Twitter can't fill the void inside the world's richest man
Dreams sometimes come true. That is, if you happen to be the world's richest man. Elon Musk owns Twitter. The birdsite is his.
Elon clearly adores Twitter. He might appear to be a natural for it. Hooked to science fiction as a kid - he was 'almost too obvious to bully' in the words of one journalist. Like a poorly scripted boy-genius in an budget film, Musk now owns the company he so loved. The classic Nerd-cum-Silicon-Valley-CEO. The habitual tweeter who became the self-proclaimed 'Chief Twit'.
But it wasn't easy. To takeover the site Musk had to conduct himself unlike any other self-respecting billionaire. In fairness, this wasn't too hard for him: Musk has never behaved like a normal billionaire. He hoarded Twitter shares before accepting then declining to join the board of directors. (As CEO, he has since abolished it and planted himself in its place as 'sole director'). Elon was tip-toeing closer to controlling the microblogging platform he so loved. Then Musk took a stab in the dark. He offered to buy the company outright - and, eventually, they gave in. He was finally in charge.
Twitter is chronically unprofitable. In 2020 it lost over a billion dollars. To make matters worse, the South African billionaire has also plunged the company deeper into what was an already substantial debt.
The world's richest man reckons he knows how to turn a company around. Musk was quick to sack Twitter's chief executive, heads of finance and head of legal affairs. If the product is free, you are the product... and Twitter is free. We are the product. Twitter enrages us, then sells us adverts. Musk wants to change this (sort of). The social media magnate tore up Twitter's verification system. Anyone who coughs up can have an ad-free experience and a blue tick. This checkmark used to be reserved for those of note - now its open to anyone with a wallet. As one WIRED article put it: 'Blue checks make people feel important.' To misquote Syndrome, the wild haired antagonist in 'The Incredibles': 'When everyone's verified, no one will be'.
But opening verification to everyone with a credit card had other complications. A verified account impersonating Elon tweeted: 'There is nothing better than waking up and enjoying a fresh, steaming cup of my own urine.' Musk proudly proclaimed that 'comedy is now legal on Twitter' - and it seemingly was. Until it wasn't.
Barely days later Musk decreed that: 'Accounts engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying ‘parody’ will be permanently suspended.' He also capitulated on the blue tick. One level above it sat the grey tick, reserved for world leaders, officials... until it was binned the very same day. Then the 'parody' stepped up a notch. Trolls, naturally, started trolling. They went after big brands, high ranking politicians, and predictably... Elon again. Thus the grey tick returned, granted to high-spending advertisers and top-level politicians. As might be evident, Musk scrapped Twitter's communications department.
Musk is determined for Twitter not to become his second boring company. He mused that when it comes to Twitter, 'one thing is for sure: it isn’t boring!' Who is Musk trying to convince: us or himself? The social media service is remarkably dull as technology. Exciting technology doesn't demand exciting users - unexciting technology does. Twitter's userbase is a strange amalgamation of hacks, celebs, politicos and, probably, you. As Willy Staley put it:
The text box of Twitter still prompts every user with “What’s happening?” What’s happening, invariably, is that they are looking at Twitter. This simple fact accounts for perhaps 99 percent of the acrimony on there, which is rarely about events in the outside world and frequently about the content of other tweets.
The site is stuffed with the 'hopelessly addicted'. Without these prolific posters Twitter would be nothing: there would simply be no one to follow. After spaffing $44 billion on the takeover, Musk could be described as addicted. He certainly isn't hopeless - if anything he's hopeful. While the acquisition may seem silly, Musk has strong claims to have furthered his fortune tweeting. Then there's the influence. Your typical 'influencer' posts on social media, the real influencers own social media.
Musk is in a predicament. He now owns Twitter but doesn't really know what to do with it. Having made a point of firing large swathes of the social media giant's workforce, the electric car baron seems to want them back. He isn't even that great at tweeting. His memes are stolen, his jokes aren't that funny. Like the unpopular boy-wonder, perhaps he just wants to be cool? He seems to seek constant affirmation - and from the strangest places: random people on the internet. He once called an earnest British caver 'pedo guy' after he helped rescue trapped Thai schoolboys. This might not be all he bargained for.
Musk loves a big project. Sending rockets to Mars, thats his thing. But Twitter is bland, and no amount of tinkering will change this. Musk wants to launch metal objects into space and build self-driving cars - he doesn't want to fiddle around with moderation policies. The 'hellscape' Elon now presides over won't fill the void inside of him. He's probably always fancied running a social media company, perhaps as a strange attempt to outdo Mark Zuckerberg. Turns out it's not that fun.