Will the New York Times ever quit Twitter?
Elon's latest changes are another reason for the Times to leave. And for you to sign up for this newsletter.
I’m not rooting for Twitter’s demise.
Don’t get me wrong: I have deeply ambivalent feelings about it. As a person who’s been a frequent subject of criticism on the platform — often in ways that I think are misinformed or unfair — I’m sometimes uncertain whether it’s been worth the psychological toil. And while I think Twitter is extremely valuable as a way to follow the news, I have mostly negative feelings about whether it’s been good for our democracy. The dunking culture of Twitter and the way it tends to gamify tribalism is a big negative, particularly if you don’t quite fit in with the dominant tribes.
I also have deeply ambivalent feelings about Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk, who has renamed the platform ‘X’. Elon is very much in my headspace these days — the chapter I’m currently writing in my book is about venture capital and Silicon Valley, and Musk plays a prominent role in it. I don’t want to provide an overly simplified takeaway about Musk here while I’m working out the thesis for the more complicated one. Overall, I see his stewardship of Twitter as having been mostly negative, but with notable exceptions — the increased use of Community Notes, for instance — and most of the problems I have with Twitter predated Musk.
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But I feel a little bit trapped by Twitter because I have what you might call a vested interest in it. The platform’s rise to prominence overlapped with mine. This tweet from Election Night in 2012, which playfully mocked the New York Times’s headline style even while I was working there, is one of my two favorites of all-time.1
Twitter first gained traction as a news platform in the 2008 election and then peaked roughly in November 2012. Based on Google search traffic, it was never again quite in the zeitgeist as much as it was in 2012 — except for a short period encompassing the end of the 2020 election and its aftermath.2
Although Twitter did continue to add users after 2012, it did not gain influence. Instead the mid-2010’s were the era of the Facebook News Feed and the mostly shitty content it rewarded. However, it helped me to have been one of the early “stars” on Twitter. It was an accident of timing. If you reran the world and Twitter had been founded slightly earlier or later, I think I’d end up with a reasonably large following, but not the 3.3 million people I wound up with.
Those followers are both a curse — because they increase the switching costs of moving away from Twitter — and a blessing. I’m trying to sell this newsletter, and next year I’ll be trying to sell a book, perhaps along with other new ventures. The conversion rate from Twitter is often lower than you might think — there have been some posts that got quite a lot of traffic from Twitter, but other times it’s been like trying to squeeze blood out of a stone. (I have no idea how much of this differences are algorithmic versus organic.) But I’m not an idiot: 3.3 million followers is a good sales funnel, even of some of those subscribers are bots — or hate my guts.
The latest change at Twitter is that previews to external links no longer display headlines, just images. It’s not that big a deal, I guess. There are workarounds: you can embed the headline in the image, for instance, as you saw if you clicked over from Twitter to this post. Musk has made some noises about this improving Twitter’s aesthetics — but his primary motivation is clear:
Musk’s algorithm wants to keep people on X, and external links reduce time spent on X, he says. This might be another case of a short-sighted algorithm solving for a local rather than a global optimum. If I find something interesting to read on Substack via Twitter, that might end my current session on Twitter. But the reason I go to Twitter in the first place is to find those interesting links, all in one place.
This, of course, was always the tension between publishers and Facebook. Facebook wanted you in their walled garden; you wanted them to send you copious amounts of traffic. I’ve never posted much at Facebook, because the deal didn’t seem worth it. FiveThirtyEight articles rarely had the emotional cadence that Facebook’s algorithm rewarded. And I didn’t particularly like their garden — I wanted you to see the beautiful data visualizations we built at FiveThirtyEight, not a crappy-looking version interspersed with photos of your cousin’s bachelorette party.
The previous ownership at Twitter at least seemed to understand that publishers wanted to use the platform not so much as a virtual town square but as a place where you could hawk your wares and invite people into your space. Although to be fair to Musk, their business model never worked particularly well.
Musk, to his credit, has sometimes directly paid Twitter users, although the program has been haphazard and the standards for getting paid are unclear. (I’ve never been paid, despite getting a lot of — positive and negative — engagement. It may be because my blue checkmark was gifted to me along with other people with 1+ million followers.) But at least in principle, I have no problem with Musk making it harder to direct traffic to external links if he’s making up for that by paying you directly. If you’re an “independent content creator” — which is I guess what I am for the time being — that deal might be worth it for you.
What I’m not sure I understand, though, is how it’s going to work for a place like the New York Times.
The Times has supremely persnickety editorial standards, in everything from their choice of fonts to their expensive and award-winning photography and graphics departments. They don’t want Musk making their aesthetic decisions for them. They are also selling to a lot of premium, luxury advertisers. They’re not going to want to run Maggie Haberman up against a bunch of Cheech & Chong weed gummy ads.
Nor will they want her on a level playing field with a bunch of randoms who paid for Twitter Blue. I’m not trying to be mean to the randoms. I don’t entirely agree with Elon that there should be less of a hierarchy in media — his reason for removing legacy blue checkmarks — but I sort of see where he’s coming from.
However, the New York Times likes the hierarchy because it’s at the top of it. And the Times also has other reasons to be annoyed with Twitter:
As is the case at other newsrooms, it’s long been a place where internal disputes boil over in public or where its reporters say things that its editors would ever allow them to say in the paper itself.
Look, I’m not planning to leave Twitter quite yet. It’s still a relatively low-effort way to promote my other endeavors. Every incremental change that makes it harder to direct people to places like this newsletter reduces Twitter’s utility to me, but it isn’t yet to the point of not being worth it.
However, I’m something of an outlier in having a very high number of Twitter followers relative to my overall public profile, and this newsletter is still very young. For now, Twitter still represents a smallish but meaningful minority of Silver Bulletin traffic. (I hope it won’t be that way six months or a year from now, which is why it helps if you subscribe.)
For the Times, however, the share of traffic it gets from Twitter is almost certainly quite fractional. And there’s a case that Times’s position would be strengthened in several respects if Twitter played less of a role in the media ecosystem. It’s also a big enough player that if it left Twitter — and demanded its reporters did, too — it could make a big dent in Twitter’s utility as a platform, or perhaps start a cascade of other publishers for the exits.
So look, Elon, we’re sort of in this together, I guess. I want X to succeed because I have 3.3 million followers there. You want it to succeed (unless you don’t) because you spent $44 billion on it. I’ve often criticized the New York Times, but I used to work there. My mental model of their decision-making process — not based on any inside knowledge, just my mental model — is that staying on Twitter is getting to be a pretty damned close decision for them. Every incremental change that makes it harder for them to gain traffic or otherwise differentiate their brand runs some risk of the Sulzbergers saying “fuck it, we’re done”. I think if the Times quit, other major publishers might follow. (You’re right that there is a lot of groupthink in the mainstream media.) And while you’d probably find the Times leaving extremely amusing in the moment, I think that would be quite bad for X in the long run.
Namely the events of January 6 and Donald Trump’s subsequent suspension from the platform.