In late 2019, as a seer atop a mist-swept mountain, a Twitter user named @maplecocaine published this: “Every day on Twitter there is a main character. The goal is never to be.”
Tweeting refers to a dynamic on the social network in which a user posts something that sparks conversation, outrage, and wide-ranging debate. Someone whose backyard has been overrun by “30-50 wild pigs”. A father denying his daughter a can of beans in the name of problem solving. A man who says he found shrimp tails in his Cinnamon Toast Crunch. A woman who likes to drink coffee with her husband. Whether the original tweet is corny or disjointed, the ensuing cycle tends to be similar: the post is chewed up by the masses and spat out as a deeply polarizing trending topic, leaving in its wake a trail of amusing memes and thermonuclear shots.
Especially in recent years, this phenomenon has come to define the experience of using the platform. And these episodes of the main character have become increasingly divisive and toxic. While Twitter remains an excellent place to get breaking news, find communities ranging from media types to medical professionals to furries, and facilitate major movements, it’s these core characters who have entertained, horrified, and most importantly, logged the platform’s most loyal users. turned on at all hours of the day. Witnessing the discourse surrounding a major Twitter character is as mesmerizing as watching hundreds of pigeons descend on a half-eaten hot dog in Times Square. It’s the kind of thing that makes you stare blankly at the chaos and let out a thoughtful laugh.
That is, at least for someone who isn’t the piece of meat at the center of the digital herd. Which brings us to Elon Musk. The richest man on the planet, CEO of two other big tech companies (SpaceX and Tesla) and father of 10 children closed a $ 44 billion deal to acquire Twitter in late October. Since then, he hasn’t relinquished the lead role, dictating the conversation on the platform while simultaneously dismantling it.
Musk has long been consumed by Twitter. Though he’s never been original enough to qualify as a true “poster,” he’s tweeted more than 19,000 times since he joined the platform in 2009, according to a recent Washington Post analyses. Parts of his feed resemble those of many power Twitter users: He’s hatched opinions on how to improve the app and lobbied for an edit button; he’s determined to take a break from the platform, only to come back early; declared his love for Twitter and called it a “hellland of haters” all in just over a year.
Yet much of his feed reads like a naked attempt to become the platform’s central figure, a quest that has unfolded in increasingly damaging ways. In 2018, Musk unfoundedly called a British diver a “pedo.” In 2020, he tweeted “Take the red pill.” (This is both a reference to The matrix and a shorthand used by the incel and men’s rights communities online to describe a right-wing political awakening.) Recently, it is adopted a slogan that is a chaotic-evil variant of Occam’s razor: “The funniest outcome is the most likely.” Just like a certain former president, his damaging assignments have become too numerous to chronicle briefly.
And when Musk reluctantly bought the platform, the aforementioned “main character” tweet took on a new meaning. It became the saying that a witch croaks after selling you a monkey’s foot; the inscription inside an almighty ring. More aptly, it has become something a bored billionaire would take as a challenge. Look no further than Musk carrying a physical sink in the Twitter office lobby for the sake of a weak pun and a few empty retweets.
Since Musk’s takeover as CEO, his frantic tweeting has only escalated. The New York Times musk whisperer, Ryan Mac, reported that in November alone, he was able to post more than 750 times, which equates to more than 25 times a day. Those posts have included bawdy humor, links to anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories around the Paul Pelosi attack, advice on how to vote in the (“Republican”) midterms, and a joke about Twitter contestant Mastodon, who he called “Masterbatedone “. After restoring Donald Trump’s account this weekend, Musk tweeted a raunchy sexual cartoon urging the former president to return to Twitter. Hours later, he called Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor is a “crybaby”.
His decision making within the company was even more reckless and destructive. Soon after the acquisition closed on October 28, Musk started the company’s C suite. In the first week of his tenure, hate speech increased on the platform and advertisers withdrew from it, threatening the source of 89% of the company’s revenue. Musk announced a product where anyone could pay $8 a month to get verified on the platform, and he pressured a team of engineers to work 24/7 to ship that product. Almost from the moment it was launched, this feature has been used to impersonate public figures and brands. When someone imitates pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company tweeted Nov 10, “We’re thrilled to announce that insulin is free now,” the company’s stock promptly fell 4.3%. In response, the company pulled its advertising from the platform, losing “millions” to Twitter. Within a week of launching this pay-for-your-tick system, Musk suspended it.
Meanwhile, Musk has casually set fire to the company’s workforce and the intricate systems he’s built. On Nov. 3, he cut a staff of 7,500 in half after sending generic signed “Twitter” messages promising details of layoff packages “within a week.” Once furloughed employees took to Slack’s platform and internal channels to criticize Musk, he fired many of them as well. He’s held meetings where he mentioned the possibility of bankruptcy and described how much he loved buying “gimmicks.” He sent an internal memo titled “A Crossroads” announcing the need for remaining employees “to be extremely hardcore” and work “long hours at high intensity,” and offered workers the choice of accepting these terms or otherwise resign. An additional 1,200 people have exited the company, leaving the teams needed to run the platform severely understaffed.
On Saturday, it became apparent that Twitter’s copyright strike system was it does not work. On Sunday, Musk reinstated Trump on the platform, citing the results of a poll he tweeted as somehow representing the “vox populi”. And there were more employees on Monday fired, leaving Twitter’s current workforce size at around 2,700. One could say that this situation is developing.
In less than a month, Musk scrapped more than a decade of efforts to establish moderation systems, however flawed, that serve to both block harmful speech and promote healthy speech on the platform. He replaced it with a half-baked stream of ideas from his own account of him. He gave an absolute master class on mismanagement and tweeted the entire time. Add it all up and it’s almost also on the nose: the embodiment of Twitter’s worst qualities is now the face of Twitter itself.
Virtually everyone has a pet theory to explain Musk’s motivations here. Some say he is doing all this to curry favor with China. Some say he is sport fishing to help the far right politically. Some say he’s actually he’s a genius who has eight steps come on of all the others. But the answer may be more direct: a billionaire who has spent a considerable part of his life trying to become the main character of Twitter has gone out of his way to acquire the social network, put himself at the center and gut it from the inside. Just because he can. It’s an ironic fate for a platform whose legacy includes unlocking a new level of craze in the minds of its users, and perhaps society at large as well.
Nobody knows how this saga will end. It seems too elegant for the world to wake up one morning and try to log into Twitter only to find it no longer exists. What’s more likely is a slow, sad death, where all the twisted geniuses that once made the platform great slowly seep into TikTok (where the culture was already headed), Substack, Mastodon, and other communities. All that will be left of Twitter will be one man’s huge ego and the sycophants who trip over themselves to prop it up.