It’s five months since Elon Musk overpaid for a relatively small microblogging platform called Twitter. The platform had punched above its weight in pure user numbers thanks to an unrivaled ability to both distribute real-time information and make expertise available. Combine these elements with your own critical faculty — to weed out the usual spam and bs — and it could feel like the only place online that really mattered.
Even if the average internet user remained baffled by Twitter, it contained essential ingredients that made it a go-to source for journalists or other curious types wanting to earwig on conversations between interesting people — whether subject experts or celebrities. It was also therefore a place where experts and celebrities could find community and an engaged audience — without the need for layers of message-filtering middlemen. Twitter was where these two sides met and (sometimes) meshed in messy conversation.
There was an alluring (sometimes bruising) rawness to the medium. Yes, you could get the thrill of almost unvarnished opinions from celebrities on Twitter — at least compared to more curated social media feeds like Instagram. But the real pull and power of the platform came from the incredible wealth of knowledge any Twitter user could directly tap into — across all sorts of professional fields, from deep tech to deep space and far beyond — just by listening in on a discussion thread or sliding a question into someone’s DMs.
Above all Twitter was an information network; the social element came a distant second. Although it had a notable sideline as an unofficial dating app as it could be a great way to get a feel for someone’s personality without meeting them in person. (There are countless stories of people making friends or even life partners via encounters on Twitter.)
The running joke became ‘how is this site free?!’ Because the interactions could be so remarkable — so show-stopping or fascinating — that it felt incredible to encounter this kind of proximity (to knowledge or stardust) for free.
Well, Twitter is no longer free. Literally and figuratively. And we are all so much poorer for that.
Since Musk took over he has set about dismantling everything that made Twitter valuable — making it his mission to drive out expertise, scare away celebrities, bully reporters and — on the flip side — reward the bad actors, spammers and sycophants who thrive in the opposite environment: An information vacuum.
It almost doesn’t matter if this is deliberate sabotage by Musk or the blundering stupidity of a clueless idiot. The upshot is the same: Twitter is dying.
The value that Twitter’s platform produced, by combining valuable streams of qualification and curiosity, is being beaten and wrung out. What’s left has — for months now — felt like an echo-y shell of its former self. And it’s clear that with every freshly destructive decision — whether it’s unbanning the nazis and letting the toxicity rip, turning verification into a pay-to-play megaphone or literally banning journalists — Musk has applied his vast wealth to destroying as much of the information network’s value as possible in as short a time as possible; each decision triggering another exodus of expertise as more long-time users give up and depart.
Simply put, Musk is flushing Twitter down the sink. I guess now we all know what the dumb meme really meant.
On April Fools Day, the next — perhaps final — stage of the destruction will commence as Musk rips away the last layer of legacy verification, turning up the volume on anyone who’s willing to pay him $7.99 per month to shout over everyone else.
Anyone who was verified under the old (and by no means perfect) system of Twitter verification — which was at least related to who they were (celebrity, expert, journalist, etc.) — will cease to be verified. Assuming they haven’t already deleted their account. Only accounts that pay Musk will display a ‘Blue Check’.
This is just a parody of verification since the blue tick no longer signals any kind of quality. But the visual similarity seems intentional; a dark pattern designed to generate maximum confusion.
If you pay Musk for this meaningless mark you’ll also get increased algorithmic visibility of your tweets and the power to drown out non-paying users. Which mean all the fakes and imposters can (and will) overwrite the real-deal on Twitter.
Genuine users are rightly outraged at the idea of being blackmailed into paying Musk to prove who they are. These people — the signal amid the Twitter noise — are, after all, a core component of the value of the network. So of course they shouldn’t (and won’t) pay — and so their visibility on Twitter will decay. Which, in turn, will trigger more damage — as any remaining users wanting to find quality information will find it increasingly hard to come by… It’s death by irrelevance.
In a further twist, only paying users will get a vote in future Twitter policy polls — meaning Musk will guarantee populist decision-making is rigged in his fanboys’ favor. (But actually this just looks like pure trolling since he doesn’t stick to the outcome of poll results he doesn’t like anyway.)
The upshot is Musk is turning Twitter into the opposite of a meritocracy. He’s channeling pure chaos — just like the cartoon ‘chaotic evil’ villains love to. (And, well, as we’ve said before, Twitter is Musk’s calamity masterpiece.)
Nor does this gambit look like a moneyspinner for Musk, either. He’s clawed in just $11 million in subscription revenue since relaunching Twitter Blue three months ago, per Sensor Tower. (Reminder: Musk paid $44 billion for Twitter last October. And has already destroyed half that value, according to a recent leaked internal memo.) So, yeah, this ‘game of pwns’ has been verrrrrrrrrry expensive for Musk too. It’s an eye-watering lose-lose equation — unless you’re a spammer, basically. (Then, presumably, it’s a cheap way to spam Musk fanboys if that’s a useful thing to do?)
Making money out of Twitter doesn’t seem to be the point for the billionaire/former world’s richest man who obviously has wealth enough to throw plenty of borrowed billions down the sink. Although early in his takeover he trailed (trolled?) the idea of transforming Twitter into a billion user platform. But when it comes to growing revenue and users we must all surely agree that Musk been drastically — spectacularly — unsuccessful.
However if the point is simply pure destruction — building a chaos machine by removing a source of valuable information from our connected world, where groups of all stripes could communicate and organize, and replacing that with a place of parody that rewards insincerity, time-wasting and the worst forms of communication in order to degrade the better half — then he’s done a remarkable job in very short order. Truly it’s an amazing act of demolition. But, well, $44 billion can buy you a lot of wrecking balls.
That our system allows wealth to be turned into a weapon to nuke things of broad societal value is one hard lesson we should take away from the wreckage of downed turquoise feathers.
You can say shame on the Twitter board that let it happen. And we probably should. But, technically speaking, their job was to maximize shareholder value; which means to hell with the rest of us.
We should also consider how the ‘rules based order’ we’ve devised seems unable to stand up to a bully intent on replacing free access to information with paid disinformation — and how our democratic systems seem so incapable and frozen in the face of confident vandals running around spray-painting ‘freedom’ all over the walls as they burn the library down.
The simple truth is that building something valuable — whether that’s knowledge, experience or a network worth participating in — is really, really hard. But tearing it all down is piss easy.
Let that sink in.