Falling With Style

Elon Musk is playing make-believe as an executive.
Ed Zitron 7 min read
Falling With Style

In 1995’s Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear — the only toy that does not realize he’s a toy — uses a crude series of objects to whizz around a child’s bedroom and launch himself into the air, claiming that he’s flying. The easily-impressed toys hoot and holler as Woody the cowboy admonishes them, telling him that Buzz wasn’t flying — he was just falling with style.

Such is the life of Elon Musk, a man who has spent the last year playing make-believe that he was Twitter’s salvation on such a scale that he would take the company to a $250 billion valuation. He has claimed that he would “solve” a bot problem that may have never truly existed, that he would share revenue with Twitter blue subscribers, that all major policy changes would go to a public vote, that he would authenticate “all real humans,” that he would form a content moderation council, and, of course, that he would step down as CEO.

He has made terrible, unpopular decisions, such as changing the verified checkmark so that it’s impossible to tell who paid for Twitter Blue and who was verified before instead of removing legacy checkmarks (which he now claims will happen on the 20th of April). He has chased National Public Radio (home of some of America’s most well-respected reporters) off of Twitter by incorrectly applying a “government-funded” label to their account. He also briefly changed the Twitter bird icon to the dog from the 13-year-old Doge meme.

Credit: @Smoothdunk on Twitter.

In an interview with the BBC, Musk has referred to Twitter, a website that primarily gets its revenue from advertising, as “troll heaven.” As the Washington Post notes, despite Musk’s claim that “advertisers are returning,” many agencies are yet to end their pauses on advertising on the platform. Insider Intelligence, a data-research group quoted by the Post, expects Twitter’s advertising revenue to drop 27.9% this year (to be clear, advertising revenue has already dropped 50%) largely thanks to Musk’s outright destruction of Twitter’s Trust and Safety teams. And by removing legacy checkmarks — or, as it stands, blending them with Twitter Blue subscribers — Musk has removed one of the few remaining tokens of legitimacy left on a site that built its value on connecting you to real goddamn people.

As I’ve noted before, Musk is in an unwinnable situation — a kobayashi maru of his own making — because he cannot accept any level of responsibility or accountability for a website he exclusively operates. Elon Musk, a man worth over a hundred billion dollars with over 130 million Twitter followers, told the BBC that “[the] pain level [of running Twitter] has been extremely high,” and that “the media…writing non-stop stories about why [he is] a horrible person…[is] quite hurtful,” as if he is not the entire reason that these stories are happening and entirely responsible for every second of pain he is facing. He laments being “under constant attack,” and “it’s rough,” and that he “gets a lot of negative feedback,” as if he is some plucky founder striking out for the first time, making honest mistakes rather than outright ghoulish moves.

Earlier this week, Musk started a brief-yet-consequential land war with Substack, the platform I write my newsletter on. Out of nowhere, any tweet with a link to a Substack could no longer be retweeted or liked, and the links in question would eventually be marked as “unsafe.” This would eventually lead to a private — and then public — spat with mewling reactionary Matt Taibbi.

Taibbi, who published the original inconsequential “Twitter Files” with the full backing and support of Musk himself, revealed that Musk had blocked Substack based on his fear of Substack’s new Twitter-adjacent product “Notes.” Musk would eventually post Taibbi’s private messages and allege that Substack was “trying to download a massive portion of the Twitter database to bootstrap their Twitter clone,” a statement that makes absolutely no sense in any way, shape or form.

Taibbi has now entirely decamped from Twitter onto Substack’s Notes platform, and all restrictions on Substack (including the brief period on Twitter where searching “Substack” brought up results for “newsletter”) have now been removed.

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In short, Musk achieved absolutely nothing other than running an extremely messy public relations campaign that exclusively benefited another company’s product. As Platformer’s Casey Newton noted:

All of this was done in Musk’s by-now familiar pattern of rolling out some terrible change, getting yelled at even by his staunchest defenders, and quickly returning to the previous state of affairs. Also per usual, he attempted to defend his actions in a non-sensical tweet, declaring that Substack was “trying to download a massive portion of the Twitter database to bootstrap their Twitter clone.” (I enjoyed reading the Hacker News community tear that one apart; for now suffice to say “what?” and “how?” and also “no.”)

Musk is terrified of Substack Notes because, while much smaller than Twitter, Substack appears to have extremely strong network effects. It feels a great deal more lively and engaging than Mastodon or Post or any number of other competitors, and so, is the most obvious potential replacement for Twitter.

Scarier still, Substack attracts one of Twitter’s loudest groups of power users — writers and reporters — and makes their followers have a direct and meaningful reason to read more of their work. Twitter’s heaviest users account for just 10 percent of the total user base, but are responsible for 90 percent of all site activity and 50 percent of revenue, according to Reuters. Their ranks declined, particularly during the pandemic, but they are nonetheless hugely important for Twitter, both commercially and for the health of its ecosystem.

And I have a personal suspicion that while Musk may loathe much of the free press, he desperately craves their attention and engagement on Twitter even as he makes the website increasingly punishing for the press to use.

Whether he likes it or not, Twitter is effectively the watering hole for journalism. It is where journalists both dick about and report stories. It is where relationships develop and stories get amplified to peers. It is where writers are recruited and build their own followings, find freelance work, or a new job. If this somehow decamps somewhere else, and that place becomes Substack, it is a genuinely meaningful movement in modern journalism. Twitter has previously had a relative monopoly as the media’s social network — and Notes may be the first true challenger.

While this might not be in every industry, it will be most pronounced in technology, business and sports media. If this happens — and I am not saying it definitely will — the result will be vastly diminished Twitter. It’ll still be a place where people post, but the outsized importance it has in the media will wane.

On its own this might not be a big deal, but with the site becoming increasingly broken and harder to trust, losing relevance might be worse than losing revenue.

So, instead of choosing the annoying path of “actually building and shipping products that people like” — which would have been possible had Musk not shut down Revue, Twitter’s newsletter product — Musk chose a cowardly route that betrays exactly how ineffective an executive he really is.

Musk is Dot Com Bust Lightyear — a man LARPing as a CEO, loudly declaring how important and meaningful his actions are without ever doing anything of note. Every single major decision he’s made at Twitter has fundamentally damaged the platform.

Despite being a “free speech absolutist,” he has spent the last week actively impeding independent journalism (both by blocking Substack and chasing NPR off of Twitter) and censoring reporters and senior Canadian politicians at the request of the Indian government.

Musk has been given free rein to use his supposedly extensive business knowledge to turn Twitter into a revenue-generating free-speech platform, and he’s managed to halve its value and gradually corrode the legitimacy and reliability of the platform. Major advertisers fear his “racist rhetoric,” he has allowed Vladimir Putin back on the platform, has failed to reliably report political campaigns on the platform, and has literally said that it’s “not possible to uphold freedom of speech in India.” He is outright lying when he says that Twitter is “roughly breaking even,” because even the most concussed mathematician can work out that losing half of your advertisers plus failing to establish a meaningful alternative revenue stream does not equal “break even,” even with massive layoffs and failing to pay rent.

And even now, as Twitter’s revenue and credibility burns, Musk can’t help but jump onto the next idea, buying 10,000 GPUs for a mysterious generative AI product.

Perhaps most damning of all, Musk failed to understand the fundamentals of the company he bought. As anyone with an iota of marketing experience can tell you, advertising is a relationship-centric business. The biggest ad buyers — those who spend millions on a campaign without a second thought — want someone they can talk to. That point of contact is especially vital during a period of transition and uncertainty, as was the case after Musk’s acquisition of Twitter.

Musk ignored (or perhaps dismissed) the human element of Twitter’s main revenue stream and laid off huge swaths of account managers and sales reps. By ditching these “surplus elites,” Musk effectively severed Twitter’s most commercially-valuable relationships. Emails went unanswered — or as one advertiser put it, they “fell into the abyss.” With nobody to coordinate ad buys or address concerns with the platform’s new direction, they simply gave up and spent their budget elsewhere.

Musk has spent over a decade coasting on a reputation fundamentally buoyed by other people’s inventions and a media industry that failed to hold him accountable. He has fumbled and tumbled his way into past successes as a successful operator — someone who can get people to sign things and send money to other places — without ever really having to prove that he himself is capable of making the decisions that make a company successful. Tesla’s market share is dropping, the Boring Company doesn’t seem to be doing anything other than dump wastewater in a Texas river, and he has said that Twitter is “near break even” at least four times despite saying in November 2022 that it’s losing $4 million a day.

While it’s hard to describe Musk’s previous success as luck, one now has to question whether there is any proof that he was responsible for what SpaceX or Tesla has become today. Nothing about the Twitter acquisition suggests that Musk has the patience or self-awareness to be a successful steward of a company, and there’s evidence that he doesn’t really run SpaceX at all.

Depressingly, Musk has admitted to the BBC that he never really wanted to buy Twitter - and that he was forced to by the courts. And while he could have easily handed over control to someone else — someone capable of developing it into a significantly more-profitable business — his outsized ego and disconnection from reality meant that he would take the opportunity to prove to everybody exactly how smart and capable Elon Musk really is.

Well, I suppose he succeeded.

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