Billionaire Brain Damage

Ed Zitron 7 min read

We are now off the edge of the map.

Elon Musk has laid off 50% of Twitter’s staff in a move that some call ‘backbreaking.’ Twitter has suffered a “massive drop in revenue” as major advertisers, including GM and Audi, paused their spending on the platform based on Musk’s chaotic leadership. And Musk’s chaotic idea to charge $8 for “verification” without actually verifying you has been met with global derision, mostly because - outside of the nebulous benefits of being “seen as verified” - the actual benefit of verification is that it guarantees that the person sending a message is the actual person, rather than someone who has eight dollars and a credit card.

And as all of these consequences happen due to one specific person’s actions, he has chosen to blame the reduction in revenue on “activists” that have scared away advertisers. Musk takes no responsibility for what is happening, believing all of his good, logical ideas are being drowned out by non-specific agitators who don’t understand his grand vision that he has conveniently not shared with anybody. This is a truly unique situation where a very rich man has bought something that no one person should be able to buy, and he didn’t even want to buy it:

Musk is trapped by his foolish decision-making. He has to make $1 billion a year to cover the interest on the debt that he incurred buying the website he didn’t want to buy. He also has to do something that has plagued every single social media product - monetization - while also never having run a social media company. In this situation where his own lack of knowledge could be financially ruinous, he has also chosen to fire nearly four thousand people, reducing the number of people who know how a social media company runs in the process. And on top of all of these avoidable events, Musk is also a uniquely arrogant guy, seemingly incapable of admitting any fault or doing damage control.

There is a fairly obvious path he could take right now: pausing everything he’s doing and taking stock of what is happening around him. He cannot unring the bell of layoffs, but he can stop what he’s doing entirely and say, “too many things have happened, and I need to take stock of what’s going on, so I don’t burn this platform to the ground.” He should pause this entire Verification discussion and crawl on his belly toward the advertisers and say “sir, what would you like me to do?” That is the only way he can avoid the tailspin that may or may not destroy as we know it.

He will likely not do any of these things and launch Twitter Blue’s $8/month “verification” product on Monday. This product will be a huge mess, mostly because it has been created through labor abuse by a team that has also watched thousands of their colleagues marched out at once, but also because it’s a terrible idea that was rushed through anyway. Someone will immediately pay eight dollars to pretend to be Elon Musk, or a politician, or really anyone with any kind of major audience. An account that bought hundreds of thousands of fans could pretend to be Joe Biden. The ramifications of his bad decision will only be made clear by things happening in front of him rather than through any level of consideration.

However, we’re all facing the problem that things are already very bad, and Musk does not appear to be changing course. I personally have been waiting for Elon to hit milestones like the world’s fastest-growing toddler, expecting him to react to things like “all the advertisers leaving” and “everybody being mad at him” with any regular human reaction. Everything he has done so far is so nakedly bad and wrong that it is almost impossible to understand why he’s doing it, other than the fact that he can and wants to. It’s one thing to disagree about what verification is, or means, or should do - it’s another to lose many of your advertisers at a time when you specifically need to make more money. The actions Musk has to take are “big,” but not particularly complex, and yet he appears to be deliberately choosing to do the wrong thing every single time.

I think we may be past the point at which it makes sense to understand why he’s doing things. Musk is existentially impossible for more than 100 people to understand - he does not worry about having somewhere to sleep, or what to eat, or where to eat it, or how to get there, or whether his power bill or his car lease are paid. Musk does not have to worry about whether he will be able to pay for anything. In fact, acquiring Twitter may be the most Musk has had to think of the cost of something in some time - there is no consideration of how much it would be to buy something that regular people buy, just that it arrives in the amount of time he wishes.

Trying to understand billionaires defies most logic, because so many of the things we do are done with the white noise of decision-making - can we afford this? Should I do this? Will this be good for my career, or health? I’d love to go on a vacation - can I afford that? Oh, my friend’s sad because they’ve lost their job, which they need to pay for their bills. Musk can burn several of his companies to the ground and likely still have so much money that he can (if he has not already done so) eradicate every ounce of friction that a human being can experience.

This is what makes trying to understand him so difficult, and those who kiss up to him so utterly repulsive. Elon Musk does not need more adulation or support. He does not need to be told he is smart or successful and does not deserve any quarter or benefit of the doubt. The correlation of Musk making a great deal of money does not equal the causation of any particular intellectual superiority, but it is also very difficult to understand the mind of someone that does not experience human concerns. Musk’s chaotic mania makes sense only if you can envision a world in which you simply did not experience real challenges - he can afford or do almost anything, and he chooses to do what he is currently doing as a result.

Musk does not want to change course because he doesn’t believe he has to, and because he can afford to. While he may be deeply embarrassed if Twitter goes under, it will not “ruin his life” - he will still experience a lifestyle that is several thousand echelons more opulent than 99.9% of people ever could. There is no danger in Twitter’s missteps that directly threatens Musk himself - he will “lose money,” but when that money is lost, he will still have billions of dollars left over.

And yes, one can argue that Musk will experience existential pain from this situation or reputational damage, but these are usually paired with the concern that one might lose one’s source of income or ability to live in modern society. We are effectively hoping that Elon Musk can be embarrassed into changing his mind, as there is really nothing else to wield against him - he is not breaking any laws, he does not need more money, and he appears to be single-mindedly dedicated to proving that he’s correct, even if it means choosing the wrong thing as many times as he can in a 24 hour period.

I am terrified he will destroy Twitter, because it is my favourite website. To quote myself from earlier today:

I use Twitter all the time to speak to reporters, friends and random people that I’ve never met. I am in four different group DMs, the vast majority of which I don’t know the names of, only their avatars and perhaps whatever their profile name is, if they haven’t changed it often. One talks about football, another talks about football, one talks about games but politics, and the other talks about just politics. My feed is a flume of reporting, joking and extremely weird videos. I have carefully muted people and terms that I don’t want to hear from. I have made many, many friendships off of this site because something about the chaotic firehouse of people talking about everything and nothing finally resembles a community that I fit into, even if it’s because it’s really just me casting shadows on my own wall.

It will be completely impossible to build this elsewhere. Twitter works because we are all forced onto one timeline, and it has taken years to give such focus to so many millions of people. The micro-communities that exist just in the mentions of particular sportscasters are more interesting than any other social network I’ve ever seen, and I do not know what will happen if Twitter disappears. I know many people are acting calmly and serenly about the thought of this site disappearing, saying that they will “get so much time back in their day,” and while they’re right, I’m not sure they’re being honest about the net benefit of this horrifying societal canoe.

This situation is so terribly depressing because we are watching someone who does not perceive or experience stakes of any kind play with the lives of millions of people. Turning off the ability to verify information on a giant social network the week before the midterms while firing thousands of people has massive societal ramifications, but the reality for Musk is that this is just another company, another investment, another way to garner attention and to right some sort of wrong that can only be imagined if you don’t experience bad events like a regular person.

I cannot say if Twitter will die. I do not know. We are on the bleeding edge of history, at a point where predictions are impossible because intentions and consequences for the person in charge defy our ability to consider them. Musk has no obligation to shareholders or his board of directors. He may want Twitter to succeed, but he has a very vague idea of what success might or might not look like.

But it’s important to remember that every decision he has made or will make lacks the level of consequence that a regular person might experience.

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