December 5, 2022 (Updated )
With an idiosyncratic new owner holding the reins, Twitter has truly been having a rough go of things since billionaire Elon Musk acquired the social media platform in late October. In the short weeks that followed Musk turning up at the Twitter headquarters holding a sink, there has been massive upheaval in the platform’s business model — most controversial of all, the launch of a monthly paid subscription for the Twitter verified blue tick.
We’ve already discussed what verification really means to journalists, but with warnings about the platform’s demise continuing to swirl, what does the future of journalism look like on Twitter? Should we really be looking to place ourselves elsewhere?
Just How Important Is Twitter For Journalists?
The endless changes to Twitter’s verification scheme have undoubtedly dominated headlines during the past month, with Musk promising a new option for anyone to ‘buy’ a blue tick as part of a monthly subscription. Perhaps understandably, many commentators have touched on how verification feeds into journalists’ sense of self-worth. But for many journalists, Twitter itself is a tool they use regularly for work.
Before the recent changes were applied, Twitter had always used the blue checkmark next to a user’s display name to indicate active, notable, and authentic accounts of public interest. Apart from people in government, official organisations, figures in entertainment and sports, and otherwise influential individuals, news organisations and journalists were also able to apply for their accounts to be verified.
The system undoubtedly makes you jump through hoops for the blue tick, but for journalists, verification was particularly useful in sifting out information from credible sources on Twitter, and also for assuring potential interviewees that they are authentic professionals who can be trusted with sensitive materials and stories. Freelance journalists without an official email account from a news organisation can reach out to people via their verified Twitter accounts, giving their names the legitimacy people like to see.
Predictably, as soon as the option to pay for verification was launched, the impersonation accounts arrived. Since the launch of this subscription — which has already been paused and amended — high-profile figures and organisations faced copycats. The very long list includes US President Joe Biden, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Rudy Giuliani, pharmaceutical giant Eli Lily, Nintendo, several popes, Twitter itself, and of course, Elon Musk.
All this trolling is undoubtedly amusing, but there’s no ignoring how Twitter Blue subverts the very purpose of identity verification.
According to a viral tweet by Jack Lawrence, setting up a verified account for a prominent figure under Twitter’s new rules required only a VPN, a fake Apple ID, a disposable email account, and a masked debit card — a process which purportedly took him all of 25 minutes to complete. Every journalist we have spoken to since these changes were confirmed thinks the verification system has now been rendered meaningless.
Meanwhile, Twitter’s own helpdesk confirms: “Accounts that receive the blue checkmark as part of a Twitter Blue subscription will not undergo review to confirm that they meet the active, notable and authentic criteria that was used in the previous process.” Users can click on an account’s blue tick for details on whether they are a legacy verified user or a Twitter Blue subscriber, but on the surface, there is nothing to distinguish between the two types of verification.
Okay twitter blue has been such a success I need to do a thread. Feel free to add to the 🧵on the great launch of this product pic.twitter.com/cx1bEFp9Yn
— Read Jackson Rising by @CooperationJXN (@JoshuaPHilll) November 10, 2022
“People have used the paid tick to impersonate world leaders, which instantly proved that the new model is pointless,” says freelance journalist Emily Chudy. For her, and many others, the blue tick wasn’t just for clout, but is a sign that her identity has been vetted. “Without it doing that, it’s just an emoji.”
Freelance writer and marketer Nia Carnelio concurs. “Whenever a person with a tick engages with me, I [now] inevitably go and check if [they’ve] paid for it, or if they have it because they actually need or deserve it […] it’s an added hassle.” She also thinks Twitter might soon be overrun with people masquerading under a paid blue tick, “making journalists’ jobs so much harder when looking for verified information and sources.”
Nia Carnelio (L) and Pip Jones (R)
Let’s put it this way: we have yet to talk to a journalist who is willing to pay to retain or gain a Twitter blue tick. Musk has justified his decision to enforce a subscription model by saying that it breaks down the “lords and peasants system” behind the original verification — the idea is that instead of being judged arbitrarily by an organisation, anyone can now access the blue tick.
However, many users have been quick to point out the flaws in this logic — now, only those who can pay can access verification. In a world where all blue ticks incur a fee, will governments and public broadcasters be able to justify the charge? Will small charities and hyperlocal news organisations? If they don’t, it only makes the job of finding facts murkier.
Self-employed copywriter and social media manager Rachel runs the community-benefit initiative The Whaley Bridge Chronicle, using Twitter several times each day to post local news stories and information, and also manages the Twitter accounts of several small charities and community interest companies. Because these are all handled on a voluntary basis, Rachel’s main concern was if public service accounts were compelled to get verified, it would effectively close down her online news service.
“The charities I support through my freelancing and volunteering would really struggle to make the proposed payment, especially if they have more than one account to represent different operational strands or departments,” Rachel explains. According to her calculations, the cost for a parent charity and five operational arms to all get verified on Twitter would finance the monthly salary of some staff members — the blue tick is simply an unsustainable outgoing for small charities and organisations.
Image Credit: Daniel Oberhaus (2018)
Though there is now no indication that public service Twitter accounts have to be verified, if thousands of other similar users fork out for verification, while smaller operations don’t because they can’t afford to, the absence of the blue tick could cast doubt in the public’s mind, even if an account is genuine. “In times of such unprecedented hardship when so many individuals, businesses, and organisations are literally struggling to survive, it beggars belief that the richest man in the world wants to make a basic service chargeable,” Rachel laments.
But, even putting aside the worries around verification, Twitter has other problems. Confidence is at an all-time low, with advertisers pulling out of what they consider “high-risk” ad spend. Within days of his takeover, Musk has already fired 50 percent of Twitter’s workforce as well as more than 4,000 contractors, then asked those who didn’t want to be “extremely hardcore” to leave. Some speculate parts of the site will soon start breaking as a result. If the public leaves or the money runs out, journalists will also lose a valuable source of interviewees.
Unlike most other social platforms, Twitter’s advanced search features offer an easy way to find people who want to talk to you. You can search by phrases, location, timestamp, and much more — crucially, with no need to have a prior connection to them. There’s no barrier to contacting people when you do find them and no limits on how many people you can send a message to.
Speaking at a previous Journo Resources masterclass, award-winning feature writer Sophie Gallagher said she has used Twitter to discover all kinds of hard-to-find interviewees. “People are so frequently really pleased, that this message they’ve been putting into the universe, someone has got back to them,” she adds.
Should We Jump Ship To The Elephant App?
While Twitter seems to be going up in flames, another social media platform is now on fire. Mastodon is an open-source, decentralised social media network, which basically means no one person or company owns the platform.
Instead of their servers being hosted in a warehouse somewhere, Mastodon is made up of a variety of servers all over the world, each hosted by their creators. Anyone with some technical knowledge (or the ability to follow YouTube tutorials) can create their own servers, and everyone on Mastodon is linked to the larger Fediverse, regardless of which server they choose to create their account on.
Since Musk’s Twitter deal was announced, Mastodon has gained approximately half a million users in less than two weeks. At the time of writing, the platform has 1.9 million monthly active users, with well over six million accounts in total. Plenty of journalists have already created Mastodon accounts, just in case Twitter does one day implode. There is even a spreadsheet that has collated almost 1,000 journalists across Mastodon, so contacts can find each other on the new platform. However, the number of journalists who have actually quit Twitter cold turkey to migrate fully to Mastodon is much smaller.
It seems most of the reluctance to use Mastodon stems from confusion. There’s no denying that Mastodon requires a steeper learning curve than Twitter, but the basics are fairly straightforward.
Choose A Server: First, you’ll need to choose a server (also called instances by some users). These are hosted by organisations or people who usually create their servers around a particular community, such as a Glasgow server, a metal music server, an LGBTQ+ server, or an SEO-related server. Personally, I’ve chosen to go with zirk.us, a server which gathers folks in literature, arts, humanities, and writing.
Create An Account: Once you’ve chosen one, you’ll be able to set up an account and will see posts by other people on the same server on your timeline. You can also search and add accounts by their usernames, and their posts will also be added to your timeline, regardless of whether they are hosted on your server or not.
Once you start adding enough people to populate your timeline with, the Mastodon experience is not too dissimilar to Twitter. The only difference between servers is really their individual rules and community guidelines.
It’s also worth noting that there’s no real need to choose the most popular server. In larger servers upload and download times for content are a lot slower. When we created a zirk.us account, the confirmation email came through instantly, whereas the mastodon.social email took almost an hour before it arrived in our inbox.
If you do change your mind later, Mastodon does offer users the option to transfer their information across accounts.
However, Mastodon is not without its own problems. As Mastodon’s own guidelines state, each server is run individually by whomever sets it up. “Your server is your property, with your rules. It will exist as long as you want it to exist,” they stress. In short, there are no central rules or moderation, it all comes down to the people running your server — who could also shut it down at any time.
As professor Alan Rozenshtein writes in Reason, this influx of users expecting Twitter-like moderation is causing increasing tensions and growing pains. There’s no way to block or ban an account on Mastodon, no built-in appeals policy, and no standard community guidelines. This is by no means a problem unique to Mastodon (just take a look at Discord, for example) but it is perhaps not quite what some Twitter users expect.
Crucially, there’s also no ‘blue tick’ system in place for high-profile accounts here either — while users can prove they own a particular website, there’s no way to verify someone’s identity. A lot of freelance journalists won’t be able to prove they own a link either, as it relies on you owning the domain you want to verify. This leaves the platform in much the same place as Twitter’s ‘pay to play’ system — although two journalists from the Financial Times and CBS News have launched a tool to try and solve this.
Elisabeth Sherman (L) and Sophia Smith Galer (R)
So, Where Will Journalists Go?
The overall sentiment among the journalism community on Twitter is to keep using it until we can’t any more. Despite money-grubbing tactics, potential security issues, and uncertainty regarding its future, Twitter is still working right now and nothing else seems to be a direct replacement.
As food and drink editor Elisabeth Sherman puts it, “You can still post a pitch call. You can still promote your work […] For now, Twitter is still doing what we want it to do as journalists.” Whether it’s finding freelance work via calls for pitches, connecting to professionals in the industry, or reaching out to people for research and stories, Twitter has been firmly embedded in the day-to-day of most journalists, and therefore difficult to simply cut out all of a sudden.
Travel journalist and host of the Travel Goals podcast Pip Jones uses Twitter for real-time travel updates and to foster relationships with editors — despite agreeing that things look bleak, she still needs Twitter to maintain her work contacts and stay on top of travel trends. “If Twitter implodes, it’s going to be much harder to network with mainstream media as I don’t live in London and I don’t come from generational wealth.”
Sherman adds that the potential loss of Twitter means a lot of doors will close for marginalised people and people of colour who have broken into writing using the platform. Our industry is not the most accessible in the first place, and Twitter was a place where we could easily find contacts and jobs.
If this is your fear right now, Sherman recommends gathering editor contacts into one organised document sooner rather than later. “I can dip into my email and into my many freelance spreadsheets to reach out to people with pitches anytime […] Just comb through Twitter now and find all editor emails you can and save them!”
Despite gaining a reputation for users posting negative opinions all the time, Twitter has created a real community for journalism over the years. Chudy says of the current drastic change in mood, “More and more people will leave until it’s just journalists shouting at each other into the void of bigots and bots.” She is therefore now on Tumblr, though she admits it’s more for fun than work.
Meanwhile, unable to cope with the thought of being on yet another social media platform, Jones “would rather just cut my losses and have less social media in my life — maybe I’ll finally find time for a hobby!”
Otherwise, Carnelio posits, “If things stay the same (or worsen), journalists and writers might have a better chance on LinkedIn.” This is also a sentiment echoed by Sophia Smith Galer, who claims “engagement is exploding” on the platform.
no idea why everyone is going crazy over Mastodon when it’s appalling to use, and there’s already another text based platform where engagement is exploding and it’s full of employers/journos/opinion makers like Twitter…
it’s icky, I know, but…
— Sophia Smith Galer (@sophiasgaler) November 8, 2022
Ultimately, journalism is still going to go on. If using Twitter eventually becomes untenable, what’s going to change is the accessibility of finding work, and how writers promote their work. These are by no means exclusive to Twitter; any platform with an active community can potentially be used for the same purposes.
Who’s to say if Mastodon has already peaked (a search of Google Trends suggests maybe), but with a sizeable and growing group of journalists, the elephant app could still be the perfect place for you. Not to mention, as a fresh platform, you’ll also find users are more willing to follow each other and build up initial connections. Should the bird app meet its demise, at least we can still toot instead of tweet.