Social Media Platform Integrity

Published on February 21, 2023

It should go without saying that anyone who uses a “free” service on the internet is not a customer of the company that provides the service. At the risk of repeating a tired cliché, users of a social media platform actually represent the product that is being sold to advertisers. A social media company’s core business model is to attract as many users as possible and to understand as much as possible about the users. With a good understanding of the interests of users, segmented audiences can be offered to advertisers who view social media as a lead generation channel.

Social media users are motivated to post and read content for a variety of reasons. A significant subset of users on Twitter, particularly in the finance and real estate sectors, hope to increase their visibility and influence either at an individual professional level or on behalf of their company. Many of these users gain large followings and become known as experts in their fields. Over time, their professional reputation can become intertwined with their online persona. 

Twitter’s “blue checkmark” feature was introduced to improve the integrity of the platform by ensuring that “notable” accounts were legitimate. Although the implementation of the blue checkmark was capricious and inconsistent, the idea was that Twitter itself would benefit from improving platform integrity, not that the company was doing a favor for high profile accounts. Platform integrity encourages ordinary users to read content and improves confidence among advertisers.

Shortly after Elon Musk acquired Twitter, I posted ideas for monetizing the platform that included charging for account verification. I thought that there was sufficient value in verification to charge users for it, but unfortunately the new “Twitter Blue” that was rolled out in a hurry granted blue checkmarks without any verification which resulted in less platform integrity rather than more, as Elon Musk himself discovered when he and other celebrities were impersonated in the days following the rollout. This resulted in a suspension of Twitter Blue sales followed by a revamp. 

I now believe that I was incorrect in thinking that verification should be part of a premium offering. Platform integrity should be viewed as a core feature of a social media platform, not as an add-on. While the user benefits from verification, the platform benefits even more since overall confidence is increased as a result. That provides a better product to sell to advertisers. 

Unfortunately, Twitter recently moved even further in the wrong direction by eliminating the ability of free users to secure their accounts with two-factor authentication via SMS.1 Two-factor authentication has become a core element of security for nearly all financial institutions and should be a basic feature of a platform where hacking and impersonation has reached epidemic levels.

I can say from experience that anyone in the online content business needs to have a social media presence if the goal is to grow, and this is even more true if there are any products being sold. It is likely that Elon Musk will see a short-term boost for Twitter Blue revenue as users with a great deal to lose feel compelled to pay for basic security. However, overall platform integrity will decline since most users will not pay.

I first posted on Twitter under the @rationalwalk handle fourteen years ago and, over the years, accumulated many followers. In return for the services Twitter provided to The Rational Walk, the platform benefited because advertisers would pay to have their sponsored tweets appear near my tweets. You would think that Twitter would want to improve platform integrity rather than degrade it. However, when I recently reported an obvious imposter account, Twitter would not remove the account even though it has sent direct messages to several followers who also reported the imposter. 

I will not pretend to have a solution to Elon Musk’s problem of how to rectify overpaying for a dysfunctional social media platform. However, I could invert the problem and give him advice on how to damage the business. To do so, he should actively attempt to reduce the integrity of the platform by making users less confident that the content they are seeing is authentic. He should sow doubt among the user base by encouraging fraudulent accounts. By doing so, advertisers will further lose confidence in the platform and be willing to pay less for targeting an increasingly disillusioned user base, if they are willing to advertise at all. 

Basic security features and quickly banning obvious imposter accounts should be a baseline level of service on any social media platform. This provides benefits to users but even greater benefits to the platform since it encourages an environment of authenticity and trust. 

I have modified my policy on Twitter many times, but finally concluded that I will no longer use the service at all, even to post links to articles. There seems to be no other course of action other than to tell followers that I will never tweet or send them a direct message. I have no product to sell and my ego isn’t tied up in the number of subscribers I have, so why should I endure the aggravation? 

It is tempting to delete my Twitter account entirely, but doing that would potentially allow someone else to acquire the @rationalwalk handle and make the impersonation problem even worse. I am not among those rooting for Elon Musk to fail, but I’m now among those who have abandoned his platform and, in a very small way, Elon has less of a “product” to sell to advertisers without my tweets. 

Copyright and Disclaimer

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Social Media Platform Integrity
  1. Correction: The original article neglected to include the words “via SMS”. Twitter still permits two-factor authentication via other methods for free subscribers, as described in the press release which was linked to in the original article. []
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