What would Elon-Twitter look like?
At the intersection of "not good" and "not funny," stands Elon Musk with a stupid grin.
Okay, so some things have changed since I hit “publish” on yesterday’s Elon-focused Substack post.
…Look, as far as I know, Elon Musk does not read my Substack. As far as I know, he did not read my post declaring October would be “heckle-Elon-month,” he did not feel a chill down his spine, and he did not decide that he should just spend the $44 billion to avoid the internet criticism from a free Substack with a small readership. That would be a stupid and implausible thing to believe.
But it would also be very funny. And Elon Musk is a ridiculous person. And we cannot conclusively determine that those things didn’t happen. It’s the type of question that he could’ve been asked under oath at the trial later this month, a trial that he now appears to be spending $44 billion to avoid.
There are three quick thoughts that I want to get down in writing while we’re all still processing these events. These are all premised on Elon actually buying the thing (which #lolwhoevenknows?). Because if he goes through with the purchase, he might be making changes at Twitter very, very soon.
First up: This sucks.
I wrote a quick thread on Twitter (where else?) yesterday:
Elon owning Twitter will be bad. Not end-of-the-world-bad — We’re facing catastrophic climate change and surging authoritarianism, let’s keep some perspective here. But it’ll definitely be bad.
Elon paying a ton of money to not-own Twitter would’ve been good. It would’ve left people doubting the sense of inevitability that pervades Silicon Valley genius-talk. It would’ve left Twitter basically as-is.
It also would’ve been very funny. The dude could still end up spending billions to not-buy Twitter, while the rest of us don’t-buy Twitter every day, for free. That’s good comedy.
There’s an apparent contradiction here — that the people like me who least want Elon Musk to own Twitter were also eagerly awaiting a trial where he was likely to be forced to go through with the Twitter purchase. But the resolution is that I always figured if the Court ruled against him, he would then pursue a settlement to get out of owning the company. It would’ve been more than the $1B termination fee, but less than the $44B — probably something like the gap between the $54.20/share he agreed to buy it at and the $20-$30/share analysts believe the company would currently be trading at. (I’m neither a lawyer nor a stock analyst though, so maybe this was always an unrealistic fantasy.)
Second: what happens if/when the deal goes through?
Back when this deal was first announced, I made the following prediction:
If Elon Musk manages to buy Twitter, he will ruin it. He’ll ruin it in the way that Rupert Murdoch ruined MySpace. He’ll ruin it the way Yahoo ruined Tumblr. He’ll ruin it because he is completely out of touch with what the platform actually needs.
The problem Twitter needs to solve is how people strategically game the algorithms, and how people use the platform for campaigns of harassment and harm. You solve those problems with better rules, more transparency, better content moderation, and better enforcement. You don’t solve them by saying “we’re free speech absolutists! Anything goes!”
I think that’s still basically right. We aren’t going to see an immediate user-exodus from the site. (Where would everyone move to?) It’s just going to get crappier. Over time, the things that make Twitter good will be outweighed by the things that make Twitter bad. Big money ruins everything, and even Elon Musk is going to feel pressure to maximize immediate profits in order to cover the interest on the eleven-digit loan he’s taking out.
I’ll add the following additional predictions of how I expect it will all go down:
-A lot of Twitter employees are going to leave. Some will be fired as Elon tries to cut costs. Some will quit because the workplace has become abysmal.
-But fewer employees will leave than would have if the rest of big tech and venture capital was still in better shape. Meta is preparing for a hiring freeze. Amazon and Google have frozen hires as well. VCs are throwing less money at startups than they have in years. There are going to be a lot of disgruntled employees who wish they’d left six months ago, before the tech economy started to seriously crumble.
-Trump and the white-nationalist-troll-brigade will be brought back onto the site. They’re going to be even more vicious, because they’ll feel like they’ve won. They’re going to make the site unusable for women and people of color.
-Elon will launch a bunch of half-assed monetization schemes that go nowhere while the core product slowly degrades.
-Eventually, users will move elsewhere. I don’t think it’ll be TikTok. I think people are forgetting right now that TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are good for different things. (Just speaking for myself here… I can read tweets while my kid watches Daniel Tiger. I can second-screen Twitter while watching a basketball game. Watching TikTok means putting my headphones in. That’s a different use-case. TikTok isn’t going to swallow Twitter’s niche, it’s just going to narrow it.)
-Whatever eventually emerges to fill Twitter’s niche won’t be much better than the Twitter we have today. But it likely won’t be much worse either.
Third: Is this the beginning of the end of an era?
I’m genuinely not sure about this last point. It’s something I’m thinking about today, and will probably write about in greater depth sometime in the future.
We’ve had a decade of relative stability on the Internet. (This is where I bang my “Internet time is slowing down” drum.) At least in the U.S., it’s been an Internet of Google and Amazon and Facebook and Apple for a long time. The dominant social media platforms have been Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook), YouTube (owned by Google), and Twitter. We’ve accessed these platforms through smartphones that either run Apple software with Apple hardware or Android/Google software with someone else’s hardware. There has been a ton of (monopoly-induced) stability, and not a ton of innovation that lives up to its hype.
We’re now almost six months into a tech downturn that shows no signs of abating. Facebook/Meta stock is down almost 60%. The golden age of streaming video is fading fast. Companies are being evaluated based on their profits rather than their potential, and regulators are asking serious antitrust questions about the most profitable companies.
I’m pretty convinced that Elon Musk isn’t going to make Twitter better. And that means Twitter is going to join Facebook and Netflix as a once-dominant company that is starting to age very poorly.
This may just be the bear market, finally reaching tech stocks after a decade-plus bubble that never burst. (But why did it finally burst now? I have no idea…) Nothing lasts forever, and these companies might have dominated for so long because of ambient conditions among the surrounding investors and entrepreneurs.
But I’m starting to wonder if Elon-ruining-Twitter is going to look, in retrospect, like just one piece of a broader reshuffling in the social media ecosystem.
After years of imperceptibly slow change, conditions might start to change very fast. And if that happens, keep in mind that the changes won’t inevitably be for the better. We only get a better internet if we collectively demand one.
I'll be back next week with another proper essay. Just wanted to air these ideas out while they’re on my mind.