Photo: Getty Images
It’s Week Two inside
Willy Wonka’s Tweet Factory Elon Musk’s Twitter, and wow, it’s weird in there. Now that the world’s richest man has to actually run the place, he’s seeing in real time that his spray of ideas about free speech tends to hit the platform with all the elegance of swampland mosquitos splattering against a truck windshield. If any person thought that the chaos would start to level off after his initial, reluctant seizure of the company, they no longer think this of the man who has revolutionized rocketry but has also failed at digging a hole. Here’s where we’re at.
The first big user-facing change that will hit Twitter is the institution of an explicit caste system — the verification badge. Blue check marks have been appearing next to people’s names since 2009 now as a way to verify that users are who they say they are — whether it’s the President of the United States or a local news reporter who is concerned about getting impersonated by some interloper intent on spreading fake news. Because of the nature of who got them, verification is associated with “elites.” Under Musk, the social-hierarchical view of it is explicitly what these checks are all about, and rather than having it go to notables or to people who need to be protected from impersonation, anyone with $8 can get one. (It was going to be $20, but Stephen King ended up inadvertently negotiating it down.) This would include other perks like showing up earlier in replies and being able to post longer videos. This is obviously creating an actual privileged class of user, but to Muskworld, this is their storming of the Bastille.
This was all supposed to roll out today but then it got delayed until after Election Day, November 8. (Perhaps because he promised nonprofit groups more than a week ago he wouldn’t make major changes before the election.) Now it’s not clear exactly when the new verification process will roll out, but it’s probably a relief to any of the engineers who are still there and had to slap all this code together.
Musk has had a shifting relationship with free speech. At one point, he called himself a “free speech absolutist” and then later backtracked, saying he would honor the laws around censorship and expression that vary country by country.
This weekend, Musk took a further step in defining down “free speech” by making parodists tell you that they’re joking. This is coming from the guy who’s so intent on people thinking that he’s funny that he tried to create his own competitor to The Onion and has tried to be friends with avant-garde parodist Nathan Fielder, someone who’s gotten famous for going to extreme lengths to hide the fact that he’s joking. A bunch of people got banned from the platform, including Kathy Griffin. Here’s one of Musk’s friends equating impersonation with fraud by citing a Wikipedia article that doesn’t mention impersonation and only has a passing mention of fraud.
Musk should know that impersonation isn’t the same thing as fraud, since he’s appeared on Saturday Night Live, where comedians pretend to be both famous and non-famous people all the time. But of course, this isn’t about the law — it’s about who gets to be in charge, and at Twitter, that is Elon Musk, the man at Twitter HQ who has absolutely no scruples about pushing the big red BAN button that forever kicks you off for any reason whatsoever. Since he’s been advertising the existence of Twitter’s sort-of competitor Mastodon (the tweets are now deleted), he’s only giving his users more of a reason to flee.
Speaking of advertising, Musk is not seeing a lot of people pay to do that on his platform, which relies on ad money to keep going. He said that there’s been a “massive” drop in revenue, and large advertisers like Pfizer, General Mills, and General Motors have put their whole budget for the platform on pause until they figure out what the hell is going on. Musk hasn’t taken kindly to this and has made some noise about taking legal action, which, sure, it will be fun to watch him argue that he’s entitled to another company’s ad budget.
But this points to a bigger problem here. Just because Twitter is private and Musk pulls the levers doesn’t mean that it’s immune from the laws of business. Gary Black, an investor who’s notably pro-Musk, pointed out that Tesla, Musk’s other big company, has become something of a proxy for the success of the social network.
The bottom line here is the more that Musk goes down his unrelenting and chaotic path toward remaking Twitter, and the less hospitable it is toward controversy-shy companies who will spend money on it, the odds are higher that it will ultimately end up being a financial albatross for years to come.
Last week, Musk posted a conspiracy theory about Paul Pelosi and his attacker that proved to be not only egregiously wrong but extremely awful. Since then, Musk would rather talk about how bad journalists are at their jobs, and that regular people should have as much influence. Here he is, arguing with a guy who’s not currently a journalist, about why journalists like him are bad.
All of Musk’s talk about accuracy caught flak from a surprising figure: Jack Dorsey, one of the Twitter co-founders. Dorsey came out from the meditative shadows to question the idea of absolute “accuracy” and suggested that being more “informative” is a better goal. The whole thing fizzled out and turned into a low-stakes tête-à-tête about the name of a community-editing feature, which you have to figure was a way to deflate whatever tension threatened to bubble up. But still — yeah, accuracy is hard. Doing it in real time is harder. Welcome to the news business.
Musk laid off about half the company, perhaps under the impression that he is the only employee who really matters. (Clearly a pretty reasonable impression to have.) But now he’s backtracking and wants some of those people back. The number, according to Bloomberg, is in the dozens, which is a fairly small percentage of the roughly 3,500 people who’ve been let go. But among those he reportedly wants back are people who shouldn’t have been fired in the first place, and those who are pretty critical to the running of the site. (He’s being sued for violating federal and California laws for the swift layoffs.)
Would anyone go back? Probably a few. But this is Silicon Valley — these people tend to have a lot of money, and Musk has promised three months severance. Twitter employees also tend to have a pretty good reputation in Silicon Valley, and LinkedIn has been flooded with current and former employees vouching for each other, so they could probably do okay wherever they land.