Twitterpocalypse Now continues, with Kim O’Connor and Nick Hanover providing commentary on the collapse of Twitter in real time. You can read the first installment here at Loser City and for episode two, head over to Kim’s blog The Shallow Brigade.
Nick Hanover: Well, Kim, it looks like the end has finally come. After playing chicken with his remaining workforce, Elon Musk did not get the blinks he was expecting but instead got a wave of salute emojis and is down to a skeleton crew of people who only remain because of the terms of their work visas and/or because they are literally trapped in the building after he disabled everyone’s security badges. Since you accurately predicted that Musk’s strategy here was to reverse age Twitter into a start-up, what predictions do you have for us about the Twitter post-apocalypse wasteland?
Kim O’Connor: I enjoy being correct more than almost anything, but I’m not Nostradamus over here! I’m not dril. The startup vibe escalated sharply since our last discussion, but it was already there. I was just being descriptive.
What I will say is that, in this moment, I feel a lot less sure than others about how the next days and weeks and months play out. For a time, I ascribed to the consensus view (or what I took to be the consensus view, anyway) that Twitter would degrade over time rather than go out with a bang. It was generally agreed upon that the World Cup (which starts Sunday) would be a major stress test—and that was back when the staff had only been cut by half. Now it seems plausible that there will be outages or outright failure even prior to that. Musk has been moving very fast, and very recklessly, and we have reached a point where he has a skeleton staff much thinner than he or literally anyone anticipated, plus a workforce that regards him with plain contempt. The system is vulnerable right now, and it’s absolutely going to run into compounding problems that Twitter will not have the capacity to repair, at least immediately. With the staff decimated and the company in total disarray, it’s going to be messy. And I just don’t know how hard that mess would be to fix, logistically. Even if there are new hires, even if someone buys it, even if, even if, even if…can such a complex company survive that kind of sea change, especially if the lights go out? I don’t know.
I also don’t know enough about finance to understand what happens when you make a mistake this big and this stupid. From the day Musk bought it, Twitter was heavily burdened with debt that would have been hard to cope with even if he hadn’t torched the company. He has also put Tesla, which was already astronomically overvalued, in grave jeopardy. Twitter Blue, his one big product idea, made effectively zero dollars during its short-lived launch, and I don’t think that thing is making a comeback, lol. Musk alienated his stable of advertisers more or less from day one, and anyone who hasn’t pulled their campaigns already will likely do so when the service becomes less reliable. Which it will. [Editor’s note: after this correspondence, Musk conducted a poll asking Twitter users if he should reinstate Donald Trump’s account, prompting Trump to say “thanks but no thanks” and then Musk reinstated Trump anyway, which experts believe will cause another exodus of advertisers and users]
So we have a situation where Musk overpaid in the first place, and has since thrown his company into dire financial distress. It seems to me it will surely go bankrupt at some point. (Though at what point, exactly? Months?) And what happens after that? In theory, I think Twitter still has value and someone could come in and buy it for a song. But could that entity conceivably get the lights back on? Or junk the service and salvage the company for parts, perhaps extracting value from whatever data is in that wreckage? Feels iffy.
I think Twitter’s most active users will stick around through whatever, largely? But even if the platform dies or hibernates under Musk, as seems quite likely at this point, I can’t see how it comes back the same. If you look at media companies, like Gawker 2.0…they have a whole new thing going on there that I can’t imagine is going to be successful over the long term. And Twitter is, spiritually, a media company.
I have a million more opinions, but I’ll pause here because I’m so curious. What’s your take? And do you have any perspective to offer on my blind spots?
Nick: We’re already seeing people propose the theory that Musk is doing this on purpose and that this meltdown was “all part of the plan,” but frankly, I think that’s ridiculous. I believe Musk absolutely will run with that theory though– to a degree, he already has been, via memes he stole from other users, no less:
But I also believe he genuinely thought he could “fix” Twitter and was not at all prepared for how quickly and viciously this entire platform– from users to advertisers to staff– would revolt against him. I think that this is a colossal blow to Musk as an individual and as a brand, and that it has done major damage to his finances and his standing. I’ve been watching the behavior of his reply guys and outside of the fringe conservative commentators and trolls, who were never in on this because of faith in Musk, there is a growing sense that this might just be Musk’s Waterloo. Right now, those Musk sycophants are mostly coping with that by offering to drive down to Twitter HQ and “help” Musk stabilize Twitter but that in and of itself says a lot, because these dudes have never previously acknowledged that Musk is even capable of needing help.
The theory that Musk did this on purpose makes me think of all of the people who were convinced Trump was playing “5th dimensional chess” and I think it comes from the same basic place: we don’t want to believe that any of our villains could possibly be this dumb, for some reason it’s easier to cope if you convince yourself this is some Joker scenario where these dipshits get themselves into these absurd messes on purpose in order to trap whoever our Batman is.
But if this had all been planned, Musk would have had better financial exit options, Tesla stock would not be getting hit as hard as it is and we wouldn’t be seeing as many last minute changes and desperate ploys. What’s happening is unprecedented and shocking and genuinely tragic in terms of the lives impacted– particularly those employees trapped by their work visas who pulled an all nighter after the more fortunate staff quit– but it’s not a strategy, it’s just a fuck up.
Now, are there some side effects that might benefit Musk and the billionaire class? Yes. Chief among them is the possibility that this may strike a blow to a newly reignited labor movement, which has historically depended on Twitter to share leaks, strategies and solidarity info. To quote Jes Skolnik, a music critic with a labor background, “if we lose Twitter we lose a valuable tool for labor organizing campaign visibility that I do not think is replicable in the same way elsewhere.” I’m surprised how little this angle of the Twitter collapse has been discussed in the media, particularly with Twitter staff mutinying against Musk’s “extremely hardcore” philosophy, and I share Skolnik’s view that no other existing big platform is as effective for labor organizing, particularly as Meta pushes Instagram further and further away from its original design and form.
For the labor movement, Twitter was a surprisingly effective tool, allowing easy access not just to millions of very online users but also to the corporations they are fighting against. Getting enough traction on Twitter almost always guaranteed media coverage, and the format of Twitter allowed for slogans and battle cries and gotchas to spread quickly. At its best, Twitter was like having a million Pete Seegers and Dick Gregorys operating in tandem in support of your cause. I don’t know what happens if we lose that, especially at such a vital and vulnerable time in the labor movement’s return to power.
On a similar subject, I suspect this is going to be catastrophic for people in media, for everything from networking to getting scoops and tracking stories. What have you been noticing in your circles on that front? Do you think we all need to finally update our LinkedIns? Because I think I’d rather die than check in on that site ever again.
Kim: I just want to say here at the top that I agree 100% that Musk didn’t do any of this on purpose. He’s incompetent, he’s careless, and he’s insincere, with no values beyond his own self-regard, and that’s why all of this has happened. Musk will believe (or purport to believe) whatever makes him feel best about himself in a given moment. There are so many things about the Twitter situation and the world that are very complicated and confusing, but this ain’t one of them! It’s an entirely straightforward case of someone being exactly what he looks like, just as it is with Donald Trump and even Sam Bankman-Fried. These aren’t people who are playing on some level we can’t understand. They aren’t thinking 10 steps ahead. They are grifters whose only cares in life are money, power, and the sheer joy of manipulating other people. They’re really dangerous and destructive! But they’re also giant fuckups, full stop.
Sure, in the same sense a bug being devoured by ants is still alive during the process
I think the worry that organizers will lose an important tool is valid, not just with regard to labor issues but also with other forms of activism and protest. Twitter came to prominence because of the role it played in the Arab Spring, and it has obviously been important with major protests here in the U.S., including Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and so on. The counterpoint of course—and I don’t know if one side cancels the other, exactly, but it seems worth noting—is how bad actors have used Twitter to promote misinformation, bigotry, confusion, insurrection at the Capitol, etc. Trump governed with Twitter, COVID deniers had a field day with it, etc. So I’m not entirely sure that Twitter boosting marginalized voices is a net positive, given that some of those voices had been marginalized because they were extremists or conspiracy theorists or nightmare people doing real harm in society. Don’t get me going on Gamergate, but suffice it to say that Twitter has been an effective organizing tool for trolls.
There’s a lot of discoverability on Twitter, I think. Much more so than other platforms. This characteristic, too, seems both good and bad. The same amplification patterns that give us a Main Character every day also make it possible to spread real, actual, helpful information when there are natural disasters. There’s been a lot of discussion about how the disability community relies on it. Twitter is a flexible tool across in surprisingly diverse contexts, and people have adapted it for all sorts of interesting and inspiring purposes. There aren’t platforms or services or systems that seem ready to step in there, as you say.
My impression is that people in media, as well as creatives who have mainly used Twitter to sell their comics or artwork or whatever else, seem worried. Really, really worried. Journalists who don’t have staff jobs or steady work with legacy publications are going to be in trouble. Media as an industry is obviously a disaster that somehow keeps getting worse. And the people who’ve managed to survive it so far are going to have their work cut out for them with regard to trying to stay visible, build a brand or a beat, and present their body of work to the world in a somewhat coherent way. I don’t work strictly in media, but just anecdotally, I would say that Twitter disappearing will probably mean more to my own work than to the organizations I work with. I’ve had a surprising number of professional opportunities come to me via Twitter, if you can even believe it! But I’m sure the opposite is also true, in that it probably lost me work, too.
There’s a dynamic going on here that seems similar across all these industries and pursuits—for political activism, journalism, and maybe for workers in general—where Twitter is more important to individuals and underdogs than to the Establishment. Professionally and politically, the little people get a greater return on investment, and the bigger people have a lot more to lose. That strikes me as another reason it’s doomed.
Nick: Despite the stress of the circumstances, I have to say, I was moved by the outpouring of public emotions that happened on Thursday night, after Musk’s ultimatum deadline passed and Twitter’s workers made it clear they’d rather run the risk of the platform dying than aiding him. I know some people mocked these reactions as an attempt to be what one account dramatically proclaimed “a Twitter is Dying Influencer” (whatever the fuck that means) but I mostly saw people talking about the communities they found on Twitter, the mutual aid that came their way, the lifesaving information that got to them (especially in the early days of the pandemic), the relationships that formed, and so on. The parasitic nature of billionaires that you’ve highlighted, their sociopathic tendency to not care about others and to in some ways benefit from that lack of empathy, felt like it was put under the microscope in a major way that evening and I can’t stop thinking about that, and whether it might be a bread riots moment.
It might sound stupid to say that this collapse of a platform most people just used for jokes and main character threads could possibly mean anything in the bigger picture of social progress but any optimism I have here comes from the certainty that you can’t really put the genie back in the bottle, whether it’s nuclear weapons or being able to directly yell at billionaires on a public platform. I still don’t think Twitter will be replaced, exactly, but I don’t think all of these people who found real meaning in this platform and who had it impact their lives in major ways are going to just accept not having this kind of outlet anymore. Maybe that means some other type of social media emerges that serves as the next step in evolution. Or maybe they get even more direct with the class of person that broke this ecosystem. Frankly, I’m hoping it’s the latter.