The 90-9-1 Rule
What happens when the owner of a massive platform upends its natural dynamics? We're about to find out.
Twitter engagement used to be pretty easily described by the 90-9-1 rule, which I described in my first big paper on social media:
90 percent of users in most online social networks are passive, 9 percent are somewhat engaged and 1 percent drive most of the engagement and discussion.1
On Twitter, this typically played out as the 9 percent engaging with and taking cues from the 1 percent—a forum for interaction that allowed the 9 percent unprecedented access to the 1 percent, including celebrities and professional betters whom they would never meet in real life, let alone speak to.
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Could Stephen King laugh at my joke? Would an editor at The Atlantic ask me to turn a tweet into a story? Would Jake Tapper endorse my newsletter? Aside from the fun factor in such encounters, there are other obvious benefits, particularly for people who are trying to build a career and are not yet established. I can say with some certainty that I would not have the career I currently have if Twitter had not existed.
But that was before Elon Musk and Twitter Blue, an $8 subscription service purporting to replace identity verification by labeling accounts that pay up with a blue checkmark. The original blue checkmark was given to “notable” users who were at great risk of impersonation for purposes of fraud or misinformation. Over time, the check mark came to be viewed as a status symbol. The new service does little to actually authenticate users, and Twitter has indicated that Blue subscribers will see their tweets amplified by the algorithm. (I realize it’s unlikely anyone reading this newsletter doesn’t know all this stuff, but just in case.)
We find ourselves in a strange new world. Algorithmic amplification is nothing new, whether instigated by a platform or by bots retweeting disinformation, and it has always had a tendency to warp engagement patterns, elevating some people to Internet celebrity status, and others to character of the day. What I think is fairly novel here (and correct me in the comments if I am wrong) is an effort to sell 1 percent status via algorithmic amplification for the cut-rate price of $8 a month, and the subsequent backlash that is even now pitting users against the system.
The ensuing natural experiment should be fascinating (and will probably inform my ideas for a sequel to Optimal, if one should be forthcoming). We’ve already seen a number of authentic 1 percenters quit, whether for Blue reasons or otherwise— from NPR to Jason Alexander to Whoopi Goldberg to Bella Ramsey to Elton John to Meek Mill, with more undoubtedly to follow. Too bad I’ve been priced out of the Twitter analysis game, along with most other academics.
In a weird passive-aggressive move, Elon Musk has allowed several other celebrities to keep their blue check marks without paying the $8 subscription fee, notably those like Stephen King who proclaimed they would never pay for it, in a desperate attempt to make Blue look cool.
The question here is whether the $8 Revolution going to achieve its apparent goal of elevating the lowest tier of the world’s worst people into chart-topping Internet celebrities.
Speaking from my experience observing disinformation networks on Twitter, fake amplification does have some impact on real influence, but it’s by no means a slam dunk. On the other hand, most scholarship on artificial amplification looks at covert networks, not overt.
In this case, everybody knows that the dice are loaded.
The real 1 percent are being driven away, and many members of the 9 percent are getting a promotion, direct from the CEO of the platform. Does it matter? Will the $8 brigades earn real influence and notoriety? Will users find ways to disrupt the game? Will something completely unexpected happen?
While you wait to find out, enjoy this extremely on-point song by Leonard Cohen.
Berger, J. M., and Bill Strathearn. "Who matters online: Measuring influence, evaluating content and countering violent extremism in online social networks." (2013), citing Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group, “Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute,” 9 October 2006, http://www.useit.com/alertbox/ participation_inequality.html.