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Why Twitter may never be the same again

Has the bird flown? Musk’s past suggests so

Kevin Roose New York Published 30.10.22, 01:30 AM
Elon Musk

Elon Musk File picture

A decade ago, when Twitter — then a scrappy, young microblogging service — burst into the mainstream, it felt like a tool for challenging authority.

Pro-democracy activists in Libya and Egypt used Twitter to help topple dictatorships. Americans used it to occupy Wall Street. And in 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing an unarmed Black teenager named Trayvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter took root on Twitter.


These campaigns fuelled one of the defining ideas of the 2010s: that social media was an underdog’s dream, a tool for bottom-up organising that would empower dissidents and marginalised groups, topple corrupt institutions and give ordinary people the ability to communicate on equal footing with tycoons and tyrants. Or, as the Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei put it in 2010, “Twitter is the people’s tool, the tool of the ordinary people, people who have no other resources.”

That narrative — shaky as it might have been all along — officially ended this week, when Twitter became the property of the richest man in the world.

Elon Musk, the billionaire industrialist whose on-again, off-again bid for Twitter this year has been marked by chaos and confusion, has now added the company to a portfolio that includes Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company.

The deal, which cost Musk and his investment partners $44 billion, made history for several reasons. It was the largest buyout in tech history and the first time in years that a major social media network has been sold to an outsider.

It was also a symbolic bookend to a decade in which social media evolved to be, in many ways, more useful to the powerful than the powerless.

Musk’s takeover may not change Twitter overnight. The platform will still host social movements, political protests and acts of rebellion. But users may find that their “public town square” (as Musk has called Twitter) feels different when it’s controlled by a single, unpredictable billionaire.

When it started in 2006, Twitter was dismissed by tastemakers as a novelty app where nerds and narcissists bored their friends with mundane details of their lives. One early critic called it “the Seinfeld of the Internet” — a website about nothing.

But by the early 2010s, it had grown into a global water cooler where millions of people went to make sense of the world around them. Its rapid-fire, 140-character bursts made it a valuable tool for those wanting to steer a conversation, attract attention to a cause or simply peer into the kaleidoscope of human thought.

On any given day, Twitter was the place to: talk about the news, complain about airline food, flirt with strangers, announce an earthquake, yell at your senator, cheer for your sports teams, post nudes, make dumb jokes, ruin your own reputation, ruin somebody else’s reputation, document police brutality, argue about anime, fall for a cryptocurrency scam, start a music career, procrastinate, follow the stock market, issue a public apology, share scientific papers, discuss Game of Thrones, find skillet chicken recipes.

And while it was never the biggest social media platform, or the most profitable, Twitter did seem to level the playing field in a way other apps didn’t.

But as Twitter and other social networks grew, powerful people found that these apps could help them extend their power in new ways. Authoritarians discovered they could use them to crack down on dissent. Extremists learned they could stir up hateful mobs to drive women and people of colour offline. Celebrities and influencers realised that the crazier you acted, the more attention you got, and dialled up their behaviour accordingly. A foundational belief of social media’s pioneers — that simply giving people the tools to express themselves would create a fairer and more connected society — began to look hopelessly naive.

When Donald J. Trump rode a wave of retweets to the White House in 2016, and used his Twitter account as President to spread conspiracy theories, wage culture wars, undermine public health and threaten nuclear war, the idea that the app was a gift to the downtrodden became even harder to argue.

Since 2016, Twitter has tried to clean up its mess, putting into effect new rules on misinformation and hate speech and barring some high-profile trolls. Those changes made the platform safer and less chaotic, but they also alienated users who were uncomfortable with how powerful Twitter itself had become.

These users chafed at the company’s content moderation decisions, like the one made to permanently suspend Trump’s account after the January 6, 2021, insurrection. They accused the platform’s leaders of bowing to a censorious mob. And some users grew nostalgic for the messier, more freewheeling Twitter they’d loved.

One of those users was Musk, whose Twitter use in some sense mirrors the platform’s trajectory.

When Musk joined Twitter in 2009, he was the chief executive of a small, struggling electric car company. Few people knew or cared who he was, and he tweeted infrequently for years, usually posting the kinds of boring status updates you see from busy executives whose PR people are forcing them to tweet. (November 18, 2012: “Just returned from a trip to London and Oxford, where I met with many interesting people. I really like Britain!”)

But as Tesla and Twitter grew, so did Musk’s following. He started tweeting more and letting down his guard. He cracked jokes, posted pictures of rockets and carried out attention-grabbing stunts, such as selling a $500 propane-powered flamethrower.

Musk was better at pithy self-expression than the average chief executive, and his nerdy impulsiveness fit in perfectly on Twitter. He kept tweeting, eventually amassing a fandom whose adoration boosted Tesla, SpaceX and his other projects to new heights.

Executives at Twitter have struggled for years to explain their creation, usually falling back on vague bromides like an “interest-based network”. But Musk seemed to intuitively grasp what Twitter actually was — a high-stakes popularity contest that, if won, could get you almost anything you wanted, from a higher stock price to a Saturday Night Live hosting gig.

In recent years, as Musk became one of Twitter’s biggest stars, his use of the platform became sharper and more Trumpian. He picked fights with reporters, railed against political correctness and the “woke mind virus”, and taunted federal securities regulators. His politics drifted rightward, and his posting schedule ramped up. Like many hard-core Twitter addicts, he seemed unable to log off, to let a grudge go unavenged or to filter himself in any way. (Musk has said that he finds Twitter “vaguely therapeutic”.)

When the opportunity arose, Musk did what any true poster with billions of dollars would at least consider: He bought the platform.

What Musk will do with Twitter now is anyone’s guess. He fired several top executives on Thursday, including Twitter’s chief executive, Parag Agrawal, but did not immediately say who would replace them. He has talked about making Twitter the centrepiece of a WeChat-style “super-app” called X. He has pledged to restore the accounts of users who were barred for spreading false and damaging information, including Trump. And he has spoken, vaguely, about making the company profitable through some combination of subscriptions, data licensing and cost-cutting.

Musk has framed his Twitter acquisition as a move to return the site to its former glory.

“The bird is freed,” he tweeted on Thursday night, after the deal had closed.

It’s possible that, as Musk suggests, relaxing Twitter’s rules could revitalise it, or bring lapsed users back to the platform. It’s also possible that it could empower bigots and trolls, and undo years of work that made the platform safer for users and more attractive to advertisers — or that Musk could back off his plans for radical change. (On Friday, he signalled a possible retreat, saying that he will convene “a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” before reversing bans or making other major decisions.)

But whatever happens, it’s safe to predict that with Musk at the helm, Twitter won’t recapture its onetime identity as a place for rebels and revolutionaries to communicate under the radars of the powerful. That bird has flown.

Kevin Roose is a technology columnist and the author of Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation

New York Times News Service

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