Musk’s volatility is alienating Twitter’s top content creators

Elon Musk’s ever-changing Twitter Inc. The content policies have been applied haphazardly to justify banning the accounts of many prominent journalists who cover them, which has drawn the ire of regulators and free-speech advocates.

The moves have given the people who create the most content for the social network a reason to flee, which can be bad for business.

On Twitter, a small minority of users produce the vast majority of tweets. According to Pew Research, 97 percent of posts on the service come from 25 percent of users. Media people who rely on Twitter’s fast-flowing feed to inform about their jobs are among the top power users. They’re such an important constituency that for years before Musk, Twitter recruited and worked directly with media companies to sign up its journalists for the site and verify their accounts.

According to Lara Cohen, partner and former vice president of marketing, reporters are the “heartbeat” of the user base — a team that was decimated in Musk’s recent layoffs.

Twitter needs its power users because the more interesting content that appears on its site first gives other people more reason to join in to share and comment on those posts. This generates more tweets, which in turn creates more advertising revenue opportunities.

Musk is also launching a subscription service that will cost $8 a month, the success of which will depend on Twitter providing regular valuable information and entertainment to subscribers. And he needs Twitter to grow and be successful financially, in order to repay the banks that loaned him billions to buy the network.

Musk understands this in principle. In his first question-and-answer session with employees as its new boss in November, he said Twitter needed to find a way to recruit top talent from YouTube and TikTok and compensate them for their work.

When he released internal documents detailing decisions taken by Twitter’s former management, he agreed to release his findings to the social network first, to journalists with access to the so-called #TwitterFiles.

And yet, in practice, Musk is making life difficult for its top creators. On Thursday, a half-dozen journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere who chronicled the banning of an account tracking their private jets found their accounts suspended. Some had followings in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

Over the weekend, after reinstating some of those users, it banned the more highly followed journalists — all of whom were working on stories about Musk. Fearing that anyone could be banned at any time, top users started sharing links to their alternate accounts.

That too bothered Musk. So Twitter introduced a new policy against directing followers to Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon and other competing sites.

“This is the last straw,” tweeted Paul Graham, a prominent venture capitalist with 1.5 million followers. “I give up. You can find a link to my new Mastodon profile on my site. Soon, his account also became temporarily unavailable.

It is not uncommon for social media sites to discourage linking from competitors. Facebook has sometimes done this algorithmically or automatically — a practice that was criticized in a federal antitrust case. On Instagram, another Meta Platforms Inc. Assets, it’s become harder for larger accounts to earn the verified check mark if they link to a competing account in their profile. On TikTok, most accounts can’t link anything to their profiles.

But on Twitter, which is mostly text-based, creators who may have large followings on other sites have historically flocked to market their work, regardless of where it resides. Such a broad policy against it is “unprecedented,” said Jason Goldman, an early Twitter executive. “What matters more is that they are afraid to flee.”

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With feedback from Twitter’s top users showing no signs Musk has made some concessions. On Sunday, he apologized and said he would hold a vote on major policy changes going forward, as well as tweeting a poll asking users to decide whether he should step down as head of Twitter. No.

“Any platform that doesn’t recognize or honor its most influential creators usually doesn’t last long,” said Taylor Lorenz, a Washington Post journalist covering the creator economy. She found herself temporarily banned over the weekend, after asking Musk to comment on a story.