Elon Musk Conquers Twitter, and France
It’s always been easy to slag off Twitter. When I first joined the platform 13 years ago, if you ever tried to explain what “Twitter” is to people, they’d respond with something like, “So what am I supposed to do, tweet what I’m having for lunch”? They couldn’t even conceive of how it could possibly be used for anything productive. Ever since then, it’s been attacked as the epitome of modern frivolity — not to mention a boundless generator of hate, polarization, “online violence,” “foreign interference,” and a thousand other made-up sins.
I’ve had criticisms of Twitter policy over the years, and those criticisms have gotten increasingly frequent as of late. But when people blame “Twitter” for stuff — especially their neurotic personal problems — what they’re usually doing is scapegoating the platform itself for their own inability to use it with discernment.
Because I have to say, I probably owe a lot to Twitter. I can’t really fathom how I would have been able to develop any kind of “media” presence without it — I was always ill-suited to pursue journalism through the standard ladder-climbing, credentialing route. Twitter enabled me to largely bypass that, especially as it became so interchangeable with how “media” gets produced in the first place. Does Twitter create all kinds of distortive effects, biases, and intensify certain obnoxious pathologies among users? Sure — I’d even go a step further and declare it the most effective engine of conformity and consensus in human history! You get instant psychic gratification when you say something your friends/peers/colleagues agree with, and you are also instantly made aware when you offend their sensibilities. This explains why a lot of contemporary political debate, including among media “professionals,” has come to resemble a catty high-school feud between rival cliques.
For me though, it would be ridiculous to deny that Twitter has been a net benefit. Despite all the conformity and consensus it can definitely induce, it can also make possible lots of good things, if you know how to use it right. I’ve met tons of interesting people, gotten tons of great opportunities, found tons of useful information, and had tons of productive conversations on the platform. So why would I pretend to loathe it? The default Cool Kid media posture is to feint as though they just can’t stand that awful “hellsite” — even though they’re on it constantly, send and receive social/professional validation through it at all hours of the day, and so forth. Maybe in some alternate universe my life would have been superior if Jack Dorsey had never invented “tweeting,” but in this current life timeline, it’s been highly fruitful. And I still think the platform has a lot of potential.
Elon Musk apparently agrees. Enough so that he was willing to pay a premium to acquire Twitter for $44 billion. (Facebook bought Instagram for a lowly $1 billion ten years ago!) I don’t know what’s going on in Elon Musk’s head any more than the next guy, but maybe part of the value that he correctly perceives is that there’s a ton of social capital wrapped up in Twitter — including among the most influential people in the world. Which just doesn’t exist in the same way on other platforms.
I’ll always maintain that the single thing which most enabled Donald Trump to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 was his mastery of Twitter, through which he completely dominated the media and bypassed the pundits, operatives, and “experts” who would otherwise exert outsized influence on the nominating process. Then of course Twitter became his primary communications mechanism during his presidency, before being seized from him in an act of unparalleled corporate usurpation and censorship.
And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of Twitter’s wider cultural influence: all the time now, people get book and movie deals directly through Twitter. The stories one hears are crazy. I don’t know how you can have lived through the past 10 years with any cognizance of Twitter’s impact and still dismiss it as a silly distraction. If anything, you should be ever-more appreciative of its power!
That power, I would guess, is at least part of why Elon Musk paid the premium. Maybe he has other motives. But if you go by what he publicly states, his intention is to restore free speech as the platform’s paramount ethos, impose more transparency on its algorithmic inner-workings, and introduce some kind authentication process that gets rid of bots. I know — sounds horrifying!
All the media/activists who are so infuriated by this can’t seem to specify how exactly they foresee their Twitter user experience being changed under Musk’s ownership. Presumably, they’ll still be able to follow or not follow whomever they choose, block and mute at will, etc. So what’s the problem? Well, the problem should be obvious, and almost doesn’t even need articulating: they will no longer be able to coerce Twitter’s management to accede to their demands. Since roughly 2016, they’ve progressively shifted the platform away from what Jack Dorsey had once declared to be its mission — “Twitter stands for freedom of expression” — and instead gotten it to “stand for” whatever the most shrill activists and journalists wanted. Which was not “free expression” — but to wield their cultural and political leverage to mold Twitter policy in accordance with their own niche worldview.
This meant constant frenzied hectoring that Twitter moderators needed to more aggressively intervene on the platform to protect adults from “harmful” content. And it meant demanding that Twitter monitor/regulate speech more and more stringently, on the ground that doing so was necessary to fight some nefarious combination of Trump, Russia, and the scary right-wing white nationalist anti-vax whatever whatever “disinformation” network. To achieve their desired disciplinary measures, they concocted concepts of “harassment” that were never really about harassment per se, but whether the “harassment” victim in question checked the right cultural/political boxes.
Now, it seems, the presumption that they’ll be able to emotionally blackmail Twitter into guaranteed capitulation seems no longer operative. I’m personally most curious if Musk plans to continue allowing Twitter to be used as a vehicle of the US national security state to “counter” official enemies like Russia and China. That to me seems like the real test of his claimed commitment to maximalist “free speech” — and Musk does have a bunch of lucrative Pentagon contracts. So we’ll have to see. Either way, enjoy the meltdown.
Note from MT: I’m in Paris right now, after a few days nosing around during the climax of the French presidential election. A rip-roaring dispatch will follow below, for paid subscribers!