Elon Musk has no idea what he’s doing at Twitter

Musk’s desperation about his expensive new toy seemed clear in his first email to employees since the takeover
Last Updated : 11 November 2022, 04:27 IST

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By Farhad Manjoo

If you thought Elon Musk’s will-he-or-won’t-he approach to buying Twitter was chaotic, the two weeks since Musk took the helm of the social media company have been downright anarchic, with his plans for Twitter flipping and flopping as furiously as a fish on a hook.

At first I had some hope that Musk’s chaotic approach would be tempered as he settled into the role; his other companies have also gone through periods of intense tumult. But the latest zigs and zags suggest something deeply amiss with what the world’s richest man is doing to Twitter.

Now he is raising the ire of the nation’s top privacy regulator, the Federal Trade Commission. Three Twitter executives in charge of privacy and information security resigned Wednesday. According to The Verge, a company lawyer warned fellow employees that Musk’s urgency in pushing changes to the service risked violating a consent order that Twitter signed with the FTC stemming from previous security lapses. Violations of the decree could lead to hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in fines for Twitter.

“We are tracking recent developments at Twitter with deep concern,” an FTC spokesperson said in a statement Thursday. “No CEO or company is above the law, and companies must follow our consent decrees. Our revised consent order gives us new tools to ensure compliance, and we are prepared to use them.”

Musk’s desperation about his expensive new toy seemed clear in his first email to employees since the takeover. “The economic picture ahead is dire,” he wrote Wednesday. He told them it was urgent that Twitter begin to make money by selling subscriptions in addition to its traditional business of advertising.

He’s not wrong that Twitter’s business is a mess. But he seems to only be making things worse.

In seemingly every move he makes, Musk stumbles into long-known difficulties that Twitter and other social media companies had developed ways of managing — but that Musk, in his eagerness to do everything differently, unthinkingly abandoned.

Consider all that he has done — and then undone — in so short a time. Within days of taking over, he capriciously laid off about half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees — and then immediately began trying to hire some indispensable workers back. He promised advertisers that he valued their business and said he worried about social media spreading partisan hate and divisiveness — then posted a hateful and divisive conspiracy theory and threatened to “thermonuclear name & shame” advertisers that ran for the hills. He told Tesla shareholders that he wouldn’t sell any more stock to fund the Twitter adventure — but disclosed Tuesday that he’d recently sold about $4 billion in shares.

Before Thursday’s chaos, Musk’s confusion seemed to have reached an absurdist peak Wednesday morning, when Twitter began rolling out a new set of verification badges to large brands, media organizations and some high-profile individual Twitter users. Within hours, Musk announced that he’d killed the rollout. It was maybe the most ill-advised, short-lived major product launch since Amazon tried to make a phone.

The saga reveals the deep confusion bedeviling Musk’s entire approach to his new company. It shows the hollowness of his plan: Musk says he wants to make Twitter a trusted source of information and a haven from online toxicity, a place where “comedy is now legal” and “the bird is free” but also does not feel like a “free-for-all hellscape.” This is a tall order, but it’s made taller by Musk’s apparent indecision and need to be loved — he wants to create a social networking nirvana without having to make any tough choices about what kind of content the network should allow, disallow, promote or curb.

For years, Twitter has offered some accounts a blue-and-white checkmark as a symbol of authenticity. Although its process was far from transparent, the company had added the checkmarks to the accounts of journalists, politicians, celebrities, brands and others to signify that they really were who they claimed to be. How could you be sure that, say, @fmanjoo really was the Twitter profile of the beloved newspaper columnist? Because of the checkmark.

But the checkmark also functioned as a kind of class marker on Twitter, and Musk and his lieutenants argued that the blue checks gave some Twitter users unearned status. He pitched his $8-a-month plan as a way to add an egalitarian sensibility to Twitter (and, of course, to make money). No longer would the “blue checks” — a term that had become a derisive label for out-of-touch “elites” — get special treatment from the social network. Now everyone would have to pay to stay verified, as Musk told Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the leftist New York congresswoman, in a tweet.

The trouble was that Musk’s plan to charge for the checkmark threatened to throw authenticity into disarray. If anyone could pay to be verified, wouldn’t that effectively mean that nobody was verified? What if someone paid $8 for a check and then claimed to be Farhad Manjoo — how would you tell which Farhad to trust?

Thus the second set of badges. On Tuesday, Esther Crawford, a Twitter executive, announced that the company had developed a new label — gray checkmarks labeled “Official” — to distinguish really authentic accounts from those that only paid to get the checkmark. The new designation would be given out at Twitter’s discretion to “select accounts,” she tweeted, and people could not purchase them. Among the first accounts to get the official designation were news organizations like The New York Times, government accounts, brands and some politicians. Even Ocasio-Cortez got the Official check.

Of course, the new check effectively undermined the paid-for check — if Twitter was going to mark some accounts as official without charging for the label, what was the point in paying for your account to carry a checkmark that didn’t signal Official status?

Right; there was no point. After announcing the end of the Official check, Musk tweeted what for him is as close to an apology as you can get: “Please note that Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months. We will keep what works & change what doesn’t.”

Twitter was far from a perfect company before Musk bought it. Its last profitable year (and one of its only profitable years) was 2019; in July, in its last quarterly earnings report as a public company, the company reported a net loss of $270 million. As troubled as it was, though, Twitter was not a clown show — it demonstrated basic competence in running its service, and advertisers and users did not have to worry about a daily blowup.

In the past two decades, web companies have developed lots of ways to test new features on small groups of users before rolling out possibly disruptive ideas for the entire service; if Musk hadn’t fired half of Twitter’s staff, he may have gleaned some of this. He could have made the changes more deliberately, with far better communication to users, advertisers and employees. (Like a certain former president, Musk has a bad habit of managing Twitter by tweet.)

In the spirit of confessing dumb mistakes, though, I should end by noting my own bad call. In April, after Musk first bid for Twitter, I wrote a column pooh-poohing alarmists who said he’d be the death of Twitter. He was an accomplished tech executive, I noted; how bad could he be at running Twitter?

The answer: Much, much worse than I ever imagined.

Published 11 November 2022, 04:02 IST

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