Nor am I surprised that a résumé like Musk’s coexists with a tendency toward manias, obsessions, grudges, union-busting and vindictiveness. Extreme personalities are rarely on the edge of the bell curve only because of benevolence. But Twitter unleashes his worst instincts and rewards him, with attention and fandom and money — so much money — for indulging them. That Musk has so capably bent Twitter to his own purposes doesn’t absolve him of his behavior there, any more than it absolved Trump. A platform that heaps rewards on those who behave cruelly, or even just recklessly, is a dangerous thing.
But far too often, that’s what Twitter does. Twitter rewards decent people for acting indecently. The mechanism by which this happens is no mystery. Engagement follows slashing ripostes and bold statements and vicious dunks. “I’m frustrated that Bill Gates would bet against Tesla, a company aligned with his values,” is a lame tweet. “Bill Gates = boner killer” is a viral hit. The easiest way to rack up points is to worsen the discourse.
Twitter has survived, and thrived, because it has never been just what I have described here. Much of what can be found there is funny and smart and sweet. So many on the platform want it to be a better place than it is and try to make it so. For a long time, they were joined in that pursuit by Twitter’s executive class, who wanted the same. They liked Twitter, but not too much. They believed in it, but they were also a little appalled by it. That fundamental tension — between what Twitter was and what so many believed it could be — held it in balance. No longer.
Musk’s stated agenda for Twitter is confusing mostly for its modesty. He’s proposed an edit button, an open-source algorithm, cracking down on bots and doing … something … to secure free speech. I tend to agree with the technology writer Max Read, who predicts that Musk “will strive to keep Twitter the same level of bad, and in the same kinds of ways, as it always has been, because, to Musk, Twitter is not actually bad at all.”
Musk reveals what he wants Twitter to be by how he actually acts on it. You shall know him by his tweets. He wants it to be what it is, or even more anarchic than that. Where I perhaps disagree with Read is that I think it will be more of a cultural change for Twitter than anyone realizes to have the master of the service acting on it as Musk does; to have the platform’s owner embracing and embodying its excesses in a way no previous leader has done.
What will Twitter feel like to liberals when Musk is mocking Senator Elizabeth Warren on the platform he owns and controls as “Senator Karen”? Will they want to enrich him by contributing free labor to his company? Conservatives are now celebrating Musk’s purchase of the platform, but what if, faced with a deepening crisis of election disinformation, he goes into goblin mode against right-wing politicians who are making his hands-off moderation hopes untenable or who are threatening his climate change agenda?
What will it be like to work at Twitter when the boss is using his account to go to war with the Securities and Exchange Commission or fight a tax bill he dislikes? Unless Musk changes his own behavior radically, and implausibly, I suspect his ownership will heighten Twitter’s contradictions to an unbearable level. What would follow isn’t the collapse of the platform but the right-sizing of its influence.