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Twitter Inc has expanded its paid-subscription service Twitter Blue to the US, allowing subscribers to undo tweets and more for $3 a month. That is all very nice and will appeal to the site’s power users, but the new features are pretty trivial. Twitter will still show inane personal updates and spam with the odd gem here and there, leaving you feeling like you’ve inhaled a fast-food meal’s worth of empty calories after 30 minutes of scrolling. I’d happily pay Twitter if it would do one thing: hire more people to weed out spammy content and harassment, and surface more useful tweets on topics I’m interested in. In other words, become more like a publisher than a tech company.

It would, admittedly, be a radical pivot. The magic of social media has always been the never-ending well of user-generated content. In 2020 Twitter, Meta Platform Inc’s Facebook and Alphabet’s YouTube together racked up $108 billion in revenue, a number that keeps on growing because we keep returning to their sites, thumbing our newsfeeds for more dopamine hits.

But even this business model faces speedbumps. Regulation is afoot in at least half a dozen countries, all aimed at curbing problematic content like viral conspiracy theories and hate speech. Social media firms will have to conduct risk assessments about the toll their algorithms take on mental health and prove they are cleaning up, for instance, by spending more on human moderators.

So why not cut to the chase and hire more people to help edit social media feeds into something healthier and more useful overall? Twitter, Facebook and YouTube rely on thousands of humans to babysit their content-moderation software, paying them about $37,000 a year, according to Glassdoor. That is a fraction of the salaries paid to engineers, but there are not nearly enough content moderators.

Social media has moved away from using human editors over the past decade, relying more on algorithms to oversee what hits eyeballs. In 2016, Facebook fired a team of about two-dozen staffers who edited headlines in its “trending news" section, after a report said they were suppressing conservative news. Around that time, Twitter also replaced its human-curated “Moments" section with a tab showing trending topics and videos. Human editors could embarrass a company by making it look biased, and they couldn’t handle mountains of content like a cheaper algorithm could. In Silicon Valley parlance, they didn’t scale.

But it’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way. The recent leak of internal Facebook research has shown that ranking algorithms have too much leeway, fuelling teen mental health problems and amplifying misinformation. The need for more effective moderation has taken on urgency.

Twitter is still ‘experimenting’ with its new subscription product, the company’s product executive Tony Haile said. I hope that means Twitter will try radical changes, like hiring humans to weed out spam and shape my feed based on topics of interest, which could be sussed out with questions.

Several third-party data companies use human curators and software to trawl Twitter’s firehose, crafting specially tailored Twitter feeds for corporate and government clients. Such services aren’t cheap, and Twitter could argue that I should get it done. After all, Twitter has been free for 15 years, and investing in manual labour would be difficult to justify to shareholders. But I can still see Twitter building a cheaper alternative to third-party data companies and charging something like $25 a month or more, roughly what people pay to access top-tier news publications. It could build teams of specialists in subjects like music, politics and business to edit streams of useful tweets for paying customers, and even train algorithms to learn from the process.

Vijay Pandurangan, a former Twitter product manager, has said the company was working on doing just that back in 2016. And Twitter would not be alone in shifting towards more curation. Snap already relies on teams of editors across the globe to help choose news stories for its Discover section, which last year saw impressive growth.

For years, social media has fumbled in the dark for more reputable business models. Mark Zuckerberg’s insistence on being a technology company, despite overseeing a system that makes editorial decisions everyday, has made that effort more confusing. But Twitter’s chief Jack Dorsey has done some of the most visible soul searching in social media recently, banning all political ads, for instance. He is moving in the right direction with Twitter Blue, and could even lead others in the industry if he takes a bolder approach to selling subscriptions.

Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen has said social media companies need to shift from being machine-led to human-led. Twitter has an opportunity to show everyone how it’s done.

Parmy Olson is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Opinion

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