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Twitter Is Just a Guy Now

Intelligencer 11/23/2022 John Herrman
Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images © Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

On the evening of Friday, November 18th, fresh off another chaotic week at the helm of Twitter, Elon Musk decided to resolve a nagging issue: the matter of Donald Trump. He posted a Twitter poll asking users whether he should bring back the former president’s account. By the next day, the yeses had it, 51.8% to 48.2%. “The people have spoken,” Musk said. “Trump will be reinstated.”

Musk’s bid for Twitter included a lot of talk about restoring “free speech” to the platform (he had previously referred to Trump’s ban as “foolish in the extreme”). But in October, he had seemed to soften his stance somewhat, declaring that he would form a “content moderation council” composed of members with “diverse” views. “No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes,” he said.

Since then, however, Musk has made a point of acting unilaterally, conspicuously demonstrating his absolute authority not just on matters of content moderation but over every aspect of the company. A batch of notorious banned accounts were simply reinstated: Along with Trump, there was Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Babylon Bee, Jordan Peterson, Kathy Griffin, Andrew Tate, and Project Veritas. Musk drew a line at Alex Jones, however, citing his own loss of his firstborn child. “I have no mercy for anyone who would use the deaths of children for gain, politics or fame,” he posted.

In a meeting with staffers on Saturday, which was leaked to TMZ, he clarified what was really going on. “We are going to do a council,” he said. “But it’s an advisory council.” At the end of the day, he said, “it will be me deciding it.” To extinguish any doubt about who is in charge, he clarified. “Obviously I could choose who is on that content council, and I don’t need to listen to what they say.”

It was a moment of honesty after a month of confusing and contradictory messages — the rare statement from Musk that’s compatible with the full scope of his actions at Twitter so far. (Publicly, Musk is telling a slightly different story.) Twitter is still a company, sure, with employees and creditors and advertisers, millions of users, producing a breathtaking range of externalities. But, also, it’s just a guy. 

Twitter, like all social networks, has inspired all sorts of theories about how it really works, and why. It’s a public-feeling venue run as a commercial firm; as a company, it routinely borrowed civic and legal language to legitimize what were, when you really get down to it, a bunch of rules and structures that the company could change if it really wanted to, and that it often did.

It was in public-company Twitter’s interest to give the impression that no one person was really in charge, and to insist that this commercially run, advertising-driven social network — variously referred to as a “town square” or a “digital commons” — was, in fact, a collection of carefully considered systems and policies, which, through slow deliberation, could be tweaked or repaired to produce different results.

This aligned, more or less, with the common small-l liberal view, adopted by much of the press, that Twitter, like Facebook, or an ailing federal agency, was a flawed entity failing to live up to its promise and responsibilities. In contrast, the left’s many issues with Twitter fed into a broad critique of the platform, which they knew was always destined to let them down. Critics on the right tended to articulate their theories of Twitter as either dark conspiracies or as a form of customer complaint — they wanted to speak to the manager, who was, by the way, a member of an evil cabal. (In the end, they were probably the least correct about how things worked, and also got exactly what they wanted, and more.)

What all these theories of Twitter shared was a sense of the company as a complicated firm, with a variety of competing internal and external interests: investors; a board; employees; users. No more. Twitter is still a large and complex firm, but its most salient trait, now, is that it’s a part of the world’s richest person’s personal portfolio.

In government, there are numerous terms for rule-by-guy, most of which bring to mind repression, suffering, and cultishness — ”I alone can fix it,” etc. But it’s a common enough way to run companies, which tend to be internally authoritarian. Plenty of businesses are clear and direct extensions of their founders’ or executives’ desires, whims, and flaws, although few operate at such a massive scale, or under such a well-known figure. In a 2018 Wired investigation into working conditions at Tesla, where Musk’s management style has been frequently criticized, a former employee summed up one of the dilemmas of working at such a company:

Eric Larkin, who helped oversee factory software until he was fired in April, still feels a strong emotional and financial attachment to Tesla. He’d worked there for three years and was proud to be part of something that could reduce carbon in the atmosphere and “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy,” as the company’s mission statement puts it. “Tesla is the only company positioned to make this world a better place, to really improve the world right now,” Larkin told me. “And Tesla is Elon. How can you be bitter about humanity’s best hope?”

The sentiment was echoed in a recent report in the New York Times, which described the firing of employees who raised concerns about Musk’s “harmful Twitter behavior” in response to a report by Insider that the company had settled a sexual harassment claim against the CEO. In a meeting, employees recalled their manager emphasizing that Musk was in charge, as well as a specific phrasing: “SpaceX is Elon and Elon is SpaceX.”

Tesla is Elon, SpaceX is Elon. Now Twitter is becoming Elon, too. Musk’s deep layoffs and demands that remaining employees prepare to be “hardcore” if they plan to stick around have left the company short-staffed in the extreme, threatening the platform’s stability, security, and, perhaps most consequential, its relationships with advertisers. This slash-and-burn approach makes sense, however, if you assume the goal is to produce or make room for a workforce made of up loyalists — people who will follow Elon wherever he goes. People who want to work for this guy. I suspect, in the long run, that Musk won’t have trouble finding employees that fit that description, even if that means getting rid of almost everyone else first. For some, the draw will just be Musk. For others, it could be more broadly ideological — Musk’s public pronouncements, tweets and Twitter interactions since the acquisition have taken a clear right turn.

Twitter is not Tesla or SpaceX, however. For one thing, it’s a large and mature company, not one that Musk started or took over in its infancy. Its mission has always been sort of fuzzy and remains so: Musk’s stated desire to build an “everything app” is neither as clear nor as inspiring a goal for current or potential employees as, say, building the first big electric car company or, you know, going to space. At Musk’s other companies, employees create products and services to be sold to customers or contractors. Twitter is about satisfying tens of millions of users, who can make their displeasure known on-platform, by complaining or just leaving altogether. Musk’s solipsistic style also takes on a different meaning as it starts to extend beyond his company’s offices and onto the platform itself. The man has been working hard to be Twitter’s center of attention for months now, and he has succeeded:

This routine runs the risk of being exhausting, like a little talking Elon avatar that you can’t remove from your Tesla’s touchscreen console. For some users, and plenty of advertisers, it’s already been alienating. His frequent and pointed interactions with an impressively stupid lineup of mostly right-wing Twitter antagonists represent the same core message, only rendered as a taunt: “Who’s gonna stop me?”

In general, users’ ties to Twitter are weak compared to employees who need health insurance, or even people who already own a certain kind of car. Users aren’t underlings, and can’t easily be coerced; there just isn’t much leverage to exploit. Social platforms depend, instead, on persuasion and nudging: to join, to stick around to be monetized, or — and perhaps this is where Musk is most comfortable — to pay for additional features.

Current users need reasons to stay, and new users need reasons to sign up or pay. Musk’s pitch for them, however, is the same one he made to his employees: Twitter is me, and I am Twitter, and if you don’t like it, it’s time to go. “Hope all judgy hall monitors stay on other platforms,” he wrote on Monday. “please, I’m begging u.”

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