Elon Musk has always loved to tweet. This passion for posting might well have moved him to pay $44 billion to own his favourite platform — and it might be what dooms him to failure as he tries to control it.
The inventor-entrepreneur’s initial days at the helm of Twitter have been a lesson in how not to run a global technology company — which is ironic, because Musk is supposed to be a master of running global technology companies. But what distinguishes Tesla and SpaceX from Twitter for the man now juggling so many juggernauts is that Twitter is personal for him.
Musk can’t run Twitter when he’s still trying to win Twitter.
Perhaps it’s best to go back to the beginning, with what put the bug — or bird — in Musk’s ear to stage a takeover of the site.
New York Times reporter Kevin Roose identifies the moment as when the platform suspended the Babylon Bee, a conservative (and worse) version of the Onion. The thing was, Musk likes the Babylon Bee. He thinks the Babylon Bee is funny. (It’s not!)
A teensy event in the vast timeline of the internet inspired him to action — because, to him and his very particular tastes, it mattered. What’s more, while this episode might have had something to do with the larger cause of free expression, it also had to do, more specifically, with comedy.
“Comedy is now legal on Twitter.” This was one of Musk’s earliest declarations after entering headquarters somewhat inexplicably carrying a sink. (The punchline here was “let that sink in”; depressingly, there was nothing else to the quip.) Why? Because he believes, despite all available evidence, that he’s a comedian.
Of course, many of the rest of us on the site see ourselves the same way, workshopping riffs on the drama of the day or iterating on the latest joke formats.
The difference is (1) The rest of us don’t own Twitter and (2) Musk isn’t very funny. Before he took over, he revelled in regurgitating sloppily constructed culture-war memes. Now that he’s in charge, he’s trying out some of his own humorless material.
Musk has awarded himself, at ludicrous cost, an unprecedented opportunity to troll. On Twitter, all the world really is a stage, and he has become the starring player.
No wonder he’s on track to tweet more than 750 times this month, or more than 25 times a day — a degree of posting that generally signals to a person’s family and friends that they might benefit from touching some grass. Suddenly, everything he says on the platform matters more than anything anyone else says, because he is the platform.
“Chief Twit.” “Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator.” He’d never simply describe himself in his profile as CEO, because he sees himself, just like us, as a performer.
Policies on impersonation
Why else make silly jokes about rival site Mastodon (again, there is very little to this bit — the point is the two words start the same way), instead of devising a strategy to stay ahead of the competition? Why suspend the accounts of Kathy Griffin and former NFL punter Chris Kluwe after they changed their account names to his own, instead of hewing to sitewide policies on impersonation?
Why lash out against advertisers with the threat of a “thermonuclear name & shame,” as if beefing with them the way users spend their days beefing with each other for likes and retweets is an intelligent business strategy, instead of trying to coax them to return?
The to-do over verification, similarly, is all about status on the site. The blue check marks used to designate who was, supposedly, “important” — and for Musk, that couldn’t be the dour media figures who spend their time writing nasty columns like this one. Instead, it had to be people who like him — and his jokes — enough to pay him $8 a month for a new imprimatur of his creation.
Musk declared recently that he didn’t purchase Twitter to make money. This is believable. He then claimed he purchased Twitter to “help humanity.” This is bull. Musk purchased Twitter to help Musk post on Twitter the way he wants to, and be adored for doing it.
What this means for the company as a whole is unmitigated disaster. After all, decree-by-tweet isn’t exactly an effective policy development process.
More generally, what’s good for Elon Musk isn’t what’s good for the rest of us, and what’s fun for Elon Musk doesn’t appeal to marketers concerned above all with brand safety. Facemash, the girl-rating site Mark Zuckerberg created in college, was never going to become a global juggernaut; Facebook was.
We all know that Elon Musk loves Twitter. But if he wants to hold on to it, he’s also going to have to let it go.
Jonathan Newton is a noted American journalist