Twitter has been taken over by his least interesting troll for $44 billion. When Elon Musk took a stake in the platform, he claimed it was to ensure “the future of civilization” and preserve a “common digital city square.” Roughly translated, this means that the world’s richest man has bought his favorite megaphone.
Musk, with 112.1 million followers, is an obsessive Twitter tryhard: the attention economy’s biggest attention seeker. From baselessly calling a British diver a “pedo”, to his baffling stunt at Twitter HQ – turning up with a kitchen sink and uttering the punchline, “let it sink in” – he clearly thinks comedy is his metier. He reminds me of Christopher Hitchens’ barb about an enemy: he “thinks he’s a wit and half right”.
Musk says buying Twitter is “not a way to make money.” That’s certainly true. The company struggled for years to turn a profit. It makes 90% of its current revenue from advertising to just 217 million “revenue digging” users (and illegally uses their private data to target ads to them). But this is just a fraction of monthly active users on sites like Facebook (2.8 billion), TikTok (1.2 billion), YouTube (2 billion) and Instagram (1.4 billion).
But Twitter has been great publicity: not only for Musk’s zeppelin-sized ego, but also for his company. Tesla spends almost nothing on advertising, but Musk’s actions generate acres of free coverage.
Like Donald Trump, Musk has a grasp of Twitter’s potential. Its prominence has never been due to business success, let alone technology. As editor Nilay Patel points out in an article on The Verge, its success is political. Twitter attracts a disproportionately large share of dependent opinion leaders such as journalists, politicians, writers and celebrities, the kind of people Musk wants to think about him.
But in buying his platform, Musk also bought $13 billion in debt. Twitter has previously paid back over $50 million to its creditors. It will now, according to some analyses, need to find more than $1 billion a year to pay back just the interest. Although Musk is it not to make profit, he cannot ignore such losses. Stopping the bleeding will now be a top priority for him, either by charging users a subscription fee for verified accounts or, more likely because fees could drive users away, cutbacks.
The notoriously capricious boss had already indicated that before backing down he would fire 75% of the workforce to help balance Twitter’s books. But now, after firing four of Twitter’s top executives — he allegedly did so “for cause,” apparently in an effort to avoid tens of millions of dollars in compensation — he’s also looking for cuts at Twitter.
Among the simple cuts for Musk would be staff who enforce measures to limit disinformation, spam and abuse. Just illegal speech should be limited, he says. This position – purportedly a “free speech absolute” – would mean that Twitter, already a frequent alibi for repressive governments, would march in step with those regimes. More freedom of speech for trolls and racists, less freedom of speech for dissenters. But it’s a throwback to the years when Twitter argued that the best answer to “bad speech” was more speech (that is, more content to monetize).
For all the talk of a “common digital town square,” Twitter has always thrived on angry debate fueled by news and entertainment. This puts the company in a bind. On the one hand, the relentless nastiness is what makes the system so compulsive: the gut feeling of an insulting, racist, or stupid tweet in your feed prompts the fury of quick, angry replies. Likewise, it has thrived on the emotional contagions that drive the viral spread of far-right disinformation, from the Islamic State to QAnon. Without them, Twitter would be more boring than it is. And the advertisers would have a less captive audience.
On the other hand, it has repeatedly lost high-profile users to trolling and misinformation. It has been forced over the years to step up its moderation efforts, banning high-profile users like Trump, who in 2017 was estimated to bring in $2 billion a year for Twitter. Despite such gestures, it has lost its most active and profitable users, who are losing interest – no doubt in part due to sheer exhaustion – in Twitter beefs over politics and celebrity.
Musk may think he can rekindle the old fires, but Twitter isn’t alone in its struggles. The growth of Facebook users in Europe and North America fell flat several years ago. Instagram’s growth is slowing. The average time spent on platforms, after soaring in 2020 due to the Covid-19 lockdown, is likely to slide. All social media platforms, indeed most tech companies, are facing tough times as advertisers cut budgets. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been looking for the next profit model for years: witness his failed cryptocurrency venture and his struggling “metaverse” project that sent parent company Meta crashing on the stock markets.
The social industry may be approaching a moment of crisis where growth, revenue and long-standing problems with political legitimacy coalesce in favor of a crime. The industry has already split to the right, as far-right users alienated by the moderation policies of industry giants form their own social media ecologies. But many others have long yearned for an alternative to the exploitative, manipulative and addictive systems designed to enrich billionaires like Zuckerberg, Musk and TikTok CEO Zhang Yiming.
The difficulty has not been the absence of open source, like Mastodon. Some Twitter users actually responded to Musk’s takeover by trying to trigger an exodus to Mastodon. The problem is the “network effect”. The old platforms offer users advantages precisely because of the number of users they have. To make a dent in it would require a migration amounting to more than just thousands.
But we should keep our eyes open. It’s just possible that—Musk being Musk—he’ll do something stupid and offensive enough to catalyze the crisis that finally loosens the grip of the billionaire monopolists.
Richard Seymour is a political activist and author
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