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This month's Frame: does it matter if Twitter is “cool”? W. David Marx on big tech as a cultural signifier
A framework that explains what makes platform usage desirable, besides the features.
In late 2022 Elon Musk announced Twitter would offer “verification” to users for $8/month, expanding access to the blue check mark hitherto exclusive to public figures. “Blue” was sold to Twitter’s user base as a subscription that would protect their identity, boost their presence and provide access to new features.
Musk expected Blue to be adopted by millions of active Twitter users. Reality has played out differently. Hundreds of thousands have signed up, but many of the most active users have chosen not to, and others subsequently unsubscribed.
Why is it that so many people—including those whose livelihoods depend on the platform—refuse to pay $8/month? The reason is cultural. The blue check has become a signifier of political and group affiliation rather than just a rational choice to upgrade features.
Until recently big consumer tech brands like Twitter, Meta, Google have been cast as “platforms” and “aggregators”. Their ubiquity and utility means they operate as critical infrastructure. For many, opting out of Instagram was no easier than opting out of smartphones. As neutral platforms they host culture, but are not considered part of it.
This is changing. The evolving technological, social and political environment is recasting these platforms as contingent consumer brands. Usage is increasingly perceived to be an active choice rather than social necessity. As such, participation is coming to signify membership of specific cultures. To understand the trajectory of consumer technology, then, we need to pay closer attention to its cultural dimension.
In his 2022 book Status and Culture, author and theorist W. David Marx argues that culture—at its most elemental—is composed of a series of “conventions”. Marx defines conventions as a “particular set of arbitrary practices” that individuals follow, and expect others to follow.
Put simply, conventions are choices we make (either consciously or consciously) when another choice is equally logical. If your intent is to get drunk you can drink vodka or gin, the result is the same. In practice, however, conventions often feel anything but arbitrary. As a guest, you could choose to attend a wedding in your gym kit, but there is a social cost involved because other guests would likely ostracise you for not meeting their tacit expectations.
In this sense conventions are meaningful to the extent they are common knowledge within a given group. It’s important that “individuals know something, and know that others know it, and know that others know that they know it”.
The fact that conventions are associated with specific groups makes them signifiers of status. Marx argues that the highest status conventions combine three ingredients. First they must have cachet: they are associated with groups that are considered high status. A suit from Savile Row in London has cachet because it is where the British aristocracy have traditionally sourced their tailoring.
Second, the convention must have signalling costs. It must be difficult to acquire, either because it is expensive or, more subtly, because it takes time, knowledge, networks, career success or taste to earn. Acquiring an Ivy League degree has status for most of these reasons.
Finally, high status conventions must come with an alibi: a believable reason for adoption other than status seeking. Business Class travel successfully obscures status seeking behind a set of plausible alibis: the need for a business executive to work on the flight and be well rested on landing. The truth that business travellers value the frisson of superiority afforded to them by lounge access, priority boarding and personalised service remains unarticulated.
Applying the framework
Compared to most consumer businesses, technology companies are proudly “non-arbitrary”. Their missions are focused on solving foundational human needs. Meta seeks to “bring the world closer together”, Google to “organise the world’s information” and Twitter to “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly.”
Recently, however, emerging alternatives have challenged some underlying assumptions. The success of Discord and Telegram undercuts Meta as the inevitable infrastructure of connection. ChatGPT raises the question whether Google will remain the default for search. While new apps such as Artifact and platforms like Mastodon, seek to unseat Twitter’s as the home of breaking opinion and information.
As these new options proliferate incumbents are revealed as arbitrary rather than inevitable, and, by extension, usage is reframed as a “convention” in the sense outlined by Marx. Using these platforms becomes a choice to opt-in to a group, which in turn indicates status.
Analysed through this framework, the reaction to Twitter Blue becomes a lot clearer.
First, what cachet does Blue have? Personally spearheaded by Elon Musk, the blue check is now closely associated with the billionaire entrepreneur, and the distinctive politics and values he embodies. This makes Blue a highly aspirational convention for people who share his outlook and interests. For others, the association does the precise opposite, becoming a convention to be actively rejected and even ridiculed. Non-adoption is therefore not neutral: it becomes a meaningful choice that signifies membership of the “not-Blue” group.
Second, what are the signalling costs of joining Blue? Previously to earn a blue check meant Twitter had recognised an individual as a “public figure” because of their fame, professional success and/or institutional affiliation. As such, a blue check was hard to acquire and relatively scarce. Now, anyone can acquire a blue check by paying $8/month. Twitter Blue democratised verification, but it also reduced its signalling costs.
Third, is there a meaningful alibi for adopting Blue? Features such as identity verification, longer tweets and editing provide an alibi to those who are really motivated by the fact their tweets will be boosted ahead of non-subscribers (effectively paying to buy “clout”). However, whether these provide a sufficient alibi for people who want the benefits of Blue, but feel uncomfortable about its newly acquired cachet remains to be seen.
The answer to the question of whether Twitter Blue remains a high status convention depends on who you ask. As such it offers a vivid microcosm of the deeper shift happening across consumer technology (and arguably wider society). Analysed as a functional feature set, it’s difficult to explain the profile of users choosing to pay $8/month. Analysed as a cultural convention, adoption patterns start to make much more sense.
Musk’s vision for Twitter is to be the ultimate platform, a WeChat style “everything app”. But his interventions to date seem to have had the opposite effect, lashing the brand to a particular group of people, while establishing Twitter Blue as the archetypal convention of membership to this group. For the time being most “non-Blue” users remain on Twitter, a subculture rebelling against its new owner, whilst continuing to offer their time and attention to advertisers. The fact they remain demonstrates Twitter continues to be a non-arbitrary choice for many. In this sense it remains a successful, unique platform. But what is equally clear is that Twitter, like Google and Meta, can no longer claim to be above culture. As choice increases they become entangled in status games, with downstream consequences for product and strategy.
Frames is a monthly newsletter that sheds light on the most important issues concerning business and technology.
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