$44 billion can buy Twitter, but it can’t buy respect

Twitter has always been a weird place, but things have gotten more feral the last couple of weeks thanks to the service’s off-putting new owner, Elon Musk. A role model in the worst way, his trolling and despotic workplace practices have set the tone for a grass-roots insurrection inside the internet’s so-called town square.

Let’s start with the users defiling the site with parodies of Musk and prominent corporations. It’s an obvious effort to monkey-wrench Musk’s efforts to juice revenues to pay for the company’s debt-laden $44 billion acquisition, and the vandalism seems to have left its mark. Risk-averse advertisers, who previously provided almost all of Twitter’s income, have been fleeing, for some reason not attracted back by Musk’s promise to “thermonuclear name &shame” them for leaving.


There’s a growing fear that the company might go bankrupt, as Musk himself suggested last week. Or that Musk has already laid off so many employees (half of the staff have been let go so far) that one day someone will delete an obscure line of code that was keeping the whole app running. Mild-mannered users I follow have given their own votes of no-confidence by pre-emptively saying goodbye, in the fond sort of way you might expect if an unstoppable asteroid were days from impact.

It’s nice to know that in the moments before unavoidable vaporization or completely avoidable server failure, one’s thoughts turn to love; many thoughts also seem to be turning toward inviting followers to switch over to rival services such Instagram, Substack or the upstart Mastodon.

Then there are the Twitter survivalists, quietly reaching out via direct message, asking if we could mutually agree to delete our private chat history in case of some sort of reputation-destroying security breach. If our fragile little online society is going to break down, these are the people focused on the business of surviving if looting erupts. Musk’s changes have already interfered with the service’s two-factor authentication protection, a critical security tool to protect users’ accounts.

This is the loser stink wafting off Twitter among many of its longtime regular users right now, despite Musk’s claims of modest gains of user engagement under his ownership, which have also coincided with the newsy U.S. midterm season.

The more Musk-friendly view of the situation is that Twitter had gotten too corporate, too censorious — too boring in recent years, and it needed drastic change. Twitter had never been all that much of a moneymaker when it was publicly traded. President Trump got banned from the site after his followers’ Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection to avoid “the risk of further incitement of violence”; he also happened to be one of the site’s most popular, engaged-with users. Conservatives emigrated under what they felt was a too liberal-flavored content-moderation regime. Many power users and celebrities simply wandered away for their own reasons, spending more time on visual platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Some people thought the place needed a dictator figure to clean things up; co-founder Jack Dorsey called Musk “the singular solution I trust.”

But even Caesars need Roman senators who won’t stab them in the back if they want to reign long enough to enjoy the empire. At almost every possible turn, Musk has alienated key constituencies seemingly necessary for Twitter’s success — his actions suggest contracts don’t really need to be honored, advertisers don’t really need to be wooed, experts don’t really need to be heeded, or users don’t really need to be courted.

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