Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Twitterpocalypse Now: The Wheels Are Falling Off


Kim O’Connor: Nick, since we published our last conversation about Twitter around 36 hours ago, some 4,500 contractors have been fired. Elon Musk provoked a U.S. Senator, made bizarre false claims about Twitter and its reach, and accused his ghosts of stealing food. Oh, and reports broke that a rogue Tesla Model Y maimed or murdered five people in China?

All to say we’ve had a relatively quiet Twitterpocalypse news cycle, and I want to take advantage of the lull to pose a somewhat philosophical question.

I’ve been thinking through the idea of “influence” and how it’s adjacent to, but ultimately really different from, power and money. Historically, it seems that influence, much like Twitter itself, has been hard to monetize. The people we talk about as social media “influencers” are mostly grifters or guerilla marketers. The influencers who actually shape the world we live in—trendsetters, artists, intellectuals, “the Russians,” etc.—are a lot more important. But they don’t necessarily get paid.

There are people who talks about Musk’s designs for Twitter as colonialist or fascist. It seems to me that his agenda (insofar as there is one?) is a lot more selfish and idiosyncratic and poisoned with Chad memes than that. Yet I can’t ignore that he talks constantly about making Twitter an “everything app.” For a lot of reasons, that ambition seems absurd on its face. But it’s also my belief that when the richest man in the universe talks about making an everything app, he shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The tech world is still very much moved by unhinged gambles and cults of personality, despite the constant stream of press on Silicon Valley snake oil conspiracies.

All Elon on Elon quotes from @bestofdyingtwitter

So let’s just set aside for the moment the very real possibility that Twitter will stop existing sometime soon. Is it even possible that a platform that’s influential in the real sense of shaping the world (not just selling pink sauce) can be well and truly monetized? Can Twitter’s influence be harnessed, or is it inherently unruly? Or has its influence been grossly overestimated, just in general?

Nick Hanover: I’m glad you brought this up because Alex De Campi had a thread about this the other day that I felt hit the nail right on the head. Alex argues that Twitter’s real problem, as far as profitability, is how broken its approach to ads is, specifically in terms of metrics. As Alex mentions in that thread, brands and publications and influencers all still cling to Meta because of how robust its metrics system is and how easily it allows you to effectively market to users. But everybody in those worlds also hates Meta because of how often and how brazenly it lies about those analytics– the biggest, most catastrophic example of this would be the pivot-to-video push Meta was behind that ended up being a lot of (ultimately fatal) smoke and mirrors. Every client I work with on this sort of thing, be it a musician or a food service company or a publication, is desperate for pretty much anybody to offer an alternative to Meta. But because of incompetence or misaligned priorities or whatever, Twitter has continuously shit the bed on this front.

Musk’s takeover has, perhaps more than anything, illuminated how poorly the tech world at large understands what Twitter is, what it could be and how it can be profitable. No one wants Twitter to be an “everything app” any more than anyone wants Facebook or Instagram to be an “everything app,” they just want to hang out in these spaces and have a reasonably civil experience. The best way I can think to frame these platforms is that they are basically digital bars– Twitter is the neighborhood dive bar where you catch up on gossip and debate news with friends and select coworkers, Facebook is the somewhat sterile family friendly bar where you’re more likely to run into family members and former classmates and Instagram and TikTok are the nightclubs where you don’t go to be able to have conversation but to see glamour and style and maybe a few drunken fights/embarrassing situations. Where these platforms fall apart is in attempting to ape one another and integrate things that really only work on the other platforms– no one goes to the neighborhood dive bar to scope out the latest fashion trends and no one goes to the nightclub with their family in an attempt to talk out their differences. Likewise, you aren’t going to have a profitable experience if you get rid of all of the cheap beer at the dive bar and try to get everyone to sip on overpriced syrupy cocktails instead.

So if you want these things to be profitable, you have to moderate and control the experience properly for the environment you have. Musk, however, seems to want to force Twitter to fit the experience he and his cronies want to have and in the process of doing that he is making an environment that is too toxic for advertisers and too chaotic for a normal ass person. I don’t think “fascist” is the right framing for his approach, it’s more like the “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone, where a petulant child has incomprehensible power but pretty much only uses it to bully and break people. As the texts from the lawsuit show, Musk and his partners have wanted to buy Twitter for a while just to punish its users. There is no plan here other than “I want to be able to direct my horde of unhinged followers towards whoever I don’t like at the moment but I also don’t want anyone to be able to criticize me” and that is the sort of plan that will never make money no matter how many resources you throw at it.

It’s especially bad here, though, because Twitter is in a way a sentient organism itself and it is actively resisting efforts to shape it into anything it isn’t, and this isn’t new to Musk (this is also why I don’t think its influence is overestimated, if anything any platform that is this autonomous and resistant to forced change under the hostile ownership of the world’s richest man has probably been underestimated). There is clearly a societal need to gossip and talk shit and Twitter remains the best platform for that so if you want to make money off Twitter, embrace that! Stop putting more money behind bloat, stop laying off the engineers keeping the quality of life stable, stop encouraging what are basically drunken hooligans to storm the dive bar. Put the energy and money instead into fixing your metrics systems and into better moderation because that is what advertisers and users both want– they want the app to work, they want to be able to be seen easily, they don’t want to deal with paywalls or “shadowbanning” or whatever other nonsense Musk thinks is a road to success.

Kim: It’s such an interesting question, what level of user experience Twitter needs to maintain to keep its users (and attract new ones). One way to interpret these crazy rounds of layoffs is that Musk has been Benjamin Buttoning the platform. He’s taken a mature, functional service and is stripping it down to the studs, moving backward toward a minimum viable product. It’s like a reverse startup? Which is an enormously risky approach, even if it weren’t being executed in such a haphazard and unprofessional way, under unfathomable financial duress.

I mean, we could talk all day about the very plain deficiencies in Musk’s understanding of how anything works. There’s his total lack of insight into the advertising and social media businesses, as you mentioned. There’s also his outrageous plan (perhaps former plan…?) to throttle engagement for users who won’t pay for a subscription. That would repel droves of people on, like, the level of neurochemistry. It’s bonkers!

It seems worth noting that Facebook made a lot of money not because of Mark Zuckerberg, but because of Sheryl Sandberg (who has, notably, abandoned ship in the transition to Meta). There does not seem to be anyone in Musk’s life to play that role. His lieutenants are a rogue’s gallery of Robert Greene wannabes, plus that one lady who sleeps in the Twitter conference room. Musk should be surrounding himself with normie pragmatists, not people who describe themselves as alphas who found “spirituality” at Burning Man. The idea that those are the people you want on your team to realize One App to Rule Them All is so funny.

A good leader must listen, reflect

But…Silicon Valley is still chasing unicorns, which is why Musk is who he is. His belief that Twitter has a lot of bloat – that it should be focusing on a lean payroll and minimum viable product rather than integrity or network effect – is on some level rational. Historically, Musk is a person who has been enormously successful with this notion of minimum viable product. Look at Tesla! Year after year, on a material level, it has jerked and burned its way toward massive profitability. (I am wandering well outside my expertise here, but it seems like to me that bringing MVP to the luxury car space…is the most American innovation in history?) Musk’s main lines of business have been in manufacturing more than tech. But he has shown this huge capacity for successfully translating tech startup principles to the material world, which is experience that seems relevant.

Again, setting aside the real possibility that Twitter will simply break in the near future – is there a world in which Musk could succeed without a Sandberg-like figure at Twitter? Or, put another way, how much does reality matter? lol

Nick: With Tesla, and SpaceX, the main difference is that Musk is selling a philosophy/status more than an actual product. People buy from Tesla because they want to be seen in a Tesla and/or they have bought into this idea of Musk as the “savior of humanity” and thus buy his products to support his quest. Tesla and SpaceX neither aspire to nor want the average person to be able to consume their products. That approach is of course antithetical to a social media business, because social media only really works when it is embraced by a large number of people as well as by celebrities who need the adoration of the masses. So no, I don’t think there is a world in which Musk can succeed at any social media platform that he himself is in charge of unless he goes through some kind of process that puts his ego in check.

Employees are for betas 

This is also why every attempt to make a more closed off form of Twitter– be it the various libertarian hell holes or on the other end of the spectrum, federated platforms like Mastodon– never really goes anywhere. This is also why I think that Musk’s emphasis on “going lean” is so catastrophic, because a giant ecosystem like Twitter can only really function if there are a lot of people involved in checking its engineering systems and keeping it stable, as well as doing the thankless work of moderation. Even Meta and Google understand this to a degree, and that’s why Facebook and YouTube sustain entire content moderation industries, like sharks carrying remoras.

To me, all of this has become less of a question of “will Musk kill Twitter?” and more of a question of “will Twitter kill Musk?” What has surprised me the most since Musk took over Twitter is how much it is resisting him and also how much it is wreaking havoc on his finances, the stability of his businesses (and honestly the entire market) and the very notion of him as a genius. Maybe I’m reaching here but it legitimately feels like this Twitter takeover is helping destabilize Silicon Valley in general, because we are now seeing simultaneous breakdowns at Meta and Amazon and in the latter case we even have Bezos trying to figure out an exit strategy for himself. Yes, these companies and this industry were having issues before this but I think the Twitter situation, and the intense scrutiny Musk has inadvertently brought down on his fellow billionaires in the process, has rapidly escalated a fierce public turnaround on these figures and the parasitic businesses they front. Bezos in particular seems to now grasp that even the billionaires can’t stop the return of a labor movement in America and that the “eat the rich” shouting that has intensified over the past few years might become a very real threat soon.

So I guess my question back to you is even if Musk were to find this mythical Sandberg-esque figure, do you think he or anyone can stop the avalanche or is this going to take down this entire god forsaken industry or am I perhaps crazy for thinking it might?

Kim: I think grift culture is fundamental to American business, finance, religion, everything, and it genuinely cannot be overestimated. Trumpism, the self-help industry, Silicon Valley, evangelicals, etc.—these are powerful and intertwined forces in society. The nature of their grifts keep getting more complicated and abstract, as we have seen with the “Soylent Green is people” business model of social media platforms and the cyber Ponzi schemes of crypto. And many of the grifters themselves seem to have been growing emboldened to share their message of white male supremacy.

Approaching the singularity 

So I really don’t know. I think you’re more optimistic than I am. The layoff announcements at Amazon belie the reality that the company is still growing, just not fast enough by the standard of modern greed. Still, I take your point. I agree wholeheartedly that Musk has been showing his ass in a truly spectacular fashion. I agree this could effectively be the end of him. And I agree that there’s a growing sense of hope, in the way that people talk about labor in general and the outcome of the U.S. midterms, that eyes are opening to the fact that the emperors have no clothes.

It’s such a potent metaphor that so many of these guys are pouring their resources into space and AI and virtual reality. They really do operate outside reality a lot of the time. They often seem to transcend its laws. But let’s look at some facts without spin: Bezos donned his cowboy hat and spent about 10 minutes from launch to landing, only approaching the edge of what most people consider space. His fortune sent him there. But the laws of gravity brought him back.

And with that, we'll conclude the second installment of Twitterpolcalypse Now, a series where Nick and I dust off our defunct blogs to discuss the delightful and unsettling implosion of twitter dot com. You can read the first installment over in Nick's part of town, aka Loser City. As of this writing, you can still find Kim tweeting about Todd McFarlane @shallowbrigade, and Nick Hanover at @nick_hanover.


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