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Twitter Tumbleweed Watch
The "view" count reveals a different story than Elon intended
I just want to share some back-of-the-envelope math. I’m increasingly convinced that Twitter (or at least the network neighborhoods that comprise my Twitter experience) is becoming a ghost town. Here’s why:
A couple months ago, I spoke with Nancy Scola for her story about why DC-types can’t seem to quit Twitter. One of my comments became the headline: “I caught lightning in a bottle. I will be one of the last people to leave Twitter.”
The “lightning” in this case, was the whole “Bretbug” dustup back in August 2019. Before Bret Stephens got mad and wrote to my provost, I had about 9,000 followers on the platform. After his weeklong tantrum was over, I had around 40,000 Twitter followers. That number has held pretty steady ever since — today I have around 42,000. That’s… a lot. On paper at least, it makes Twitter a much larger and more valuable megaphone than I am likely to have anywhere else.
I have 3,500 followers on Mastodon. Mastodon is fun! It kind of has the vibe of Twitter circa 2011. I like it. But if I want to promote a new essay that I’ve written, Twitter is my bread and butter. That’s where people will see it and share it.
(This is a classic “network effects” story. The value of Twitter is derived from the number of people who are also using it. Twitter is the solution to a coordination game. Mass-scale coordination games are not easy to solve.)
But that number — 42,000 Twitter followers — has begun to seem hollow. When I tweet something, it isn’t actually viewed by 42,000 individuals. It’s seen by the subset of those 42,000 people that happen to be staring at Twitter’s chronological timeline at the time I send the tweet, plus anyone who is shown the tweet through Twitter’s algorithmic timeline. And that reduced-megaphone turns out to be a lot less irreplaceable.
I first noticed it last month. I wrote a piece for the Atlantic about ChatGPT. (It’s a good piece! I think it holds up well!) The piece had everything that my normal substack posts lack —a real editor, professional art, a catchy headline. I shared it to Twitter and Mastodon. I posted about it on Substack too.
Here’s a screenshot of the Twitter post. Notice the view count, which Elon had just recently pushed as a new feature.
I didn’t reach 42,000 people by tweeting my article. I reached less than 3,000 people. And that has been pretty consistent. Unless I write something spicy that gets a lot of retweets, the view-counter tells me I’m reaching 2,000-3,000 people.
Here’s my post from earlier this week. 2,203 views.
I figure there are two potential explanations. (Well, there are three, but I’m going to dismiss the third.)
(1) Maybe I’m a little bit shadowbanned?
I don’t think this is especially likely. But I can’t say I don’t deserve it. I have spent a lot of time heckling Elon on Twitter. I have said a great many things, I have meant every one of them, and none of them very nice. Elon fans might have flagged my tweets for review. (If somebody was repeatedly saying the stuff I say about Elon to someone I like, I would flag their tweets for review too.) One of the few surviving Twitter employees may have looked at my tweets and said “nope! Too mean to the bossman. Totally uncalled for. You will receive less algorithmic amplification from now on.”
That seems like a reasonable thing for the company to have done.
(2) Many of the people who follow me on Twitter have either quit the site or check it a lot less.
This is what I mean by Twitter becoming a ghost town.
You wouldn’t notice it from the activity in the algorithmic feed. There’s still Twitter-drama. People still post article links and TikToks. But the crowd is thinning out. People are locking-but-not-deleting their accounts. (If you delete your account, someone can grab the freed up username and impersonate you.) People are deleting the app from their phone. People are spending their attention-minutes somewhere else — Instagram or TikTok or Mastodon or Slack or Discord or, I dunno, going for a nice walk outdoors or something.
(3) The view-counter might be garbage.
I’m dismissing this explanation for now, since I have no way to evaluate it. And it would be pretty surprising if views were being undercounted, rather than overcounted. Usually social media platforms end up getting in trouble for inflating their metrics, not deflating them. But it’s a possibility because there are only like sixteen engineers left at Twitter and this new feature was pushed just before the holiday. …Who knows, y’know?
Here’s where we get to the back-of-the-envelope math:
I have a bit more than 2,300 Substack subscribers. My posts appear in the inboxes of all those subscribers. Everyone presumably at least views the headline, whether they open and read the article or not.
If I’m getting 2,000-3,000 views through Twitter, and ~2,300 views through Substack’s email distribution, then my Substack has already reached the same effective size as my Twitter following.
What’s more, Substack is growing, while Twitter is shrinking. Mastodon is growing too (though they don’t provide comparable analytics, and the user experience probably benefits from having fewer gamified metrics.).
Twitter isn’t irreplaceable. Not even for minor-Twitter-celebrities like me who have much larger followings on the site than they would have anywhere else.
And that’s because Twitter is becoming a ghost town. (Certainly not for everyone. If you’re a crypto-spammer, the place is probably hopping again. If you’re a white nationalist, it must be exciting to see so many of your old buddies have their bans rescinded.)
Twitter’s locked-in value comes from all the people that spend too much time there. It benefits from having over a decade of habit formation, and from all the sedimentary network development that happened along the way.
Thanks to Elon adding the view count to the native Twitter app, we’re now constantly reminded how many people are actually seeing our tweets.
For me, at least, what Elon revealed is that Twitter is a megaphone equipped with dying batteries.
I’ll keep using it, just like I use all the other tools. But it’s already much less special than I thought.