Elon Musk returns to his ultimate galaxy brain plan for Twitter: charging people to post

 Elon Musk strikes a pose in a silly outfit.
Elon Musk strikes a pose in a silly outfit.

Billionaire and full-time troll Elon Musk has trailed his latest idea for X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, and it's an absolute doozy. To briefly set the scene, Musk bought Twitter for roughly $44 billion in 2022, following a protracted saga that threatened to end up in court. Following the purchase Musk laid off a ton of staff, made verification a paid-for service, and has presided over a notable influx of bot activity (replies on the site are an utter mess).

The bots are really the most notable thing because, while Twitter's always had problems, the uptick in bot activity over the last couple of years has notably impacted the site's user experience. Ironically enough, one of Musk's big reasons for buying the platform was to annihilate the bots, but under his stewardship the problem's gotten significantly worse.

The solution? Musk has returned to an idea first mooted last year, and already trialled in two countries as the "not a bot" scheme: charging new users a nominal fee (the suggestion was $1 a year, or local equivalent) before they're allowed to post anything. Accounts will still be free to create, but can only read posts.

A news account that reports purely on X noted a recent change to the site's policies which suggested that this feature is going to be rolled-out more widely. No less than Musk himself shortly waded in to confirm that, yep, soon enough people will have to pay for the privilege of posting.

"Unfortunately, a small fee for new user write access is the only way to curb the relentless onslaught of bots," said Musk. "Current AI (and troll farms) can pass 'are you a bot' with ease.

"The onslaught of fake accounts also uses up the available namespace, so many good handles are taken as a result."

I feel a bit like I'm writing about Helldivers 2, but suffice to say the war against the Automatons looks to be entering a new stage. The idea itself is not completely wild and, if implemented correctly, would undoubtedly curtail some bot activity: but to what extent may well depend on what Musk decides to charge. $1 an account may not be too much of a disincentive for crypto scammers out to promote their latest pump 'n dump scheme.

For all the exaggerated chat about Musk's regime "killing" Twitter, however, this may be the one thing that has the potential to actually do it. It's going to piss off casual users (though there's no suggestion as yet it will be applied to existing accounts) and turn a service that used to be free into a subscription, even if the cost is minimal. That's even before you get into the perception, fair or otherwise, that Twitter itself is a shadow of what it used to be (personally speaking, I find its usefulness as a news source has been almost entirely subsumed by spam and misinformation).

More than anything, it's putting the cost of fixing this problem on the masses, and those who are less interested in following the ins and outs of big tech may well find the whole bot rationale a weaksauce excuse for what could be interpreted as a shakedown.

X's page says the Not a Bot plan has been developed to "bolster our already successful efforts to reduce spam, manipulation of our platform and bot activity, while balancing platform accessibility with the small fee amount. It is not a profit driver. And so far, subscription options have proven to be the main solution that works at scale."

Reporting on this idea when it was first mooted last year, PCG's Andy Chalk suggested that Musk charging users "as part of a purported effort to clean up his own self-made mess is an ass-backwards approach," which is roughly where I land. It's probably worth pointing out that this has not yet been implemented on a wider scale, and Musk does tend to shoot from the hip when discussing ideas and policies in public.

But Musk has talked a big game about his plans for Twitter and, a couple of years down the road, it's not really clear that he's made anything about the platform better. It remains to be seen whether this plan can make any difference whatsoever, or if it's the final nail in the coffin for the bird site.