Elon Musk does love to inspire headlines. And he’s good at it, which is nice, because he doesn’t appear to be good at much else. It’s a bad idea to impulse-sign an enormous purchase contract without fully reading it, for example. Firing 3/4 of your workforce without bothering to understand what they do first is also not a great start. Letting the entire alt-right back onto your platform and therefore driving half of everyone else away, including most of your paying advertisers — that might have consequences down the line.
Next time you want to light $42 billion on fire, Elon, feel free to invest in speech & debate tabulation software instead.
Each news article is a paragraph in a wider story of Twitter. Musk’s goal is finding an online home for far right-wing discourse. But long as social media is paid for by advertisers, alt right speech is unwelcome. The dirty secret of the Trump wing of the Republican party is that they’re a very small part of the overall US population. They’ve been able to exploit silly loopholes and broken rules in the constitution to secure an outsized political impact in the US with that minority. Their demographics are heavy voters, and they’ve passed laws to make that moreso. But when it comes to business — you can’t built much of a market on just that faction.
And everyone else in the cash-spending public is allergic to their rhetoric; we won’t stay long on a forum where it’s accepted. Which means, neither will advertisers, both because they want a large audience, and they don’t want the bulk of their potential customers associating them with a hellscape of hate speech. So an ad-driven social network cannot scale to the kind of global presence Twitter has and foster that type of discourse.
Musk’s solution is to try and eliminate the advertisers. Twitter’s revenue was previous about 90% brand ads, and various analyses and rumors say that’s fallen by anywhere from 30-75% percent since Musk took over. He’s trying to replace them with Twitter Blue subscribers, who pay $8 a month to get a blue checkmark. These new blue checks tend to be a lot of Musk fanboys. They’re now the first replies you see on any thread.
Apropos to nothing, you can now find me on Mastodon at https://tech.lgbt/@mildconcern.
Musk announced a new shot-from-the-hip policy a few weeks ago that cause the tech press to churn a lot of cycles but probably wasn’t noticed much beyond it. He declared that 2-factor authentication via SMS text message will only be available to those Twitter Blue checkmark purchasers. The proletariat must either turn off 2FA, or use an application that does 2FA. These apps take a small code key, called a shared secret, combine it with the current date & time, and run it through some math equations. That formula produces a six-digit code that’s very hard to duplicate, changes every minute, and can used to verify that you are, well, you. And for Math Reasons, you can’t guess the shared secret from the codes it outputs; it works forwards, but not backwards. Such codes are called hashes in computing.
An SMS code is much simpler; Twitter texts you a six digit code they make up, and you have 5 minutes to enter it into the screen you’re logging into. They verify it’s you based on the phone number you gave them before.
The tech world’s confusion comes from the fact that the shared-secret-app method of generating 2FA is much more secure than using SMS text messages. Texts are unreliable; they don’t always deliver. They aren’t sent encrypted. And if someone is determined to attack your identity in particular, it’s proven relatively simple to hijack your phone number and therefore get your SMS messages sent to them. There are some behind the scene hacks you can pull; but mostly it’s proven alarmingly easy to call a cell provider, impersonate another person, and get their phone number redirected to a device you control. So your texts can be redirected; but that shared secret lives on your phone. It never talks to the phone company at all.
So why do the paying customers have access to the less secure 2FA method, while everyone else does not? It struck most observers as bizarro-world logic. There’s been plenty of that coming from Musk. But it also speaks to an issue that Tabroom is facing, on a much smaller scale. The true reason is that while text messages are free for you as an individual to send, for an institution they are not.
Musk may be the richest man in the world, but he chases pennies a lot. He’s clipped and cut a lot of little perks at the company for the few employees who remain. He put forth conditions for severance packages that were so severe that many of the laid-off employees haven’t signed — which may have been their purpose. He hasn’t been paying rent on multiple Twitter offices. Those cuts have spawned lawsuits that may end up costing Musk more than they save. In particular, a court will eventually make you pay back rent, with interest, and likely damages.
There’s two ways to send a text message if you’re not using a phone. You can use a gateway service, which talks directly to the cell providers and sends your message — for a small fee. Or, if you know which provider a person uses, you can use an email gateway. That means you can send an email to email@example.com and it will deliver as a text to that phone, assuming they use AT&T.
Twitter does not use that method. This method of sending a text is much less reliable. It requires you to ask your users which provider they use, and it no longer works if they switch providers and don’t tell you. It’s not meant for large volumes of messages. But, it’s free. So given that Tabroom did not have a $5.4 billion in revenues last year, we use the free one.
Each text costs very little, but those costs add up in a hurry. Musk cut SMS authentication for non-paying customers because it was reportedly running up a $60 million annual bill. That’s not much compared to $5.4 billion — but as I said, he chases pennies.
Tabroom hosted 192 tournaments this weekend, with 2356 schools, 21,312 entries and 6,133 judges. Over the course of this Saturday, those 27,445 folks were sent 144,350 text blasts. Each text doesn’t cost every much, but there are so many that if we used the paid service, that would run up about a $75,000 annual bill, give or take a few of Musk’s pennies.
But the trouble is, the gateway service we do use is not really intended for bulk messages. And it’s a frequent method spammers use to bother phone customers. So, the providers are growing more aggressive and restrictive about what they allow us to send. AT&T drops any message sent via that gateway that has a web address in it; which is why Tabroom can’t send map links anymore. But this year, T-Mobile limits a single sender, me, to a certain number of texts every couple hours.
Which means, if you haven’t noticed, that basically T-Mobile users don’t get text blasts for the entire middle of the day most Saturdays. That’s only going to get worse, not better. I can’t complain, because T-Mobile’s answer will be “you should be paying to use the gateway.” The other providers will follow suit; or perhaps they’ll suspend this method of access altogether. And after they do, I don’t know what our answer will be.
Is it worth it to increase Tabroom fees a substantial amount so you can bother judges to submit their round 3 ballots a few more times? Should we try to track how many people text a lot and who doesn’t and only bill them — but therefore increase our own overhead on having to track that? Do we rely on email blasts, which don’t tend to ping people’s phones? Do I write an app for Tabroom just so people get notifications through it — and then pray judges at large tournaments install it?
I don’t know the answer. But I hope it doesn’t become a crisis. We’ve come to rely on the text message as a prime form of communication, especially during the pandemic and online debates. We need to rethink that a lot in the coming months or years. It’s already tumbling around my brain, for what it’s worth. I’m trying to make sure Tabroom survives longer than Twitter will, at least.
The way Musk is going, that shouldn’t be too difficult.