I’ve interacted with on twitter feel the same way about us.

Like any community, the podcast community has it’s dramas, it’s open secrets, it’s cliques and feuds. For the most part, though, I can’t imagine this podcast having achieved any success without the engagement boost we saw from other indie podcasters. Up until this moment I had argued with multiple people that Social Media was an objective net-negative for humanity, and that we would all be better off without it. I realized that I’d been ignorant of the boon it could be to creative endeavors that would otherwise be doomed to complete obscurity. This complicated my moral relationship with social media platforms.

It’s all garbage run by shitty rich people.

The truth is that I still think social media is toxic. I think the moderation on Twitter is and always has been terrible. Donald Trump won the presidency largely because of his use of the platform which was only stopped when it became clear that he would be losing power. Social media is easily manipulated, easily abused, and addictive. I don’t believe that any amount of moderation or fact checking is going to make any social media platform into a modern day Agora where we all wax philosophical on the mysteries of existence. It is always going to be a dumpster fire.

I do not use any personal social media accounts very much. I do have a personal twitter account (@BenboSwaggins) that I post on almost exclusively when I see something on the Words About Books twitter account that enrages me so much that I must respond. I have probably deleted as many tweets from that account as I have left up. I think often about deactivating it. Because I am a hypocrite.

I need you to use social media. I need all of you to be on it as often as possible and in large numbers. I need you to be there when I want to advertise to you, even though I genuinely believe that you would all be so much better off if you spent less time on it. Sure creatives use it to promote their projects, but if it were just a platform where creatives went to talk to other creatives then it would be dead in the water. All of my listens can’t be listen-for-listen relationships. I want thousands of episode downloads per month, but I can’t listen to thousands of hours of podcasts per month.

To achieve my goals I must take from social media more than I am willing to give. I’m a software developer. I’ve achieved some fluency with the tools of social media management. I know how this works. The reasons I listed earlier for why I chose Twitter are the same reasons why Twitter will always be “a bad thing.”

  • Tweets are public. You do not need to have any qualifications to offer an opinion on any topic and have it seen by millions.
  • Tweets are short. There is no room for nuance.
  • Decent sized user base whose attention can only be held by a constant stream of bait (click, anger, engagment, etc).

The more time you spend on twitter, the more likely you are to see one of my posts and check out my podcast. I don’t want to engage in political arguments on Twitter. I don’t want you to engage in political arguments on Twitter, but if it keeps you scrolling then I might just benefit from them.

But if it keeps you scrolling…

As it would have been impossible not to hear, billionaire hype-man Elon Musk recently bought Twitter. He bought it for far more than it was worth after a particularly ill-advised bout of public posturing. He then tried to back out of the deal by arguing that Twitter had deceived him about the number of bots on the platform. He argued, possibly correctly, that something like a quarter of the Twitter user base was bots.

Unfortunately for our emerald-gilded overlord, he postured so hard that he actually waived his rights to those sort of exceptions when he made the deal. That was a very silly thing to do. As defenders of billionaires are so fond of pointing out, Elon Musk did not just have $44 billion in cash handy. The acquisition of Twitter involved a complicated series of financial transactions that negatively impacted his other companies and resulted in Mr. Musk taking on a substantial amount of debt.

The take away from all of this is that Grimes’s ex really needs Twitter to start making money. He needs Twitter to turn a profit like…yesterday. Which, if you didn’t know, it did not. Twitter has hardly ever, in its entire history, turned a profit. This is why Twitter’s share holders basically forced Twitter’s leadership to take the deal Elon Musk offered. That was likely the most money Twitter was ever going to make for them.

Many Twitter users are rightly concerned that Elon Musk is going to lean heavily into all of the most exploitative aspects of Twitter in order to squeeze blood from this strange blue emerald he was forced to acquire. This means more baiting. Less moderation. More drama. More exploitative monetization. This modern day robber baron is desperate. I suspect that Elon knows this is not going to work out. He wouldn’t have spent millions more on the legal battle if he thought he had a good plan for making Twitter a profitable company.

Things are likely going to get worse before they get better. He is going to do what it takes to keep you scrolling, keep you clicking ads, or god forbid get you to just give him the money directly. He has to do this, and nothing short of another revenue stream can change that. You leaving Twitter won’t change that. You boycotting Twitter won’t change that. This is an all or nothing gamble for Musk.

But surely, knowing a company is evil and only growing MORE evil, we shouldn’t continue to patronize it?

Like I said, I’m a hypocrite. I don’t live my morals. I shop on Amazon. I drive a car that runs on gas. I eat meat, and not just the free range stuff that had a good life before someone cut its head off. And yes, I use social media to market my podcast while also thinking that no one should be on social media.

I do have lines that I won’t cross. We can get more into that some other time, but I’m under no delusions that having some limits makes me an innocent in this life. For me, Elon Musk represents an only slightly greater evil than Twitter’s previous leadership. He is going to amplify the worst parts of Twitter, for sure, but ultimately those attributes are core components of most social media platforms. If you aren’t planning to quit social media entirely, where would you go?

Instagram?

Tiktok?

Tumblr?

Actually, Tumblr seems pretty mild by comparison. Wait, they’re owned by the same company that owns WordPress? That’s what I’m writing this on! Dang, maybe go to tumblr.

Look, the point is…

I’ve got problems with Twitter. I loathe Elon Musk. I also rely on Twitter to continue building the only side project I’ve worked on in my life that has met with any kind of success. As long as the indie podcast community remains on Twitter, then Words About Books will remain on Twitter. I think that some of the fear surrounding Elon Musk’s acquisition of the platform is justified. He is desperate, and in his desperation he is bound to do some ugly things to make a buck.

Personally, I applaud anyone’s decision to use social media less. Especially if you are using social media to discuss news and politics. By all means, use more community based platforms like discord, reddit, or mastadon if you are still looking for online social connection and Twitter is no longer for you. But. I would ask that we not pretend that Twitter hasn’t always been the platform that put Donald Trump into the oval office.

It is fun to dunk on Elon Musk. He’s a cartoonish man-child with more money than God. What’s not to hate? But the feedback loop around his Twitter acquisition is riling some corners of the internet into a hysteria that has little basis in reality.

Ben

I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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