The Elon Musk Twitter two-step: should I stay or should I go now?

A musk-shaped cloud hangs over Twitter like a bad omen. I smell elon in the air. What to do? What to do?

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go Elon will be trouble
If I stay troll trouble doubles
So come on and let me know

Should I stay or …

disengage?

Please send my apologies to The Clash.

Backstory

What a strange thing this was, Twitter. What a stupid idea really. Micro-blogging at 140 characters, the cut-off abrupt and merciless, no exceptions even for punctation. What to do when you come up 3 characters long? Drop a period, leave out a comma. Loose the apostrophe on the plural. Spell it funny. Twitter was a merciless editor, bent on teaching bad grammar. Then they rolled out 280 characters. Better. But. Learning to write for the thing was an ordeal. I wasted hours, days, months figuring it out. Twitter is a format best suited to snark kings /queens and bullies; Trump’s claim that he was the Hemingway of Twitter was not wrong. Assuming Hemingway was a blustering bully seeking to destroy American democracy.

Me? I’m not Hemmingway. I hail from William Faulkner country — which is a state of mind as well as a place. Faulkner could pour buckets of words onto page after page without coming up for breath or typing a period. Twitter made me abandon my inner-Faulkner. I learned to keep it short & sweet. But in the end I wanted to do more than throw snark at the wall, so I gravitated to tweet-threads; multiple little tweet-beads strung on twitter-thread like pearls to make a mini-essay. The pressure’s on, because only the zingers in that thread get any traction. Viral-twitter-traction I mean. Analytics told me it’s usually just the first tweet that gets noticed. Unless you have tens of thousands of followers, going viral is extremely rare. I had nearly 500 followers; my very top tweet for 2022 was seen by just 23,000. A Tweet about my home state:

Maybe it’s time to talk about Mississippi’s “fraternity affirmative action program” that puts marginally competent as well as completely incompetent white fraternity members into important governmental & corporate jobs.

Our Governor is one of those frat affirmative action hires. He was in the news lately hemming and hawing about outlawing contraceptives if the Supremes will let him.

I nailed the Tweet; but how much good did it do? Only 3.75% of the people who saw that first Tweet engaged with it. Virtually no one read the rest of the thread where I explained how the frat-business-government pipeline works in Mississippi. There was no discussion outside my Twitter-bubble, so the real-life impact was zilch. But when I saw it got 70 re-tweets there was a hit of serotonin that made me feel good. Seventy re-tweets is a lot for me but a tiny drop in the Twitter ocean of 500 million tweets a day. That feel-good rush lasted 15 minutes. Max.

When I think “Is that all there is”, I’m not alone. According to Pew research 67% of Twitter users think only a few see their content; “21% think nobody sees it”. If you want to feel truly insignificant, you can lay on damp grass and stare at the night sky. All those stars. Stretching back 14 billion years.

Or you can go on Twitter.

Other research shows that 97% of all American Tweets are created by just 25% of American users. Elon Musk gets tens of thousands of re-tweets for every gem he writes. This recent one was re-tweeted 94,700 times as of this writing:

Chocolate milk is insanely good. Just had some.

This same Elon Musk is now buying Twitter for $44 billion.

Public Square my ass

Musk says it’s not about the money. He’s just looking out for the little guy.

Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?

Elon Musk Tweet, March 26th 2022

Let’s parse this.

Is Twitter like a public town square?

No. A public town square is public. Twitter is a shareholder-owned company. Same as the local shopping mall. Like the local shopping mall, Twitter imposes regulations on the speech of its customers because bad behavior is bad for business. After Donald Trump was booted from Twitter, along with his many bots and trolls, business improved. The number of Twitter users increased by 21%.

Even a public town square puts limits on speech. Villages and cities alike have laws against disturbing the peace. Political marches require permits, which are denied if police fear a disruption of public order. But Elon Musk chafes under the very modest content moderation now found at Twitter.

It’s just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.

Elon Musk TED Talk, April 14, 2022

The bounds of US free speech law include many things not allowed on Twitter. Nazis telling us what they’ll do to Jews if they get another chance (spoiler: same as before). Qanon crazies pushing anti-vax lies. Pornography of all stripes. ISIS propaganda. Pedofiles arguing for man-boy love. And last but not least, Steve Bannon & Donald Trump undermining democracy as they falsely claim election fraud. These are all legal under the U.S. Constitution but quite rightly limited under Twitter moderation policies.

With no content moderation, social media quickly devolves to the lowest common denominator, a churning cesspool of cynicism, lies, hatred and puke. Facebook has tested the further boundaries of social media bestiality around the globe by not hiring enough local-language content moderators in the counties where it operates (i.e. everywhere); the result is a world-wide tsunami of unbridled racism, even murder, as countless numbers of minority/ethnic groups have been attacked by whoever held the upper hand in that particular society. In Myanmar it became genocide. Social media is a mixed blessing at best, a nightmare at its worst.

In his April TED Talk Elon Musk was high on the ego fumes:

My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization …

I can’t shake the question ricocheting around my brain like a misfired bullet in a concrete bank vault. Do I want to remain on Twitter and become an unwilling participant in Elon Musk’s experiment in “free speech”? An experiment that could bring Donald Trump back to the platform?

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go Trump will be trouble
If I stay Trump trouble doubles

Elon Musk, the human rorschach blot

Is Musk a tech genius? Billionaire troll? Nurturing this enigma has long been part of his carefully cultivated mystique. Musk’s key pose is super-clever scientist/engineer/businessman/worlds-richest-man with 90 million Twitter followers. He’s built a lot of companies including Tesla and Space X. After Putin’s attack on Ukraine, he’s gave Starlink satellites to Ukraine and has kept the country online despite Russia’s best attempts to destroy Ukrainian communications. Starlink even works in the besieged Azovstal fortress of destroyed Mariupol.

Many think of Elon Musk as a real-life Ironman, albeit a slightly nerdy incarnation. Others see him as one of the gods. Serhiy Volyna is a Ukrainian marine trapped in Mariupol. He recently pleaded with Musk on Twitter:

People say you come from another planet to teach people to believe in the impossible. Our planets are next to each other, as I live where it is nearly impossible to survive. Help us get out of Azovstal to a mediating country. If not you, then who? Give me a hint.

So far, no reply from Musk. Maybe not Ironman after all.

Musk is a complicated man who has done a lot of good. In addition to helping Ukraine beat the Russians, he has popularized electric cars. His rockets are now the only way to get American astronauts to the International Space Station. There’s a much longer list, but those things alone are pretty cool.

But he has warts. For instance he didn’t “invent” Tesla. That was Martin Eberhard, who co-founded the company with Marc Tarpenning in 2003 and served as CEO until 2007 when Musk seized control of the company. Musk entered Tesla in 2004 as a venture capital investor; the subsequent hostile Elon takeover took less than four years. A 2009 lawsuit by Eberhard against Musk was settled with a provision that allowed Musk to call himself a Tesla “co-founder”.

Having pointed that out, I don’t want to diminish the importance of Elon Musk to Tesla’s success. His salesmanship and ability to raise money kept the company afloat in difficult times and allowed it to succeed — a crucial beginning to the now robust future of electric vehicles. It’s easy to understand why many admire Musk. But it’s hard to understand why they ignore that he’s a bully. Which may not affect the success of Tesla or SpaceX. Hell, it might even be part of the reason for it; what do I know, really?

But it doesn’t bode well for the future of Twitter.

Remember when Musk attacked cave diver Vernon Unsworth, the British hero who rescued those Thai children trapped in an underwater cave? Musk smeared him as “pedo guy”. He later said “just kidding” after Unsworth sued Musk. Elon won — as always — because the jury bought his “just kidding” line. If you’re one of his drone workers, Musk is a terrible boss. During coronavirus his Chinese employees were forced to do 12 hour shifts, six days a week, while sleeping on the factory floor. At Tesla he was known for “rage firings” of hapless workers that irritated him.

Business Insider has this version of a (paywalled) story in Wired:

Many sources who spoke to Wired also described frequent outbursts where Musk would shout at people and call them “idiots.” A senior engineering executive said employees even had a name for Musk’s behavior: “the idiot bit.”

“If you said something wrong or made one mistake or rubbed him the wrong way, he would decide you’re an idiot and there was nothing that could change his mind,” the executive said.

Remember too the pervasive sexual harassment at SpaceX? The rampant racism at Tesla? His anti-vax-mandate phase when he sided with lawless truckers and compared Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau to Adolf Hitler? Not to mention his Tweet attack on Vijaya Gadde, the Twitter lawyer responsible for its content moderation. She suffered massive online bullying as a result. Elon Musk isn’t just a bully in his own right. He brings an online mob.

Republicans are hailing Musk as savior thanks to his promise to bring back Trump and level the playing field on Twitter between Democrats and the GOP. Until now, Musk has hidden his politics. After buying Twitter he showed his hand by tweeting this cartoon purporting to show how the left had moved FAR LEFT — whereas the right-wing remained exactly the same, from 2008 to 2021. The little stick-figure in the center is Musk, standing still as the political center moves from his right to his left.

The cartoon conveniently omits the expansion of America’s right-wing to include Swastika-waving Nazis, rebel-flag-carrying Klansmen and Qanon lunatics. Not to mention the crowd that attempted to overthrow our democracy on January 6, 2021.

Need I say more about the politics of Musk? He told us who he is. Believe him.

Twitter is a business. You are its product.

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

Post by blue-beetle, August 26, 2010

Twitter is many things. But first of all it’s a business. The internet is filled with services built to help companies capture more eyeballs on Twitter. Here’s some cheery advice from Hootsuit:

Ads on Twitter get into people’s heads.

26% of people spend more time looking at ads on Twitter vs. other leading platforms. Does this mean that ads on Twitter come across as organic posts and people aren’t aware they’re reading an ad?

Something to test in your Twitter marketing strategy.

Social media companies DON’T get money the old fashioned way — by making a product and selling it to people willing to fork over actual cash. They give their work away for “free”. And yet these same companies rake in tons of money from us. How? Advertising is the obvious one. An annoying evil everyone learned to tolerate long ago, so it goes largely unnoticed.

The less obvious evil is data. Everything you do on social media is a data point to be collected — after which the aggregated data is sold to people looking to manipulate us in some way. Usually by sending even more advertising our way. Often it’s sold to political operatives; Facebook data was a key part of Trump’s 2016 Presidential win.

The name of the game for social media companies is engagement. They need lots of eyeballs spending lots of time on their service so they can sell ads and collect data. That’s why Facebook — and everyone else — feeds outrageous content to its users. It gets engagement. Geoffrey Fowler describes the algorithm game in this Wapo piece titled I gave Instagram photos of my baby. Instagram returned fear. Fowler had set up an Instagram baby page for his newborn, sharing daily pictures of his kid. But bizarrely, his feed began to add pictures of other people’s babies. Pictures from strangers he didn’t know. Horrible pictures of babies with odd deformities, babies stuck in life-support incubators, babies dying etc.

My baby album was becoming a nightmare machine.

This was not a bug, I have learned. This is how the software driving Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and lots of other apps has been designed to work. Their algorithms optimize for eliciting a reaction from us, ignoring the fact that often the shortest path to a click is fear, anger or sadness.

Twitter is the same. It’s all about engagement. Getting you to open Twitter. Getting you to stay there as long as possible.

All you are to Twitter is a “monetizable daily active user”. Musk claims buying Twitter “is not a way to make money. I don’t care about the economics at all.” His reason, then?

Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.

Extraordinary potential to do what? Musk is not saying. Given the uncertainty, there’s a case to be made for leaving Twitter. Some liberal users are already fleeing the platform for the something called Counter Social, a new social media website owned by an anonymous “hacktivist” calling himself “Jester. Count me out. I prefer the Musk devil I know to some anonymous hacker-angel so scared of light he hides in shadows.

Despite the urge to flee, there’s also a case to be made for staying on Twitter.

Last train to Muskville: the good, the bad and the ugly uncertainty of Twitter

Musk is a Twitter power user who bought the very tool of his frenzied, unfiltered communicative clout. He purchased what he considers a public square so that he can make it private.

Robin Givhan of the Washington Post in The Twitterverse becomes Muskville

April 26, 2022

The good: Twitter community

I had long heard the buzz around Twitter but managed to stay off it until the summer of 2017. It was Nazis that got me onto Twitter. These Nazis:

For decades I had been talking to anyone who would listen, trying to warn about the rising movement of Nazis, Klan and other violent white supremacists. I grew up in 60s Mississippi and understood the danger when they’re unopposed; I’ve closely tracked these groups since the early 1980s. Pre-2000 violent white supremacists were a growing threat but still isolated from the larger society. They were also obsessed with in-fighting, which got in the way of their pipe-dream: starting a race war that would put them on top while redefining America. That dream has been around a long time; it’s the same thing that motivated Charles Manson and Timothy McVeigh alike. But apart from horrific, randomized violence such as the Sharon Tate murders and Oklahoma City bombing, it wasn’t going anywhere. The internet changed that.

To make a long story short, the horror of Charlottesville Nazis in the public square inspired me to write a story which I published on the Daily Kos website: After Charlottesville: Seven key Nazis and their links to Putin & Trump. Then I joined Twitter to be part of the conversation and linked to my story. Even though I was unknown, it got play. The algorithm was kinder to newcomers back in the day. Now it prioritizes the already established.

I got hooked. Not because of Twitter serotonin but because of the community I found there. Communities I should say. There are many. In most I was simply a lurker, hanging around the crowd to listen. In some, like what I’m going to call “Mississippi Twitter”, I became a participant. I also discovered “Black Twitter”, which has become one of my favorite things on Twitter. Then there are the academic communities organized around history, sociology, archeology and science — letting me in on things I would otherwise miss. Twitter is also a great way to follow the Russian attack on Ukraine. Since February 24th I’ve added a lot of Ukrainian journalists and military specialists to my feed.

That’s the good side of Twitter. Over five years I’ve selected a diverse group of wonderful people to follow on my feed. I’d hate to lose them.

The bad: lizard brain

It’s not all good on Twitter; there’s also a world of bad. Twitter is like talking to a rude stranger who’s going to walk away after your first sentence, unless you say something really extraordinary. Or really inflammatory. Most opt for the later since it’s easier to burn down community than build one.

A lot of folks in the Twitterverse get hooked on endless doom-scrolling, looking for that outrage-rush. There’s a reason why they do it. When something triggers us, the brain releases neurotransmitters called catecholamines. They hit the Amygdala — that primitive lizard brain inside each and every one of us — and it’s like a five-alarm fire. A lot of people get high on it and keep coming back for more. Trumpist politicians — but not only them — have built careers pushing catecholamine addiction.

Last but not least, Twitter helped create the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol. Twitter’s then-CEO Jack Dorsey, admitted as much to Congress.

That’s a lot of bad.

The ugly uncertainty that tastes like elon and smells like musk

To be Twitter

Or not to be Twitter

That is the question.

Elon Musk playing Hamlet, 2022

Elon Musk is buying Twitter for $44 billion. Let’s do the math.

In 2021, Twitter had revenue of $5.08 billion, a 37% increase year over year. But adjusted operating income was just $273 because Twitter is expensive to run. I say adjusted because that 2021 profit was actually a loss — a negative $221 million thanks to litigation costs that disappeared when Twitter “adjusted” their profit. In the last decade the company has made money only twice — during 2018 and 2019. Twitter is no cash cow and the Musk purchase would appear to be insanely over-priced.

As a thought experiment, let’s say Twitter continues to rake in that $273 million year after year into infinity. Elon Musk needs 161 years to recoup his investment.

Musk is the world’s richest man at some $250 billion, so maybe it’s no big deal to toss $44 billion down a Twitter hole. But most of his wealth is held in Tesla shares, subject to its ups and downs; plus it’s not a very liquid pool of cash because if Musk dumps too much stock it will tank Tesla’s share price which could trigger a share-price death-spiral. A lot of investors worry that Musk’s obsession with Twitter will have Tesla ramifications: after Twitter accepted the Musk deal; Tesla plunged by 12% — a $100 billion loss in one day.

That drop shows the ugly core of this deal — the incestuous relationship between Twitter and Tesla. Musk has used his Tweets to pump Tesla stock. Fact: the Securities and Exchange Commission fined Musk/Tesla $40 million over a Tweet designed to increase Tesla’s share price.

Let’s do the numbers on Tesla.

At the end of 2021 it was worth $1.09 trillion (it’s considerably less now, but so is everything). That one trillion plus dollars is more than the combined value of Toyota, GM, Ford, Volkswagon, Mercedes, Honda and the new Fiat/Chrysler/Puegeot conglomerate (Stellanis).

In 2021 all those other auto companies made 36.3 million vehicles. Tesla’s production was just short of one million. How is it that Tesla’s stock is worth more than the combined value of all other auto makers? I know electric cars are the future. But now nearly every car maker is moving to electrics. Tesla no longer has a monopoly.

Which may be why Bill Gates has been shorting Tesla stock — after which Musk bullied him with a picture Tweet implying Gates looked like a pregnant man. It said: “in case u need to lose a boner fast”.

Classy guy, Musk.

The Street reported that Gates responded as the bullied often do — defensive about shorting Tesla, after which he complimented Musk:

Gates added that he has “nothing but positive things to say about” Musk.

“If he makes Twitter worse, fine, I’ll speak out about that, but I wouldn’t assume that’s what’s going to happen,” Gates added.

Shorting stock is part of the Wall Street system — shorting is what keeps prices in line with reality. All investors short any time they feel a company is overpriced. Why is Elon Musk so bothered by people shorting Tesla that he strikes back at them on Twitter?

That touches the key issue here. Tesla is a financial house of cards while Musk is using his on-paper Tesla wealth to leverage the loans he needs to buy Twitter. That’s right. Musk is only using a small part of his wealth for the Twitter purchase. It’s a leveraged buyout deal secured with Tesla stock. Musk is getting $25.5 billion from a consortium of banks led by Morgan Stanley to make the purchase. They will want their money back — with interest and fees.

To shake the money tree, Musk had to charm the bankers and make promises. He said if he cut executive salaries and found other savings Twitter would be profitable enough to service the debt. He claims he can transform Twitter into a golden goose. Here’s the Reuter’s reporting:

Musk’s pitch to the banks constituted his vision rather than firm commitments … The plan he outlined to banks was thin on detail …

Musk told the banks he also plans to develop features to grow business revenue, including new ways to make money out of tweets that contain important information or go viral, the sources said.

The Musk deal to take Twitter private makes him a one-man private equity company; this highly leveraged buyout is going to force him to act like all other private equity companies. He must cut wages and costs, increase revenue and perhaps reduce the quality of the product to boot. And when a private equity deal goes sour they never take the hit, it’s the company they bought that goes bust — remember Toys-R-Us?

But that’s not the case here. If Twitter goes belly-up, these loans are guaranteed by Musk using Tesla stock. Perhaps that’s the reason why Musk is now throwing shade on the deal he just made. Maybe he wants out of his impulse buy.

Musk owning both Twitter and Tesla represents a huge conflict of interest since he already uses Twitter to attack short-sellers while also tweeting to pump Tesla’s stock price.

This only reinforces my original question:

Should I stay or should I go now?

For all the reasons I noted, I don’t think Musk owning Twitter is a good idea. The deal hasn’t closed and there are a lot of ways it can go wrong; not all the financing is in place and some economists are skeptical Musk can pull it off.

It’s too soon to leave Twitter. We don’t yet know what will happen. Maybe the deal falls through; it’s months before closing time. Maybe Musk surprises me and does make it better. I need more information about what will happen.

But I also don’t want to help Musk buy Twitter through my engagement on the platform.

So I’m disengaging for now. A symbolic gesture for sure, but I don’t like the alternatives of leaving or doing nothing. User engagement is how Twitter makes money. The amount of user engagement is one of the metrics influencing potential financial partners of Elon Musk.

I’m tweeting one last time to post this article, and that’s it until we know more. No more tweeting. No more liking. No more re-tweets. I already stopped my activity on April 26th, the day the deal was announced.

Robin Givhan at Wapo nails my worst fears:

Musk revels in the freewheeling mayhem that so easily erupts on Twitter. Underlying his vision of Twitter as a digital square is the idea that it should be a place where people can say pretty much whatever they’d like. He equates a public space with breathing freely. But a public space is also a shared one. It isn’t merely a spot where people come together to exchange ideas, it’s also a shared ground where a multitude of different people have to coexist and doing so requires rules and standards and norms. Without them, the public square would essentially be a boxing ring, where strangers pummel each other in frustration and disgust.

I don’t want to be part of a social media boxing ring. Twitter had too much of that when I joined; if Twitter becomes that kind of Muskville, I’m gone for good. I’ve already archived my Tweets (packed my Twitterland bags so to speak). I just have to punch the account-cancel-button and I’m ex-Twitter forever.

I started by bastardizing The Clash. The Monkeys seem the best ending to this Musk business. Apologies to Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote Last Train to Clarksville.

Booked the last train from Muskville

For now I’m disengaged

We have one more night together

Before Elon is uncaged

I hear that whistle blowing …

On a Twitter-closing Musk-endeavor

Don’t be slow

Leave Twitter now, go

Elon Musk can eat my parting dust

Unless his deal goes belly-up bust.

Kent Moorhead is disengaged on Twitter as Mississippi Blues — @MississippiBlu2

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Kent Moorhead

Kent Moorhead

Kent Moorhead is a Mississippi documentary filmmaker & writer living in Stockholm, Sweden. You can read more about his work on his Passage Film website.