What's next for Elon Musk and Twitter?

Christmas week starts with a bang, as the news cycle explodes into an all-Elon-Musk, all-the-time bonanza. Musk posted a poll on Sunday evening asking people to vote on whether he should step down as Twitter’s CEO; a majority voted for Musk to depart. The company announced a new policy banning links to certain other social-media platforms, and then less than a day later, appeared to rescind that policy. All of this occurred while Musk was in Qatar, watched the World Cup final alongside former presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. At this point, the relationship between Musk and the media that largely loathes him is symbiotic; a lot of reporters can’t stand him, but they also obsessively track every move he makes.

The End of the Year Musk-Mania Blowout

You notice we don’t see the same kinds of intense panic, anger, meltdowns, and furious accusations of “destroying the public square” over what Mark Zuckerberg’s policies are at Facebook.

For that matter, you don’t see nearly as much debate about the content standards for YouTube, Instagram, or Pinterest. There ought to be a lot more public debate about whether it’s a good idea to have so many of America’s teenagers using TikTok — you might as well send all of your personal information to the Chinese government directly. Despite some lazy reporters characterizing opposition to TikTok as a Republican stance, the Senate approved, by unanimous consent, a different bill that would ban the use of TikTok from all federal employees’ devices. How often does the Senate do something without a single objection?

Nope, lately it feels like when you turn on the news, pick up the newspaper, or check the news sites, it’s, “Here’s what Elon Musk has done at Twitter this hour.”

I don’t think it’s a good idea to have so much of the biggest American media institutions so obsessed with what is happening on Twitter. On Friday, I noted that those big media institutions likely felt obligated to dispute the suspension of accounts of their reporters regardless of the merits, that Musk had displaced Donald Trump as the preeminent public nemesis of liberals in the media, and that despite all the talk from prominent liberals that Twitter is dying and that they were leaving to go to Mastodon or other social-media platforms, they certainly weren’t acting like Twitter is dying.

And I figured that was all that needed to be said for a while.

But just this past weekend:

1. Elon Musk tweeted out a poll Sunday evening asking people to vote on whether he should step down as Twitter’s CEO. Musk said he would abide by the poll’s results. The final results are 57.5 percent in favor of stepping down, 42.5 percent in favor of Musk staying.

2. Twitter announced a new policy banning links to certain other social-media platforms, and then less than a day later appeared to rescind that policy, removing the page that had announced it.

3. Musk was seen watching the World Cup final between Argentina and France in Qatar, standing next to former presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. “Musk’s companies SpaceX and Starlink reportedly partnered with Qatar Airways to send two World Cup balls to space and back.”

4. The Washington Post argues that Musk’s account of a confrontation between a member of his security team and an alleged stalker does not match the police reports of the incident.

5. Axios warns that, “Elon Musk and allies are building a new anti-left media ecosystem almost overnight.” (Heaven forbid, right?)

6. The New York Times reported that Chinese-language spam bots and adult content helped obscure coverage of and discussion of protests in China.

It is getting difficult to keep up with what the actual policies at Twitter are. It might be reasonable for Twitter to enact some sort of limit upon use of its platform to promote other social-media networks that it deems as rivals. But trying to ban any reference to “follow me on this other platform” would quickly become counterproductive. There are YouTube video makers using Twitter, podcasters on audio-focused platforms using Twitter, visual artists, etc. “Hey, look at what I’m doing on this other site by clicking on this link” is part of Twitter’s bread and butter, and it’s also the concept that its advertising runs upon.

The seemingly rescinded Twitter policy declared that, “We will remove accounts created solely for the purpose of promoting other social platforms and content that contains links or usernames for the following platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon, Truth Social, Tribel, Nostr and Post.” Raise your hand if you notice a major social-media platform missing from that list.

Yup, TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, which has deep ties to the Chinese government. You may recall Musk singing the praises of the Chinese Communist Party and floating proposals such as creating a Chinese “special administrative zone” for Taiwan, an idea that was immediately endorsed by the Chinese ambassador to the United States and furiously rejected by his Taiwanese counterpart. Some of us warned you to watch Musk handles issues relating to the Chinese government!

The erratic, seemingly ad-hoc changes in policy suggest that Twitter’s policy changes are driven from impulsive decisions from the top.

Musk is an engineer, revealed he has Asperger’s, and as he put it when he hosted Saturday Night Live back in 2021, “I sometimes say or post strange things, but that’s just how my brain works. To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say, I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars on a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”

When you’re a tinkerer, you’re always trying to think up new ways to do things. I suspect that when Musk has some new idea for the rockets at SpaceX, he goes to his team and says, “Why don’t we try this?” And the engineers can model it or run simulations or maybe even build the design to see if it works — and likely sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The rockets are developed, in part, through trial and error.

One problem with Musk running Twitter is that people are already on the rocket ship, and he’s tinkering with it while it’s orbiting the earth. People are used to their user experience being a certain way, and Musk is changing it, with little warning, and when a change doesn’t work, he discards it just as quickly. This may not mean much to the casual user, but to companies such as Apple and Amazon, which each spend about $100 million on advertising on Twitter, the system needs to be clear, stable, and predictable.

Ashlee Vance wrote one of the most thorough biographies of Musk back in 2017, and about a month ago, Vance told Vox that Musk was tackling a completely different challenge than his previous business adventures, and that his skillset may not be quite the right match for what Twitter needed:

I think the chaos that we see unfolding at Twitter, I don’t think that really frightens Elon. Tesla and SpaceX have been on the verge of bankruptcy, they’ve been in sort of life-and-death struggles most of their existence. And that’s kind of like where he seems to exist.

Every time those companies got to a stable point, he would just immediately go all-in and risk the entire company on the next new venture. I’ve always thought of him as the biggest gambler, the highest risk-taker you can find.

I think Twitter is a different and unique challenge. This is not something where you’re building a rocket or a car and you can marshal tons of troops to push toward this goal. There’s part of this that takes a sense of consumers’ tastes, of society’s tastes. If this company is really going to make more money, it has to get bigger and it has to have another hit. We’ve seen the hit, which is that it’s this place where everybody gathers to chat. But that hasn’t paid enough of the bills.

So, this is where you start getting into kind of a territory where we just don’t know. There’s not a lot of evidence that Elon’s necessarily good at reading these kinds of signals. And it takes a bit of luck.

Zoe Kleinman, the BBC’s technology editor, asked, “Why is Elon Musk spending his time on Twitter, not on the mission to Mars?” It may well be that Musk himself is asking that question; last night he tweeted, “As the saying goes, be careful what you wish, as you might get it.” (That may be a warning to Twitter users eager to see him depart as CEO that they may not like his replacement.) He also observed that, “Those who want power are the ones who least deserve it.”

Perhaps Musk would be happier, and more effective, if he lets others craft and propose the content limits for Twitter; set out a transparent, slower, more deliberate, and methodical process for debating and resolving these issues; signed off on the changes he felt made the most sense; and let someone else deal with the complaints.

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