I thought I’d write down my personal policy on Twitter, and we’ll get to that, because I can’t help writing about Twitter first.
Now, like many people, I really like Twitter. But I’m also watching the Twitter disaster with an amazed glee. Why? Well, because you don’t get a chance every day to watch someone take $44 billion and set it on fire.
The pic is from when the British band KLF took £1 million and burned it as something between a punk fuck-you, conceptual art, and a drunken lark. No disrespect to KLF, which made some good music and a great little book on how to get a #1 pop single in Britain. It’s satirical and funny and yet knows what it’s talking about, which in fact is what I like about Twitter. But the burning money part is also relevant. They did it for fun; Elon Musk (and what an Asimovian name that is) is doing it because he’s such a narcissistic rich fuck that no one can tell him when he has a stupid idea.
There have been some great summaries of Musk’s failures. Here’s one; here’s another. The thing that turns the saga into comedy isn’t that people expected Musk to be competent and he wasn’t; it’s the sheer scale of the idiocy. First he wants to buy Twitter, then he doesn’t, then he does. He fires the board and half the staff and expects that to go well. He takes a company that makes $500 million a year and saddles it with $1 billion a year in debt payments. He throws out Twitter’s guaranteed advertising income for 2023 and alienates the advertisers— some of them quit during the call that was supposed to reassure them. He convinces himself that his user base will pay $20 a month, no $8, for a meaningless check mark. Some people do merely in order to make parody accounts— e.g. one pretending to be Eli Lilly claiming that insulin would now be free— the actual Eli Lilly stock then tanked 4.5% and Musk decided that parody was not OK after all in Neu-Twitter.
Some of this, but not all, comes from Musk drinking the right-wing haterade. Everyone knows that Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube promote “engagement” and the easy way to get that is by ginning up right-wing outrage, and that this has done measurable damage to truth, civil society, and democracy. But the fascists think that The Algorithm is rigged against them, so Elon came in bleating about “free speech”, until the moment people had a field day making fun of him. The blue-check debacle is also a fascist talking point: somehow the right convinced itself that Twitter’s verification program was a perk offered only to people they didn’t like. In fact it turns out that it’s valuable to know that a company or celebrity account is what it pretends to be. That is, truth is a civic good, not a skin you can buy in the Twittershop.
There already are sleazy right-wing Twitter alternatives: Gab, Parler, Truth Social. They’re all tiny, because neither the public nor advertisers want to be associated with hate speech. Anyone to the left of Mitt Romney would rather jump into a swimming pool filled with vomit than join; and if Musk can turn Twitter into one of those, they’ll just leave. But that’s not even the stupid bit. The stupid bit is that Musk could have bought one of those sites for peanuts— Kanye West just bought Parler. Musk could have done the same, then invested $4 billion into it just with his walking-around money. Instead he spent ten times as much for no better a result. The inevitable comparison is Tumblr, which Yahoo bought for $1.1 billion and sold six years later for $3 million. But merely burning up $1 billion is nothing to the big boys; $44 billion is still a good chunk of money.
Musk obviously doesn’t know what he bought, doesn’t know how to run a media company, doesn’t know that being in charge of a media company isn’t the same as mingling for a day among Tesla fanboys. It’s likely that he’s already killed Twitter, and Tesla stock losing half its value this year isn’t a great sign either.
It reminds me of a passage in Gideon the Ninth, when Gideon, who’s had a terrible day failing to escape from the decaying gothic death cult she’s trapped in, witnesses some drama involving the cult VIPs. “Gideon started to perk up. It wasn’t quite the worst day in her life now. This was some A-grade entertainment.” That’s where we all are now, watching Musk burn up his money. (And other people’s money, like Peter Thiel’s, that’s equally entertaining.)
Not that destroying Twitter isn’t a shame. I’ve enjoyed Twitter a lot— I check it many times a day, alongside the ZBB and Mefi. I don’t run into Nazis and avoid most politics. I keep up with a few friends, I follow some smart and amusing people, I read the multilingual puns the Semiticists indulge in, and it’s also been the best source of analysis on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (another astonishing folly from a fascist idiot with too much power). Plus it’s still the best way I know of to publicize what I do.
I’m not in a hurry to leave, but I’m not interested in a Truth Social clone; besides, the most likely scenario is just that it collapses in a year because Musk gets bored with his new toy, it runs out of money, and he’s fired all the people who know how to make it run. I’m also conscious of the boiling-a-frog problem: it gets worse and worse but people don’t notice because the process is incremental. So, changing metaphors but remaining in the vertebrate phylum, I’ve settled on a canary-in-the-mine policy. When said smart and amusing people leave— indicating that it’s no longer safe for queer or POC people— I will too. But so far they’re as fascinated with the train wreck as everyone else.
But it’s time to have alternatives prepared. Where do you find me?
- Above all, over at zompist.com. Any social media I’m on will be listed there.
- This blog. The one you’re on.
- I run the ZBB for conlangers, conworlds, linguists, and occasional bemused passersby.
- I’m on Mastodon, look up @firstname.lastname@example.org
- I’m also @zompist at cohost.org.
I think hundreds of thousands of people are checking out Mastodon right now. It’s a little confusing because it’s divided into servers and you have to pick one (though you can change that later). And it can be hard to get in because of said influx. I don’t know if it can be a Better Twitter, but it’s arguable that the Twitter model is fundamentally flawed anyway and shouldn’t be replicated. We’ll see!