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Did Elon Musk change?
Maybe this can be the last thing I write about Elon Musk for a few weeks
Max: What Twitter had at its core was the same promise that a lot of us still hold onto around the internet, which is the sort of democratizing idea of it. Twitter was only maybe ever a limited and shallow democratizing influence on a bunch of industries and people, but it did the thing that every great social wave of the internet has done, which is that it found all these incredibly intelligent, funny, strange, interesting people all across the country and it gave them a way to voice those qualities. In practice, it often was really awful and still is awful and silly and terrifying but that contradiction is important to the being of Twitter, and, as you say, the Mastodon alternative of a thousand petty fiefdoms, where you can be scolded from one direction or another, or banned, or thrown off and all of your DMs are going to be read by your feudal Mastodon lord—that seems to me to totally miss the appeal of centralization, the appeal of just entering the slipstream with 100,000 other freaks to see what there is on the internet today.
I can’t believe you guys have cornered me into defending Twitter as a public square.
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One thing we didn’t talk too much about was Elon Musk. We recorded the podcast last Monday (December 5); in nine days between the recording and release, Musk:
Tweeted “my pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci”;
Claimed (on Twitter) that Twitter “refused to take action on child exploitation for years,” not even two weeks after he had “dramatically reduced the size of the Twitter Inc. team devoted to tackling child sexual exploitation on the platform, cutting the global team of experts in half and leaving behind an overwhelmed skeleton crew”;
Described Twitter -- which he owns -- as “a crime scene”;
Accused the former head of Twitter’s Trust and Safety team, one of the few members of the previous executive team to have stayed on after Musk took over, of advocating for child access to Grindr (??);
Appeared on stage to a chorus of boos at a Dave Chappelle stand-up show, later claiming that “Technically, it was 90% cheers & 10% boos (except during quiet periods)”;
Tweeted “The woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters”;
Banned both an automated account that used public FAA data to tweet the location of his private jet and the personal account of the college student that had created it, a little more than a month after committing to allowing the account as an example of his commitment to free speech; and
Sold another $3.6 billion of his stake in Tesla, the second time he’s broken his promise he was done selling Tesla shares.
Musk has presided for years over a racist, exploitative manufacturing empire, but his public pronouncements and self-image have always tended toward the shallow, future-oriented centrism popular among an inoffensive strain of tech executive. This is something different: Even by the standards of easily influenceable narcissists like Musk, it marks a rapid ideological evolution from “generic stupid-guy libertarianism” to “Qanon adjacency.” Kara Swisher suggests “maybe he’s building a new kind of media company.” My sense is that “right-wing media outlet” is not a bad prediction for where Twitter is likely to end up in practice, but Swisher gives Musk too much credit. A few months ago I reviewed a fascinating book called Speculative Communities for Bookforum.Musk, at that point not yet the owner of Twitter, and a person odious mostly in his practical capacity as a capitalist, rather than in this recent, more abstract role as a full-bore public ideologue and Main Character of The News, was the opening example for explaining the book’s central argument:
Perhaps Musk had no scheme in mind for his initial purchase, no specific plan for owning Twitter, and no ultimate goal he was striving to achieve. Over the last decade, as the Tesla cofounder has become the most prominent and widely worshipped CEO in the country, he has consistently defied stereotypes of businessmen and entrepreneursas rational, prudent, and deliberate; instead he’s become a specialist in broken promises, half-baked plans, and bizarre public performances. And yet his net worth has soared to $255 billion. If “winging it” has worked for him so far, why start making plans now? Maybe he is simply making a mess, to see what might come out of it—what kinds of pressure he could bring to bear on Twitter, and what kinds of business, cultural, and political opportunities might follow.
Musk, according to this line of thinking, is engaging in what the University College London sociologist Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou calls, in his intriguing new book Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World, “speculative politics”: “sowing chaos to reap power.” He hasn’t been pursuing a clear program, laid out from the beginning in the manner of a mergers-and-acquisitions banker, but embracing confusion and volatility and changing circumstances in the manner of a financial speculator. For Komporozos-Athanasiou, this logic—of financial speculation, of engaging, embracing, and even encouraging volatility in the hopes of gain—is the defining logic of our time, a consequence of increasing unpredictability and precarity. “If the only certainty in our present is that the future is uncertain, then shorting and hedging the unknowable becomes the zeitgeist of contemporary financialized societies,” he writes. Confronted with a turbulent world, we give up on rational risks and predictable returns, and instead place wagers on a widening range of incomputable outcomes—not only in how we approach questions of money and the economy, but also in how we engage in politics, culture, and our social and romantic lives.
I still think this is the best framework for understanding Musk’s approach to Twitter management, starting with the dramatic mass layoffs and continuing through the sudden interest in “child safety”: The only thing he knows how to do -- the only way he knows how to make money, but also the way he has been conditioned to respond to any kind of adversity or challenge -- is to create chaos and drama around himself in search of new opportunity. The “grand plan” at Twitter, such as it is, is for him to make a mess, wherever and however he can, and see what happens: is there a business opportunity here? An edge? Can I find new political allies, business partners, customers?
In this sense my feeling is that the big difference between the Musk of the previous decade and the Musk we’ve seen this year is less his politics or his personality (or his choice of stimulants) but the financial conditions under which he operates. “Chaotic main character” is a surprisingly acceptable and effective role for an executive to take in conditions of historically low interest rates, when people and institutions have lots of money and are hungry for risk.But when money is less easily accessible, and appetites for risk are low, the fraction of people who are attracted to (or merely willing to tolerate) your bullshit declines, and your talent for drama looks less like a strength and more like a liability (or personality deficit). Worse, the number of opportunities or exits you create through the chaos you provoke dramatically narrows, and suddenly you find that the only advantage you can seize comes from throwing your lot in with anti-vaxxers and child-trafficking conspiracy theorists.
I sort of regret using “entrepreneurs” here as a generic synonym for “businessmen,” given that “entrepreneurs” are often specifically irrational risk-takers and the heroes of Hayekian capitalism -- “executives” would have been better. It’s not important to the larger point, but it’s bugging me in the way only a minor word-choice in an old and already-published essay can.
As Drew Austin put it: