Elon Musk has hinted at the possibility of building a paywall for all users of X, formerly known as Twitter, in order to combat “vast armies of bots” clogging up the social media platform.
During a live stream on X with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, billionaire Musk said the only way to stop the automated bots is through a subscription-based model, which would cost users “a small monthly payment”.
“Because a bot costs a fraction of a penny, call it a tenth of a penny, but even if it has to pay a few dollars or something, some minor amount, the effective cost of bots is very high,” the Tesla and SpaceX boss explained.
Officially, X estimates that the number of bots on its platform is around five per cent. A Statista report said this means there are roughly around 16.5m bots
However, Botometer, a platform for checking bot followers, put the figure much higher at 20 per cent.
X did not immediately respond to City A.M.‘s request for comment.
This may not be the first time Musk has openly contemplated such a paywall. He reportedly discussed this idea with venture capitalist David Sacks late last year, according to tech newsletter Platformer.
Since he took over the platform in October 2022, Musk has made several big changes, including the rebranding of Twitter as X and the replacement of the legacy verified program with the Twitter Blue subscription service.
X’s current premium subscription starts at £9.60 a month.
How will this affect X?
As often seems the case after Musk drops a bombshell, social media experts have slated the idea of a subscription-only model.
“It is a uniquely terrible idea,” said Joseph Teasdale, head of tech at Enders Analysis.
“The reason anyone is on Twitter is because of the other people who are there. Doing something that would cause huge volumes of people to leave, like charging users, will undermine the fundamental value of the platform.
“Twitter’s problem historically was the amount of friction involved in onboarding new users – charging will supercharge, not solve, that problem.”
Charging users solves other problems though, namely X’s negative cash flow due to a 50 per cent decline in advertising revenue and a heavy debt load.
Tom Anderson, chief executive at digital marketer Hummingbird Agency, said this is as much about making back some cash as it is about evicting bots.
“This is essentially Elon trying to recoup some of the billions he has spent,” he said.
“Twitter, now X, has never managed to positively monetise its platform for users and this will almost certainly see a drop in active accounts.”
However, there may be a method to Musk’s madness.
His latest move “demonstrates the need for a true alternative,” reckons Paolo Pescatore, independent media analyst at PP Foresight.
While pretenders to X’s crown such as Mastodon and Mark Zuckerberg’s overhyped Threads have all been “short lived”, there could be scope for something bigger.
“Ultimately it will be hard for any of them to monetise through paid for features including monthly access given the slew of services that exist,” explained Pescatore.
But now seems like an ideal moment for Musk to plough through with his grand superapp ambitions to drive much needed revenue growth.
“By having a better sense of users’ habits under one super app, we will expect to see more hyper personalised services, features and offers.
“This opens up scope for plentiful business models including subscription, a la carte and of course ads,” said Pescatore.
“Expect the unexpected with Musk.”
Ian Whittaker, independent media analyst, also said he would not write off the chances of an X paywall working if it is priced low enough for people to say “why not?”.
X gives people a place to find information they cannot get elsewhere, especially with 2024 elections in the UK and US, and those who have a livelihood based on X “will do all they can to get their followers to pay”, he argued.