Free Bird

Ed Zitron 8 min read

I joined Twitter a few months after I moved to America. It was a place that awkwardly blended the serendipity of online spaces with a reasonably enjoyable party. Everybody sort of seemed to be there, and most people were, to some extent, themselves. While I think it’s dramatic to say that it felt “intimate,” it did feel like people were “real” in a way they didn’t seem to be on other networks, or even in real life.

As a surprisingly shy person, I found it liberating. I was able to speak with people that I would eventually meet in real life without the awkward introduction phase. While it’s embarrassing to admit, Twitter allowed me to be myself and validate the concept that, despite my awkwardness, or my shyness, or my coordinational disability, or whatever self-confidence issues I had, there were people that would actually want to talk to me.

Ironically, Twitter led to me becoming far more confident, outgoing and sociable in person, because the Twitter me was the real me rather than the other way around. I’ve met some of my closest friends and business contacts from the website, and I’d argue it’s because Twitter successfully bridged the gap between digital and physical existence. While Twitter is very much not real life, it can resemble it enough that you can make real connections. The website is at its best when you see it as shooting the shit with your friends, or friends of friends, or someone called “The Hamburger Dipshit.”

I’d also argue that it’s similar to watching a sporting event live in a particularly sociable bar, except “sporting event” can mean anything from a single clip of someone doing something stupid to a major banking crisis happening in real life. There is a community — a loose, messy, ugly and chaotic community — that Twitter naturally generates in a way that I do not believe Jack Dorsey or any of the original founders understand to this day. Twitter allows you to make surprisingly close friendships remarkably quickly. It’s a raw feed of human thought, for better or for worse.

The problem is that the attention that you feel on Twitter is extremely addictive. The feeling of having someone — or potentially hundreds of thousands of people —hang on your every word can be deeply intoxicating. One can attribute a great deal of meaning to likes and retweets — that you’re intelligent, important, or “right” on an existential level — and conversely one can attribute so much more to the negative feedback one gets. Twitter can create an incredible sense of both intellectual invincibility and vulnerability that can drive someone quite mad. Many people are desperate to be liked by everybody, and many more people are desperate to be respected by everybody.

Twitter’s value has always been this level of pseudo-egalitarian madness. While a celebrity may be a celebrity, there was always the sense that anyone, even someone with a 100-follower account could interact with an NFL quarterback, or an actor, or a writer. It gave everybody a sense of (real and imagined) importance — that yes, the high-follower accounts got the most exposure, but everybody was visible.

This is also the same reason that Twitter is the number one destination for getting in trouble — you are fully exposed, fully public, and theoretically your tweets could be viewed and boosted by anybody. And because it’s a predominantly text-based network, there is far more of a pull toward cracking jokes or making salient points, and, indeed, there are entire forms of humor that would simply not work anywhere else. And while Twitter has an algorithm, the “skill” — if one can even call it that — of posting on Twitter was that your shit generally blew up if you were funny and it reached the right people.

Twitter has become the largest shitposting network in the world, a place where everybody can shoot the shit in an irreverent way and at scale. When you make a good post, people laugh at it. Riff on it. It feels good in the same way that getting a big laugh with any group feels good. The problem is that to become a good poster, or a funny person, or any kind of interesting, you need a degree of intellectual curiosity and empathy for others. You have to care about what others think and understand the structures of their lives, so that you can make comments or jokes about it.

There is joy in doing so, not just because of the warm, fuzzy feeling that someone likes you, but because really nailing a joke and getting a laugh from people you admire and respect is part of the joy of being human. “Getting” what makes people laugh or think is an exercise in exploring humanity. It’s fun. Twitter enables it at scale, and it’s one of the reasons I love the website.

The issue comes from when you are a person that lacks any fundamental curiosity about the world around you and the people in it.

One can try to be funny and fail, and learning why is part of growing as a person. I also believe that there are people who are so fundamentally incurious that they cannot grow. They assume that they are interesting, funny and cool enough, and that the world should by default appreciate and admire them. When the world spits in their face, they don’t think “huh, why did that happen?” but rather think of how they can “show” those who dislike them exactly how wrong they were without actually learning a single goddamn thing.

Sadly, one of these people bought Twitter.

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This week, Musk sent an email to staff telling them that they would receive stock grants at a valuation of $20 billion, down from the $44 billion price tag Musk bought it for just under a year ago. This is incredibly embarrassing on many levels.

Musk has sold billions of dollars of Tesla stock to keep Twitter going, on top of the billions he sold to buy Twitter, on top of the billions of dollars that Twitter has lost thanks to Musk’s alienation of its top advertisers. Adding insult to injury, Tesla’s share price has halved over the past year, in part due to Musk’s repeated billion-dollar equity sales and shareholder concern about whether he can effectively lead the company whilst also running Twitter.

He isn’t paying rent on Twitter’s offices. Twitter’s press email address autoresponds with a poop emoji. Twitter had its largest outage since he took over in March shortly after another round of layoffs, and both the FTC and EU are getting pissed off at him.

And on top of all of that, he’s just painfully, agonizingly unfunny. It takes an incredible, almost impossible amount of disconnection from reality to fumble a “that’s what she said” joke, and yet Musk managed to do so in a response to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries:

In response to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) tweeting, “House Dems are fighting hard for the American people. Right-wing extremists are fighting each other,” Elon Musk wrote, “That’s what she said.”

I will be honest: I have not seen anyone mess up a joke on this level in some time outside of, obviously, the very well-known joke from The Office. It is embarrassing but also speaks to Musk’s genuine lack of awareness — perhaps from being unimaginably wealthy and thus only associating with similarly wealthy and disconnected individuals. Comedian Patton Oswalt put it well:

Oswalt believes Musk sees “comedy the same way he sees money and status, whereas anyone who’s into comedy knows that comedy and [what’s] funny is constantly fluctuating.” He wants to “solve for ‘funny’ and forever be the funniest one” and “doesn’t understand that that’s not how it works in comedy.”

Musk is a classic sheltered rich guy, now exposed to the continual scrutiny and ridicule of the world’s biggest 24-hour dive bar. He lacks self-awareness while also being incredibly sensitive, an endless feedback loop that challenges him to make arbitrary changes to Twitter while also fighting back against imagined enemies rather than dealing with any of the real problems he’s created.

He could quit at any time. He could make things better with a few posts about acting “too emotionally,” and step back from the site. He could post about rockets and cars and nothing else, and the world would eventually calm and leave him alone.

His problem — his insurmountable, impossible problem — is that while one can buy attention, one cannot buy approval. Musk believed that by buying Twitter he would show everybody exactly how smart, interesting and funny he was, without stopping to consider whether any of that was true. And I believe that deep down he realizes that the people that love him do so for an extremely hollow reason — that he’s rich and powerful. Musk is aware that his fans are toadies — mewling sycophants and fellow reactionary goblins that are only loyal to what Musk symbolizes. These aren’t people that he’s earned the respect of. He got it by default because they respect anyone loud, rude and rich.

And goodness, they’re just painfully uncool. Buying Twitter didn’t earn Musk the attention and gratitude of sports stars, celebrities and intellectuals. It got him the loyalty of Matt Taibbi, CatTurd2 and 3000 people with AI-generated avatars.

Even more embarrassingly, nothing that Musk does with Twitter seems to work. The launch of Twitter Blue has been an unmitigated disaster, making only $11 million on mobile in three months, or roughly 1.1% of the yearly interest payment on Twitter’s debt.

Musk has vowed to strip away all “legacy” blue checkmarks on April 1, meaning that only those who pay $8 a month for Twitter Blue will remain “verified,” a now-confusing term for a badge that only seems to verify that somebody paid Elon Musk eight dollars. And now Musk has declared that only those that pay for Twitter Blue will appear on Twitter’s algorithmically driven “for you” feed, creating a system where only those who pay will get the most exposure, which is somehow different to the former “lords and peasants” system that Musk disliked. Those without Twitter Blue won’t even be able to vote in polls, a move that Musk claims will deter bots and scammers, who as we all know would never spend a penny to mislead someone.

According to researcher Travis Brown, only 6,482 of the approximately 420,000 legacy verified Twitter accounts have subscribed to Twitter Blue, an outright rejection of both the product and Elon Musk himself. Twitter Blue’s subscribers predominantly have less than 1,000 followers, with 78,059 of them having less than 100, and 2,270 having absolutely none. Twitter Blue isn’t just unpopular - it’s failed to attract even 0.5% of Musk’s 132 million followers. It is yet another reminder that despite owning the website, despite pushing the algorithm to show you every one of his tweets, despite being one of the richest men in the world, Musk is just not that convincing.

And he just isn’t cool.

The blue checkmark was a status symbol as well as a form of verification. If you got one, it said that you were you, but also that you were “somebody,” even if the way in which it was handed out was extremely capricious and vague. It was “cool” because it wasn’t for everybody — fair or not — and meant that you had to achieve something, even in some small way, and get noticed by a specific person or group of people.

One could not outright buy it. At least, not officially. You had to do something, even if that something was dumb, that made you “important enough.”

Now the verified checkmark means nothing. The person is not important, or special, or interesting, or notable, or even verified. In fact, the very meaning of the checkmark is now inverted. You’re so utterly unimportant that you have to pay for a special badge that puts you in a special feed with the other people that aren’t important.

This isn’t even me being condescending — this is just what a blue checkmark means now. It is a symbol of desperation and insecurity, and of a fear that your relevance is contingent on having a certain amount of money.

Which, I suppose, makes it a perfect tribute to Elon Musk.

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