At the end of 2019, like a seer on top of a fog-swept mountain, a Twitter user named @maplecocaine job this: “Every day on Twitter, there is a main character. The goal is never to be.
Tweeting refers to a dynamic on the social network in which a user posts something that sparks wide-ranging conversation, outrage, and debate. Someone whose yard has been invaded by “30 to 50 feral hogs”. A father who denies his daughter a can of beans in the name of problem solving. A man who says he found shrimp tails in his Cinnamon Toast Crunch. A woman who likes to drink coffee with her husband. Whether the original tweet is mundane or lopsided, the cycle that follows tends to be similar: the message is chewed up by the masses and spat out as a deeply polarizing trending topic, leaving a trail of funny memes and thermonuclear takes. in its wake.
Especially in recent years, this phenomenon has come to define the experience of using the platform. And these episodes of main characters have become increasingly divisive and toxic. While Twitter remains a great place to get the latest news, find communities ranging from media types to medical professionals to furries, and facilitate important moves, it’s these main characters who have entertained, horrified and, above all, connected the most loyal users of the platform. on at any time of the day. Witnessing the speech surrounding a main Twitter character is as fascinating as watching hundreds of pigeons descend on a half-eaten hot dog in Times Square. It’s the kind of thing that makes you stare at the chaos and let out a reflective laugh.
That is, at least for those who aren’t the piece of meat at the center of the digital herd. Which brings us to Elon Musk. The richest man on the planet, CEO of two other big tech companies (SpaceX and Tesla) and father of 10 children reached a $44 billion deal in late October to acquire Twitter. Since then, he has not given up the role of the main character, dictating the conversation on the platform while simultaneously dismantling it.
Musk has long been consumed by Twitter. Although he was never original enough to be considered a true poster, he has tweeted more than 19,000 times since joining the platform in 2009, according to a recent Washington Post analysis. Parts of his feed resemble those of many experienced Twitter users: he offered opinions on how to improve the app and pressed for an edit button; he is resolved to move away from the platform to return quickly; he declared his love for Twitter and called it a “hain hellscape” all in just over a year.
Yet much of his stream reads like a naked attempt to become the platform’s central figure, a pursuit that unfolds in increasingly harmful ways. In 2018, Musk baselessly called a British diver a “pedo”. In 2020 he tweeted “Take the red pill”. (This is both a reference to The matrix and a shorthand used by online incel and human rights communities to describe a right-wing political awakening.) Recently it is adopted a slogan that is a chaotic-evil variant of Occam’s razor: “The most entertaining outcome is the most likely.” Much like a certain former president, his damaging messages have become too numerous to succinctly recount.
And when Musk reluctantly bought the platform, the aforementioned “lead character” tweet took on new meaning. It’s become the kind of saying that a witch will croak after selling you a monkey’s leg; the inscription inside an almighty ring. More aptly, it has become something a bored billionaire would take as a challenge. Look no further than Musk wearing a physical well in the lobby of the Twitter office for a weak pun and a few empty retweets.
Since Musk’s takeover as CEO, his frenzied tweeting has only intensified. The New York Times musk whisperer, Ryan Mac, reported that in November alone, he was on pace to post over 750 times, which is over 25 times a day. These posts included obscene humor, links to anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi, advice on how to vote in the midterm (“Republican”) elections, and a joke about the Twitter competitor Mastodon, which he called “Masterbatedone”. After reinstating Donald Trump’s account over the weekend, Musk tweeted a crude sexual cartoon while inviting the former president back to Twitter. A few hours later he called Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor is a crybaby.
His decision-making within the company was even more reckless and destructive. Shortly after the acquisition closed on October 28, Musk launched the company’s C-suite. In his first week in office, hate speech increased on the platform and advertisers pulled out, threatening the source of 89% of the company’s revenue. Musk announced a product where anyone could pay $8 a month to be verified on the platform, and pressured a team of engineers to work 24/7 to ship said product. Almost from its launch, this feature has been used to impersonate public figures and brands. When someone imitates pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company tweeted November 10, “We are delighted to announce that insulin is now free,” the company’s stock quickly fell 4.3%. In response, the company pulled its ad from the platform, losing “millions” from Twitter. Less than a week after rolling out this pay-for-your-ticket system, Musk suspended it.
Meanwhile, Musk set fire to the company’s workforce and the complex systems it built. On November 3, he halved a staff of 7,500 after sending generic messages signed by “Twitter” that promised details of severance “within a week”. Once the remaining employees took to Slack’s platform and internal channels to criticize Musk, he also fired many of them. He held meetings in which he both discussed the possibility of bankruptcy and described how much he enjoyed buying “gadgets”. He sent an internal memo titled “A Fork in the Road” announcing the need for the remaining employees “to be extremely hard” and to work “long hours at high intensity”, and he offered workers the choice of accept these terms or resign. An additional 1,200 people left the company, leaving the teams needed to operate the platform understaffed.
On Saturday, it became apparent that Twitter’s copyright warning system was It does not work. On Sunday, Musk re-embedded Trump on the platform, citing the results of a poll he tweeted, as if he somehow represented the “vox populi.” And on Monday, more employees were firedleaving Twitter’s current workforce size hovering around 2,700. You could say that this situation is, uh, developing.
In less than a month, Musk has bulldozed more than a decade of efforts to establish moderation systems, however flawed, that serve to both block harmful speech and stimulate healthy discourse on the platform. He replaced it with a flood of silly ideas that come from his own account. He held an absolute masterclass in mismanagement and tweeted the whole time. Add it all up, and it’s almost too on the nose: the embodiment of Twitter’s worst qualities is now the face of Twitter itself.
Virtually everyone has a theory to explain Musk’s motives here. Some say he is doing all this to curry favor with China. Some say it is angling political support for the extreme right. Some say he’s actually a genius who takes eight steps ahead of all the others. But the answer is perhaps more direct: a billionaire who has spent a good part of his life trying to become the main character of Twitter has gone to extreme lengths to acquire the social network, place himself at its center and empty it of inside. Just because he can. It’s an ironic fate for a platform whose legacy includes unlocking a new level of mania in the minds of its users, and perhaps even society at large.
No one knows how this saga ends. It seems too elegant for the world to wake up one morning and try to log on to Twitter only to find it no longer exists. What’s more likely is a slow sad death, where all the twisted geniuses who once made the platform great slowly filter down to TikTok (where the culture was already heading), Substack, Mastodon, and other communities. . All that will be left of Twitter will be one man’s huge ego and the sycophants tripping over themselves to support him.
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