Elon Musk Is Approaching Twitter As If Its Users Are Interchangeable. Is He Right?

James Surowiecki
4 min readNov 4, 2022
Elon Musk, 2018 (Daniel Oberhaus)

Since taking over Twitter last week, Elon Musk has found himself embroiled in multiple controversies, including his clashes with two of the most high-profile users on the site, novelist Stephen King (who has 6.9 million followers) and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who has 13.5 million followers. Both King and AOC were expressing their discontent with Musk’s plan to charge users $8 a month (originally $20 a month, before King protested) for the so-called blue check, which verified users at Twitter currently get for free.

On Tuesday, AOC tweeted “Lmao at a billionaire earnestly trying to sell people on the idea that ‘free speech’ is actually a $8/mo subscription plan,” to which Musk replied, “Your feedback is appreciated, now pay $8.” That response got more than a million likes, and sparked a debate across the site over Musk’s plan and over his willingness to alienate current blue checks (of which, full disclosure, I am one) in pursuit of more revenue for the company.

My position on this, which I wrote about this week for Fast Company, is that alienating so-called power users — high-volume, high-follower accounts —is a bad idea. The economic reality of Twitter’s business is that it is highly dependent on the content produced by these power users, who generate most of the traffic on the site. Twitter doesn’t pay these users — of whom AOC is one — anything, but it derives enormous economic value from their work. So nickel-and-diming them by requiring them to pay $8 a month for a small perk is a quintessential pennywise, pound-foolish move.

Others disagree. They think power users are well-compensated for their tweets in the form of the exposure that Twitter gives them, which creates more opportunities to build the brand and market themselves, and therefore it’s totally reasonable for Musk to try to get a little money out of them.

I think that’s wrong, and I think it’s wrong in large part because it rests on a fundamentally mistaken assumption about the way people use Twitter. That assumption, which is often implicit in the way people talk about the site, is that users essentially have a set amount of time they devote to Twitter every day, and, roughly speaking, they’ll fill that amount of time with…

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James Surowiecki

I’m the author of The Wisdom of Crowds. I’ve been a business columnist for Slate and The New Yorker and written for a wide range of other publications.