Four Twitter futures
Who is Twitter's Jeffrey of YOSPOS?
First things first: Is Twitter actually about to die? I try to be skeptical of the dramatic, confident predictions of immediate catastrophe that fill social media at moments of seeming crisis, which rarely come true and usually sound more like expressions of inchoate desire for chaos than sober assessments of reality. My experience of institutional crisis over the last 20 years, which is extensive, because I’ve been alive, has been that overnight collapse is memorable but rare, and most things (companies, careers, countries, invasions, political parties, supranational economic unions) slowly decay, intermittently stabilizing along a long downward trajectory, rather than implode overnight. Inertia is a powerful force, and it takes a lot of work to really kill an established institution.
But Elon Musk is, as they say, on his grind. After Musk’s disastrous first week in charge, I really expected to see some contrition and gestures toward stability this week -- or even signs of minimal executive competence. My rule of thumb about catastrophe being a lengthier process than we might fear (or hope) suggested that, in the immediate term, Musk, a seasoned executive and entrepreneur with a lot of debt to service,1 could and would stabilize the platform and business he’d sent into a tailspin.
The Read Max promise: I will not use this money to buy verification on Twitter
Instead, Musk has, literally every single day, made things worse. I use italics here because I don’t mean he’s “done something stupid every day.” I mean, every day he has compounded and worsened the mistakes he has already made. He is doing a bad job at an exponential rate. On Monday Casey Newton reported that Musk had requested changes to the advertising on Twitter Blue subscription product thanks to which Twitter “would likely lose money on Blue”; on Tuesday he introduced, and then almost immediately and publicly removed, a new “official” badge, which was meant to denote accounts that were verified due to being “notable” rather than because they paid for Twitter Blue2; on Wednesday, while the crypto exchange FTX began to unravel, he floated the possibility that Twitter might offer high-yield money market accounts to users; on Thursday his legal department announced it was “asking engineers to ‘self-certify’ compliance with FTC rules and other privacy laws,” after the resignations of the company’s Chief Privacy Officer, Chief Information Security Officer, and Chief Compliance Officer.3 At an all-hands meeting that afternoon, he told employees “bankruptcy isn’t out of the question.” (As for how he will avoid this eventuality, he also said, “I’d love to see ads for gizmos. And if I saw ads for gizmos -- I love gizmos, of course -- I’d buy them all, click click click.”) As this all unfolded internally, the platform itself had become a manic free-for-all for impersonation. As Musk himself had promised, comedy is now legal on Twitter:
The only positive thing you can say about the business of Twitter right now is that usage is “at an all time high,” which if you’re familiar with Twitter is probably not so much a sign of healthy growth as it is a suggestion of the scale of the stupidity and destruction at work, since there is nothing Twitter loves more than meltdowns, implosions, disasters, and failures -- personal, professional, institutional, natural, national, in video games, supply-chain related, etc. -- and record numbers would suggest, more than anything else, a really magnificent catastrophe.4
All of which is to say I am personally adjusting my mental model of potential outcomes for Twitter to account for more tail-risk scenarios.
Twitter will die, eventually, someday. But will Musk destroy it overnight? Will it go bankrupt and be sold for parts? Will it stabilize but slowly decay, over many years, to the point of non-function and irrelevancy?
Which “Twitter” are we talking about, anyway? When people ask, “is Twitter dying?” do they mean Twitter the business, and its existence as an ongoing commercial concern? Or Twitter the platform, and its persistence as the home to a deranged but shockingly culturally productive culture? Obviously the two are related, and Musk seems intent on just absolutely obliterating both at once. But it also seems worth disentangling them into a kind of matrix of possible futures: One where both Twitter-the-business and Twitter-the-platform survive; one Twitter-the -business survives but Twitter-the-platform dies; and so on. Consider the following four scenarios, each of which seems more or less equally likely to me.5
Future One: Twitter’s business and its platform both survive
This is still, I will admit, even after the last two weeks, my baseline expectation: Musk reverses some of his most damaging decisions or ideas, like turning verification into a payola scheme. He heads off the biggest revenue threat to the company -- advertiser fear that the CEO of Twitter will post, I don't know, conspiracy theories about Nancy Pelosi's husband -- simply by posting less. He works out, possibly in some kind of supportive group therapy with David Sacks and CatTurd2, whatever counterproductive feelings he has about Twitter verification, and fixes it so that the parodies taper off.
He loses a lot of money, yes, but after a year or two, the business stabilizes. The site itself works a bit worse, and its profit margins are relatively slim, but it has less bloat and more diversified revenue from selling a mix of ads, subscriptions, and weird little badges that dorks want to buy for some reason. On the platform, Musk establishes himself as an annoying occasional character who mostly stays out of it -- not that different from Jack Dorsey’s reign. There is something weird going on, where if you criticize Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party it seems like you get shadow-banned? But no one can really confirm it.
Future Two: Twitter’s business survives but its platform dies
You can sort of imagine a different future, where Musk’s plan/threat to demote and downgrade the accounts and posts of unverified users is fully enacted as described, and his steep cost cuts aren’t totally damaging to the site’s function. People protest, but Musk holds firm; if you want to get engagement on Twitter, you need to pay. Employers generally refuse to expense the cost of verification, and many of the super-users who think of themselves as above pay-to-play quit to start newsletters or Discord chat rooms, all of which get abandoned in less than a year. The incentives and economics of the platform turn even further toward porn, nutrition supplements, crypto scams, and “content creation,” and the vibrant culture of semi-anonymous shitposting on Twitter is all but wiped out. Twitter ends up in a weird space between Substack, YouTube, and AM Radio, populated by a mix of camgirls, boomer-politics accounts and MLM-adjacent inspiration business posters. Month after month the top users are OccupyDemocrats, CatTurd2, and Gary Vaynerchuck; everyone is pretty sure the numbers are faked.
The main groups of time-wasters who once produced the bulk of Twitter content find new outlets. Tech workers decamp to Linked In and Hacker News; academics set up a series of semi-functional Mastodon instances (one for people who think Trump is “fascist,” another for those who think he’s “semi-fascist,” and a third for the ones who think he’s “neo-patrimonial”); underemployed TV writers start overlapping, poorly produced political podcasts; sports fans go back to talk radio, message boards, and maybe Twitch streams. Journalists are overall happier, but the quality of their work is worse because they’re no longer afraid of anonymous accounts spoonerizing their names.
One day you catch yourself telling an intern about what "blue check” used to mean and feel ancient.
Future Three: Twitter’s business dies, but its platform survives
Or what about this: Musk reverses enough of his bad decisions to retain the platform’s valuable user-base and audience6 of elite figures in the representational industries -- media, politics, entertainment, tech, and finance -- for whom the site has become what John Herrman once called “an entire professional context.” But because advertisers don’t care about this audience (since its main use for Twitter is to learn gossip and wage war on enemies rather than to buy things, and because it shares the platform with furries, plushies, college football fans, and other perverts), and because no one wants to pay a subscription to read what they think, Twitter goes bankrupt.
There are some interested private equity shops, who plan to load the fucker up with cheap ads and run it till it dies, and Pierre Omidyar tries to put together a bid. But Musk and his creditors turn to a group of buyers who might want the chance to be regarded affectionately by the site's media-and-politics userbase -- or who even might like a say in the structures of communication through which these people situate themselves. Fresh off celebrating Newcastle's first Champions League trophy, the Saudi Public Investment Fund announces a strategic investment in Twitter.7 "Now I have to quit,” you say, “but I’m going to stick around for a little bit just to see all the epic dunks…” Three years later, watching Newcastle and Manchester City in the Champions League final again, you tell yourself you’ll delete Twitter as soon as the game is over.
Future Four: Twitter’s business and platform both die
In 90 days all that is left of Twitter, Inc. is Musk and Jason Calacanis sitting in an office surrounded by empty cans of Bang energy drink, trying to ban a lean-addict shitposter who keeps creating multiple verified Archer Daniels Midland accounts all tweeting “Marina Oswald could get it 👀 👀 fr fr.” Eventually the shitposter gets bored and logs out.
If you weren’t aware until recently that Twitter will owe something like a $1 billion vig next year, here’s a good straightforward background on the math of the Twitter deal.
On Thursday night, two days after having introduced and then removed it, Twitter restored the “Official” badge that denoted accounts that were verified due to newsworthiness or notoriety.
I don’t think I’m the first person to suggest this, but in general it seems like a management style that requires huge personal commitments and even sometimes legal and physical risks from its employees works much better in the context of, like, space rockets, or futuristic climate-saving electric cars, than it does in the context of the site where people say “fuck me daddy” to the Pope.
It occurs to me that Musk might even think he can turn his ownership and management of Twitter into a performance of ongoing semi-sustainable disaster of such proportions that it paradoxically provides the platform with enough high-value content to bolster its fundamentals and save the business; however, I simply do not believe that such an outcome is possible according to the laws of thermodynamics.
If you’re an email subscriber you might notice that this section is a little different on the site than it was in the email, essentially because I shoved the email out before I’d really done a once-over on the newsletter in order to get it out before the workday ended on Friday so people would read it. But then on Friday night I sort of regretted doing that, since no one was reading the email anyway, and I knew I could punch up the whole second section. Plus my wife was going out and I was at home with the baby. So I went ahead and punched it up! It’s much better now, and presumably there’s some kind of life/professional lesson in here that I will refuse to learn. Anyway, just saying, in case you were wondering.
I don’t mean this in a flattering way, precisely -- it’s not the production of annoying content by journalists or TV writers or weird little pollsters that makes Twitter valuable. It’s that those people, who have significant influence on newspapers and cable news coverage and political campaigns, all treat the site like a battlefield map, or one of the Situation Rooms in a Bourne movie: a way of representing reality, and locating yourself within it.