Right after he offered to buy Twitter for $44 billion last April, Elon Musk tweeted triumphantly “we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!”
Almost a year into owning what he has renamed X, Musk by his own admission still hasn’t succeeded.
So now he has a new plan to eliminate the scourge—enlisting every X user’s help by demanding they pay him a small fee for a place in his town square.
“We’re actually going to come out with a lower tier pricing—we want it to just be a small amount of money… This is actually the only defense against vast armies of bots,” Musk said on Monday during a conversation with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after the Israeli leader had asked Musk how he could stop “armies of bots” from amplifying hate speech on X.
LIVE: Speaking with @elonmusk about how we can harness the opportunities and mitigate the risks of AI for the good of civilization. https://t.co/XiAQwOXzcP
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) September 18, 2023
Ripped right out of Tencent’s WeChat playbook
Charging every user would offer X a much-needed infusion of fresh revenue for the financially troubled company that continues to burn through its cash reserves even after shedding roughly 80% of its workforce.
More importantly, however, handing Musk the details to one’s credit or debit account will attract merchants to the platform looking to sell their goods and services directly to the Tesla CEO’s customers.
The move is taken straight out of the playbook of WeChat—the Tencent-owned messaging app that now dominates Chinese daily life.
It only became a super app after it began collecting payment details in January 2014 as part of a new offer to virtually send the red “Hongbao” envelopes of cash customary for Chinese New Year.
“The real objective behind this nationwide carnival was to make WeChat users link their apps to their bank accounts—a prerequisite to both sending and receiving the ‘virtual red package’—and thus substantially strengthen Tencent’s ability to charge WeChat users in the future,” business professor Xiaoming Yang wrote in the Asian Case Research Journal, along with two other colleagues.
After only a few years, half of the country’s population are believed to have regularly used mobile payments thanks to the idea, and today it’s impossible to imagine a China without WeChat.
Musk has often said he wanted to create his own clone, only instead of being largely limited to just one market, he’d offer it worldwide.
While he thought about starting a platform from scratch, the new social media mogul argued the Twitter deal allowed him to accelerate his plans by as many as five years, according to his own estimate.
The rebranding of Twitter was a key element in the plan. Beyond his well-documented obsession with the letter ‘X’, the world’s richest person felt users associated Twitter too strongly with 140-character microblogging and might therefore not be perceived as a platform through which one can conduct other kinds of daily business.
“In the months to come we will add comprehensive communications and the ability to conduct your entire financial world,” Musk explained late in July. “The Twitter name does not make sense in that context, so we must bid adieu to the bird.”
Bots a problem?
Indeed, the shift to a monthly subscription is less about bots than payments.
Bots are not a big problem for the average Twitter user, of which Musk claimed there are now 550 million, more than twice last year’s reported figure when it was still a publicly traded company that had to publish audited results.
If anything, bots primarily hurt advertisers, who have little knowledge of how many real consumers they are reaching with their spots. But this has become less of an issue after 60% of its U.S. advertisers terminated their business with Musk’s X.
In this context, making everyone else pay because of bot accounts that largely do not pose a direct problem to them does not appear to be an effective strategy.
But it would be a necessary step on Musk’s way to realizing his ambitions to create an “everything app”, especially as estimates suggest well under 1 million user accounts have signed up for his $8 monthly X premium subscription plan even after he began sharing some of his ad revenue.