Shitposting, Shit-mining and Shit-farming
Three Stages of Platform Decay
I’ve been moved to write this by Twitter’s turn to unblockable bottom-scraping clickbait ads (“You’re Going to Love This Tinnitus Breakthrough!”) and spreading disinformation about the horrible events in Israel and Gaza. The decay is starting to accelerate, but I’ve had a pet theory about it for months.
The short version of my argument (which is grounded not in Real Social Science, but casual observation and handwaving) is that social media platforms are improved by a moderate tincture of shitposting. More than a few drops though, and the place begins to stink up, driving away advertisers and users. This then leads platform executives to explore the exciting opportunities of shit-mining. Social media generates a lot of content - it’s gotta be valuable somehow! Who needs content moderation if you can become a guano baron? But that only makes things worse, driving out more users and more advertisers, until eventually, you may find yourself left with a population dominated by two kinds of users (a) chumps, and (b) chump-vampirizing obligate predators. This can be a stable equilibrium - even quite a profitable one! But otherwise, it isn’t good news.
Thanks for reading Programmable Mutter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a little bit of shitposting is an excellent thing for social media. People may want to be informed, but they also want to be amused. One of Mastodon’s weaknesses is its worthiness - there aren’t many people trying to be funny in mean-spirited ways, and even fewer who are half way good at it. Lovely people and all, but the platform’s attitude to popular entertainment is a little like that of the village in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. You wouldn’t want to be a crusty juggler or a mime if you can help it.
Twitter’s owner in contrast, just loves to shitpost, even if he’s no good at it. Revealed preferences would suggest that his beau ideal is a vertically integrated structure of shitposting, with himself located right at the apex, elevating those few whom he deems worthy to the next layer below, and so on down in steps to the multitudes at the base who are expected to support the whole vast human pyramid. Musk once hoped that even the haters would discover that their hate only made him stronger.
And if it’s all just shits and giggles, who needs moderators, right?
Of course, that isn’t how it worked out. The nineteenth century French prime minister Edouard Herriot is supposed to have said that politics is like a tripe sausage - it should smell a little like shit, but not too much. So too, a social media platform should smell a little bit like shitposting - but not too much. When the choices on the menu are increasingly indistinguishable variations of the shit sandwich - you have your choice of Nazi shit, white supremacy shit, let’s kick the migrants shit, anti-Semitic shit - most people and advertisers will begin considering their options.
There is a great deal of ruin in a social platform - barring some big external change, it takes a lot of hard work at the top to really drive people away in their multitudes. But Elon Musk looks to have the true grit and gumption that it takes.
The shitstorm-induced exodus is one part of Twitter’s larger problem. It is much cheaper to run a social media company when you don’t worry so much about moderation, and you’ve fired most of the engineers. But the value of the platform to users and advertisers shrinks dramatically.
So what do you do? You look for a different business model, of course. Perhaps all that shit can be mined. It might be wildly valuable, like the birdshit deposits that made people’s fortunes in the 19th century, before artificial nitrogen fixing. For sure, there’s lots of it! Got to be some money in there, so long as you can stake your claim to it.
That’s why Twitter got rid of its free API, which allowed developers, researchers and other people to get access to its data. If anyone is going to mine money from the Twitter shitheap, Twitter wants it to be Twitter (and no - I’m not going to say ‘X’). Furthermore, Large Language Models (LLMs) and their owners have an apparently insatiable demand for human generated text to train them. In April, Twitter threatened to sue Microsoft for allegedly using Twitter data as part of its training corpus.
But this solution has its limits. LLMs don’t just eat text. They excrete it. So do others. The less moderation Twitter has, the more vulnerable it is to manipulation by bots, trolls and ordinary human beings spreading bullshit because they want to believe it, or because they get some advantage from it, or because it amuses them. The more that happens, the less valuable Twitter’s data is likely to be, except for niche purposes. It could be that Twitter is making some money from people buying its data (it used to have a solid business doing this pre-Musk - I haven’t seen any good data on what is happening recently). I would guess - maybe incorrectly - that these revenues have taken a hit, and are likely to keep on declining.
There’s a famous Ronald Reagan anecdote about the limitations of blithe optimism.
“Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. 'What do you think you're doing?' the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. 'With all this manure,' the little boy replied, beaming, 'there must be a pony in here somewhere!'”
Maybe Elon will find that pony buried deep down there somewhere! But that’s not the outcome I’m betting on.
So where does that leave Twitter? There’s another hoary anecdote, where some dude complains about feeling like a mushroom, being left in the dark and covered with shit. Behind the anecdote is a truth. Mushrooms, being saprophytic, can thrive under these conditions! And so too, can a certain kind of political business model.
Rick Perlstein has a classic essay on the conservatism evolution from cause to business into racket. As he describes it, political entrepreneurs like Richard Viguerie discovered the profitability of mailing lists aimed at kooks in the 1960s. The expensive part was sending out mailers to possible prospects to identify gullible individuals who would donate to ward off this or that threat to the American Way of Life. But once you’d identified them, you had a steady reliable stream of income. If a punter responded to a mailer about one threat, you could send them another, and likely get a little more money back by return of post, and then another, and then another. Over time, the grift expanded to the vast enrichment of people like Alex Jones. People who were gullible enough to believe conservative hucksters warning about the Socialist Menace might have all sorts of other beliefs about gold, cryptocurrencies, diet supplements and what-have-you that could also be milked for profit. This discovery was not good for the conservative movement, but it was very good indeed for some prominent conservatives.
The point is this. Some people are quite happy to be kept in the dark, well fertilized with horseshit. And that is the foundation for a business model. Not a rapidly expanding one of the kind that could allow Twitter’s massive debt burden to ever be paid off. But it can keep on producing its cash crop, year in, year out.
That, I’m guessing, is where Twitter is likely to end up. Not because Musk planned it that way - he doesn’t seem to have much capacity for that kind of forethought. But because it is the path of least resistance when nothing else seems plausible. Twitter is rapidly decaying. But decay can be turned into money when you have a saprophytic crop.
So expect more exploitative clickbait advertising and fewer prestige ads. Also, perhaps, new profit sharing models aimed at exploiting algorithms and feedback loops to confuse people for commercial advantage (and efforts by regulators in the EU and elsewhere to block them or shut them down). Also, growing darkness - at a certain point, Twitter’s lack of reliable information may switch over from a perceived liability into a profit model. It would plausibly help Twitter do vampirism-at-scale, farming out the chumps to the vampires, or itself supping on their vital essences. That could turn out to be a genuine money maker for Twitter, if it can get away with it, even if it is unlikely ever to repay the initial investments.