For everyone The lowdown: Failure to tweet

When future historians look back at the moment in late-stage capitalism that is 2022, one name will stand out in its improbable, eight-letter glory. Elon Musk. Could this man ever have existed? They say he fired a sports car into space. Challenged Vladimir Putin to hand-on-hand combat. Wanted to send space dragons into Ukraine. Gave his children mathematical formulae instead of names!

Sadly, any evidence that Musk did actually exist will have disappeared into the digital dust of ancient history, along with something elliptically referred to as ‘Twitter’. After all, the destruction of this platform might prove Musk’s greatest – and most bonkers – achievement.

Musk buying Twitter is the billionaire’s equivalent of blowing your life savings on a Ferrari and driving it straight into the Yarra. But this is a time defined by obscenely wealthy men crashing through the regulations, protections and social norms that have long held the West together.

The Twitter furore isn’t that different from what happened when Trump assumed control of the American state. It’s easy to believe you’re a genius when surrounded by acolytes and toadies, but harder when your actions have real-world implications for the lives of millions.

Musk immediately fired up to half of the workforce, before realising he’d sacked more or less everyone who knew how the company actually worked and was forced to beg dozens of them to return.

The chaos began in January, when Musk secretly began buying up shares in Twitter. The scale of his investment didn’t become apparent till March, by which point he raised the funds to buy the rest of the shares (nobody is quite sure how) and had his offer accepted. After that, he walked away from the deal, forcing Twitter to take legal action to wedge Musk into buying the company he had spent six months fighting to purchase. Having been manoeuvred into paying US$44 billion for the company, Musk immediately fired up to half of the workforce, before realising he’d sacked more or less everyone who knew how the company actually worked and was forced to beg dozens of them to return. He then banned the company’s work-from-home policy and demanded that his employees sign a pledge to work “long hours at high intensity” or leave.

Musk’s justification for buying Twitter is to protect it as a last bastion of free speech. His vision is a digital town square, where people can freely debate ideas without fear of repercussions. As such, he is embracing a common right-wing talking point that so-called ‘cancel culture’ means “nobody can say anything anymore”.

By way of illustration, Musk called Twitter’s decision to ban Trump a mistake. He has since reinstated him, though not before Trump set up his own alternative platform. Indeed, much of Musk’s first weeks in control of the company involved him stumbling upon the need for the very regulations he chafed against.

Watching Musk come face to face with the democracy he was seeking is an ironic delicacy.

One of his first announcements was that the prestigious blue ticks – essentially, a guarantee that notable people on Twitter are who they say they are – would be “democratised”. Anyone who paid to sign up to the new ‘Twitter Blue’ service got their own blue tick. The result was a spate of ‘verified’ accounts for the likes of George W. Bush and Tony Blair whose off-key announcements should keep those future historians guessing. A major pharmaceutical company with a blue tick announced insulin would now be given away free and its stocks plummeted. The account was, of course, fake.

Musk then announced that all parody accounts would need to state they were parodies in their username – primarily a reaction to the vast number of accounts now called ‘Elon Musk’ tweeting things like “I’ve made a terrible mistake”.

Twitter brought in a two-tier blue tick, meaning people who clicked on your tick could see if you had paid for it, essentially rendering the sign meaningless. At least one user devised a search widget that allowed you to see who among those you followed had merely paid for verification.

Watching Musk come face to face with the kind of direct democracy he claimed to be seeking is certainly an ironic delicacy. But it’s also a Pyrrhic victory for Musk-sceptics. He may go down, but it’s unlikely Twitter will survive him. Users are already fleeing to rival service Mastodon (although most are still hanging around on Twitter insisting they’ll be leaving at any moment).

We might find it’s easier to like the people around us when we don’t know every little thing they’re thinking.

What will our world be like without Twitter? The chief difference between it and Mastodon is that Twitter did mirror the town square, albeit policed by a shadowy and unelected tech company. Mastodon is more like private rooms, where people can avoid being exposed to uncomfortable opinions. Those seeking fodder for outrage may need to work harder to find it, as the echo chambers become more siloed.

Twitter has been a great source of connection and entertainment – many of us have made friends there in 240 characters or less – but will likely be best remembered for creating profound cultural divisions. In the second of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers books, a species of alien is given the ultimate punishment: telepathy. Being able to hear every little thought or belief held by other members of that civilisation soon led to its collapse.

If Musk’s Twitter is a disaster, it won’t just be his incompetence to blame but his whole ‘digital town square’ project. Maybe the day its servers go silent will be more a gift than a loss. We might find it’s easier to like the people around us when we don’t know every little thing they’re thinking.

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