The Machine Behind Twitter’s Strangest Promoted Tweets

It costs $99, and we tried it

Illustration: Shira Inbar

WWhen Ryan Downey signed up to automatically promote his tweets, he thought he was doing himself a favor.

Downey, a freelance journalist who joined Twitter in 2007, had previously experimented with the platform’s traditional method of advertising: promoting specific tweets to a tailored audience. He mostly did so because he wanted to publicize his stories, but he found the traditional approach wasn’t particularly effective. And so, when he received an invitation in 2017 to try a service called Promote Mode—through which Twitter would automatically promote his tweets—he went along with it. He assumed the platform would know better than anyone which tweets to highlight.

That appears to have been a mistake.

“I think about canceling it at least 75% of the time I think about it at all,” Downey tells OneZero. “I’m never aware of what tweet is being promoted until I get a reply [from someone] that says, ‘Why is this a promoted tweet?’ Which happens regularly.” (After we spoke the first time, Downey followed up a few weeks later and said that he had, indeed, canceled it.)

At its core, Promote Mode, which launched in 2017, is simple: Users pay to have their tweets automatically beamed into people’s timelines. Twitter calls it an “automated, always-on advertising solution,” intended for people who don’t have the money or time to devise an ad campaign but who want to build their brand or their company’s brand. In practice, this means paying $99 per month to send your first 10 tweets of the day to an audience that matches certain interests or locations. (Quote tweets, replies, or retweets aren’t included, and selected tweets must adhere to Twitter’s quality filter.)

This simplicity can transmogrify into something deeply, hilariously, and wonderfully weird. Promote Mode, you see, doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between tweets that are truly intended to further a user’s brand and tweets that are about, say, irritating neighbors. It’s like a toddler, thrashing around in the backyard, pulling up fistfuls of grass. Occasionally, it scoops up an errant piece of dog poop.

The Ringer’s Kate Knibbs memorably called these Weird Promoted Tweets,” and while they’re not as ubiquitous as traditional promoted tweets—think obvious ads from Secret or the New York Times—they’re common enough that there’s a Twitter account dedicated to tracking them. Divorced from their proper context, the tweets are just awkward, like seeing your therapist in the grocery store. Though some bizarre promoted tweets are the result of people choosing to promote said tweets, Promote Mode, which is currently in beta, is another likely culprit.

“I was offered to join a beta, and at the time I thought it was a decent idea, so I gave it a try,” says Shane Andrews, who runs the popular Repzilla YouTube channel. He ended up leaving after three months. “I was getting complaints from my own audience, some leaving, and a lot from random people. If Twitter is promoting what I had for lunch, and people think I’m being so frivolous with my platform, it looks bad and seems disrespectful.”

Benjamin Cole, an independent game developer, has been using Promote Mode for about four months. While he estimates he’s gained fewer than 50 followers from the program overall, he notes that, according to Twitter, his reach has increased between 23% and 62% depending on the month. “The set-and-forget angle is enticing—and why I chose to use this service [because] I have to do all my social media myself,” he says.

I was curious to delve into the inner workings of the service, so I signed up for the beta service myself. Mostly, I wanted to get a sense of how effective Promote Mode really was. I also wanted to see if people noticed. (My tweets, like many people’s tweets, are extremely dumb.)

The good news: I was not mortified. But I was underwhelmed.

In the month I had Promote Mode running, my reach increased by a mere 4%. I gained 28 followers, but that’s fairly normal for me in a given month. I didn’t have to do anything special, which was nice, but the corollary was that nothing special happened either. To be fair, I may not have been the best test case; according to Twitter, it works best for accounts with fewer than 2,000 followers, and I currently have a bit over 6,400. That 2,000-follower threshold isn’t clear from either of its help pages, however. (In response to a list of questions, the company declined to comment on the record but offered some background information.)

Twitter has been consistently profitable for the last few quarters, despite a drop in monthly active users. This profitability comes in part from its advertising business. Promote Mode may be a way to skim a tiny bit of extra fat off the top, though at only $99 per month per user, it’s almost certainly a fraction of the company’s bottom line.

Of course, on the spectrum of profit-driven harms on social media, Promote Mode sits at the benign end. It’s not, for example, helping to incite genocide, pushing bunk science on millions of people, or hacking away at the pillars of democracy with a gilded hammer—at least not at scale.

As the Ringer posits, far from being an annoyance, promoted tweets can be a welcome break from the monotony of faceless corporate ads. I’d further argue that in many ways they’re actually refreshing for our current performative internet epoch—that of corporate personhood, where Arby’s talks about its existential despair and Netflix traffics in grating self-awareness.

Still, with promoted tweets, you can see the unintended results of automation. Promote Mode sits in between regular advertising and real, unfiltered online behavior, and these strange nuggets are the result. In many ways, it glides right into our new internet reality: massive corporations that make decisions and leave their users to deal with the fallout.

Writer and editor with words in Gizmodo, Motherboard, and the Outline.

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