Elon buying Twitter is a good reminder about platform ownership.

Chris

Chris

Christopher Keelty is a writer and artist based outside New York City.
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If I’m honest, leaving Twitter is hard for me. It was my favorite social media platform for several reasons. For one, I liked most of the people I followed, and I learned a lot from them.

My follower list includes a lot of people who are different from me and who I might not encounter in my daily life — people in other countries and immigrants to this one, People of Color, disabled people, transgender people, and veterans, just to name a few — and from whom I have learned a lot and gained valuable perspective.

I’ve made professional connections, especially in my creative endeavors, and gained a lot of exposure for my cartoon work and essays. I have a few “friends,” which I put in quotes because we’ve never met in person, including a handful of celebrities I admire. Though I’m a little ashamed to admit it, there’s a nice ego boost when a famous person turns up in your replies.

There’s also just that pleasing dopamine rush of knowing people are paying attention. Blogging and long-form writing can bring occasional bursts, but there’s nothing like Twitter to deliver that instant gratification of likes and replies.

So yeah, even though this is a choice I’m making, I’m mad about it. Elon didn’t have to buy Twitter. The purchase doesn’t even make any sense, and it’s already been financially damaging to him, his investors, Twitter, and Tesla.

But there is one benefit: It’s a good reminder to those of us who invest our time and our energy and our emotions in an online platform that we have no control over those platforms. Any of them can change their rules on a whim. They can close shop, or put up paywalls, or sell out to a random evil billionaire, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

As a creative — note, not a professional creative, though I have aspirations — nothing is more valuable than an audience. But we must remember that unless we own the platform, “our” audience is just a tiny segment of the platform’s audience.

As of this writing, I have 7,127 Twitter followers. From what I can tell, this audience size puts me ahead of more than 99% of Twitter users. But while there is some benefit there for me, in building a reputation and promoting my work, I have to remember that I am also doing labor for someone else. If 7,127 people feel that my tweets add value to their lives, that is 7,127 people for whom I am making Twitter more valuable.

The irony does not escape me that one of my favorite Twitter accounts has been For Exposure, run by Ryan Estrada, which shares requests from prospective clients for creatives to do unpaid labor, “for the exposure.” For Exposure has more than 240,000 followers on Twitter. But Ryan doesn’t get paid for those tweets. He tweets for the exposure.

Over on Medium, I somehow acquired more than 4,049 followers. Medium does at least pay me for my labor, in some form. On average I think I make about $2.50 a month, though there have been months where I’ve made hundreds, and even one month where I made over $1,000 for a featured article that got pretty popular. But Medium could revamp their site tomorrow, with no notice, and while that money would still be mine, those 4,000 fans would be lost to me.

[A quick aside: In researching the figures for this article I learned that more than 61% of American Twitter users (and more than 70% of global users) are male. Boy, if that statistic alone doesn’t tell you a lot.]

It’s not as if there isn’t precedent. A few years back I invested time and effort building up a professional Facebook page. I acquired just over 1,300 followers, who would see when I announced new cartoons or pieces of writing. Then Facebook changed their algorithm. Now if I post on that page, I’m lucky if 13 of those 1,300 people see the post. If I want to reach my audience, I have to pay Facebook. Instagram works the same way, though it was never my platform of choice and so I wan’t much impacted.

I was active on YouTube for a few years, around 2013–2016 or so. I quit because it got overwhelming needing to produce video content on top of writing and drawing and working a regular job, but right around the time I left YouTube changed their partner program. For years, anyone who uploaded videos to YouTube would get a small share of advertising revenue, but around 2016 or so they decided people would have to meet minimum standards — at least 1,000 followers, and a minimum number of hours watched per year. While it didn’t bother me much, for a lot of aspiring YouTubers this was catastrophic.

I won’t even get into Tumblr, which again I didn’t use very much, but which essentially imploded after their 2018 decision to ban adult content. I had my own issues with Tumblr — particularly how many users had grown their audience using other people’s work — but the fact remains that for countless people who built their presence on Tumblr, a unilateral decision by the platform owners demolished the fruits of their labor.

The point here is that Elon Musk buying Twitter is just one example, and a valuable reminder, that online platforms do not belong to their users. The work we put into them might benefit us in the short term, but in the long term we are at the mercy of the actual owners.

Now, maybe you’re wondering about the one bit of the Internet I do own. Well, here at ChristopherKeelty.com, we got 19 views so far today. I average around 400 views a month. I don’t run any ads (the tiny bit of revenue simply isn’t worth the labor and damage to readability) so I don’t make any money. But at least I’m in charge of what happens here.

…except when I get too many hits and my hosting company shuts me down.

Sigh.

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