How X Could Make Itself More Creator-Friendly

Youtube page with x and elon musk
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The phrase “Pivot to Video” sends a chill down the spine of old-school creators and long-time internet users. Just under a decade ago, publishing companies started abandoning traditional models for journalism and written content in favor of the kinds of short-form video that’s frequently shared on third-party platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and that one app that used to be Twitter. The impact of this shift – much of which was inspired by misleading or flat-out inaccurate view counts published by the platforms themselves – is still felt today. With the entire journalism and digital media industry collapsing in on itself, the “pivot to video” craze is sometimes cited as the beginning of the end, the first major warning sign that its foundation wasn’t entirely stable.

So it’s understandable that Elon Musk and X’s recent focus on video – and explicit attempt to transform the social media app into a YouTube-esque streaming video platform that users watch on TVs – has been met with some cynicism. When X CEO Linda Yaccarino posted yesterday that “X is becoming a video-first platform,” Dropout host and personality Ife Nwadiwe summed up the reactions with a simple “GTA San Andreas” meme reading “Ah shit, here we go again.”

Still, more competition in the streaming video space can be good for users. Who knows how much less user-friendly Twitch might have been if they weren’t facing constant competition from YouTube, Kick, Facebook, and other new entrants? YouTube’s fast-growing Shorts feature would probably not even exist without the threat of losing the kids to TikTok. At core, another major player jumping into the space could be viewed as a positive.

So, purely as a thought exercise, what would it actually take for X to transition from its current status as a declining social media app that has struggled to retain advertisers into a bonafide YouTube rival?

More Viewership

The biggest overall hurdle facing Musk, Yaccarino, and X if they want to genuinely challenge major players in the streaming space is clearly traffic. Even Twitter at its peak of success, visibility, and popularity was no real match for YouTube, the most-watched streaming video app in the US. By most accounts, Twitter use has been on a steady decline since even before Musk’s takeover in Fall 2022. (This was part of his rationale in buying it, after all.) By the company’s 2022 count, the number of “heavy tweeters” – those who log in just about every day, and post at least three or four times a week – has been dropping since the early days of the pandemic.

All of the very public PR headaches and controversies that Musk and the service have attracted over the last few years appear to be making the situation worse. As analyst Jasmine Enberg told the AP in October of last year, “X has driven away users, advertisers, and now it has lost its primary value proposition in the social media world: being a central hub for news.” Her company, Insider Intelligence, estimates that X earned around $1.89 billion in ad revenue in 2023, down 54% from the previous year. That’s the lowest annual ad revenue for X/Twitter since 2015.

That reads like a website and app that are on a steady decline. Creators are naturally going to opt for a platform that’s stable or even growing, in the hopes of growing their audience along with it. There’s little appeal for everyday users to try and save a project that’s already losing steam, and every time Musk posts something divisive with the intention of stirring more controversy or scoring political points, potential X creators lose more of their available audience to alternate platforms.

Consistent and Reliable Revenue Sharing

In early 2023, in hopes of growing more activity from its own creator community and motivating more people to sign up, X introduced a revenue-sharing program exclusively for its monthly Premium subscribers. Certainly, this was a needed step. The chance to make content that’s widely seen is motivating for a lot of creators, particularly when they’re just starting out. But you’re never going to get high-level, full-time, professional content posted to your service unless there’s some way to bring in revenue and make a profit. 

When Musk suggested last year that top YouTube creator Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson move his content over to X, the response was kind (MrBeast is an admirer after all) but still a “no.” He wrote “my videos cost millions to make and even if they got a billion views on X, it wouldn’t fund a fraction of it.” 

In January, Donaldson followed through regardless and posted a classic video that had already gone up on YouTube on X. He reported earning $260,000 in revenue from this experiment, which would seem like a promising sign of things to come. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be a repeatable phenomenon. According to Donaldson himself, advertisers saw that his video was getting particular attention – he is the #1 YouTuber in the world, after all – and purposefully bought ads around it. Any other ordinary creator would not have received anywhere close to this windfall.

Other creators soon noted that they were being served the MrBeast video as soon as they opened X, raising the possibility that the platform may have been advertising it or promoting it in order to goose the viewership and revenue. Many responded that they had also posted content to X, and received paltry sums for their effort. TikTok and Twitch creator Lacy responded to MrBeast that his video had received 30 million impressions on X, and only earned him $102 in revenue share.

In order for a revenue-sharing program to genuinely grow a real, organic community of passionate creators, it has to provide some level of consistency. Creators have to be able to invest money upfront in their productions, secure in the knowledge that they have a viable route to making that money back, and even funding future videos. Revenue on X right now is probably too inconsistent and unpredictable to launch the careers of a new generation of pro influencers and veterans.

Community Moderation and Toxicity

When Musk first took over Twitter, it was with the promise to transform the heavily moderated community into something more anarchistic and wide-open, with the entrepreneur and billionaire marketing himself as a “free speech absolutist.” He’s amended this position several times already, modifying the company’s stance to allow “Freedom of Speech, Not Reach,” introducing Community Notes to help deal with misinformation, and vowing not to allow X to turn into a “free-for-all hellscape.” Still, this has done little to confront the public image of Musk’s X, which is that it’s become a haven for bullying, antisemitism, toxicity, and hate speech.

While some creators might gravitate to a chaotic platform that doesn’t really deal with content moderation, where essentially anything goes, they are not the majority. A robust and diverse community of creators requires a space to flourish that feels safe and inviting. 

Even before Musk’s takeover, going viral on Twitter had a very different cultural meaning than going viral on, say, YouTube or TikTok. While posting a popular video has, in general, always been seen as a positive, becoming Twitter’s “Main Character of the Day” has always been a bad thing. That means you’re the primary subject for the community’s ridicule and abuse. Unless the company somehow manages to make this wider cultural shift, to make gaining prominence on X a positive rather than a sign you’re about to quit the internet and change you’re name, no amount of streaming video apps or features will make a difference.

Musk’s Approach

Finally, if Musk wants his platform to transition into a real streaming video destination, he has to get out of his own way.

As this column was being written, Musk had a falling out with former CNN anchor Don Lemon. Back in January, X had announced that it would collaborate on three original video programs featuring notable commentators: Lemon, sports talk mainstay Jim Rome, and former political candidate Tulsi Gabbard. Today, Lemon announced that X had canceled plans for his show, but he will continue to produce it and release it independently on both YouTube and X. The falling out apparently relates to an interview Lemon had recorded with Musk for his debut episode.

Obviously, it’s bad PR to excitedly announce a new show for your platform, then to have a very public falling out with its host. It’s just another indication that X is not all that creator-friendly, and there are hoops and obstacles creators will have to jump through in order to remain active there, which is never a promising sign.

But here’s a bigger question: Why was the first episode of Lemon’s X show going to feature Elon Musk anyway? Sure, he’s a rich guy and he owns companies and he’s a notable figure, but there’s a whole world of people out there that Lemon could have talked to for his new show to get some attention. X will never grow into its own, unique product if it can’t escape its owner’s considerable public profile and shadow. As long as it remains “The Elon Musk App,” with his own personal views and politics and temperament and personality at the center, there’s no hope for it rivaling YouTube. Who can even name the CEO of YouTube? (It’s Neal Mohan, but this is my job, after all.)

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