Musk's Kobayashi Maru

Ed Zitron 7 min read

Elon Musk has had a difficult weekend following a difficult week, with all difficulties a direct result of his actions, a continual flywheel of actions and consequences that confuse a man with too much money and time on his hands. Twitter updated the iOS version of the Twitter app to advertise verification on Saturday, offering users the chance to “receive the blue check "just like the celebrities, companies, and politicians you already follow” for only $8 a month. Twitter executive Esther Crawford then said that it had not launched and that they were “testing and pushing changes in realtime” after tens of people complained that they had not received the blue check after subscribing at $8 a month.

Twitter then announced that they would be delaying verification until after America’s midterm elections, as opposed to today or Saturday, the day they did but didn’t launch it.

Elon capped off his whirlwind weekend by announcing that the company would now permanently ban anyone that impersonated someone else on Twitter, in a situation that is likely connected to the many people pretending to be Elon Musk to prove that it’s insane to give anybody a blue checkmark, mostly because it’d let them impersonate somebody.

As if to complete some exhausting punchline to a deeply unfunny joke, Twitter is now trying to rehire some people it fired, because it turns out the people choosing the people to fire didn’t know exactly who did what. It’s almost as if managers don’t know what the people they’re managing are doing - a theme I have previously explored in roughly 240,000 words of this newsletter.

In a significantly more-worrying turn of events, Media Matters CEO and President Angelo Carusone penned a Twitter thread about how far up shit creek Elon has paddled Twitter. The long and short of it is that the International Advertising Bureau’s NewFronts event is where Twitter (and many other companies) sell a great deal of their advertising for the year in advance. Traditionally, Twitter sells between 600 and 900 million ads there, guaranteeing annual revenue. Carusone notes that a coalition of civil rights groups called Stop The Deal worked hard to educate advertisers to ask the right questions about Musk’s takeover. When it was obvious there were no consistent answers or solutions to the many obvious problems, Carusone reports that Twitter went from a situation that usually solves 15-20% of their annual revenue to having…very little indeed.

As I’ve previously said,  we are off the map - there is no precedent here, no previous situation where someone has bought something for $44 billion, promised to make it more profitable, then managed to do the complete opposite in just under a week. Whenever Elon Musk sticks his hand onto his computer and posts, he pulls it back to find a big cartoon mousetrap clutched to his finger, letting out a comical “YEEEEOWCH!” and learning absolutely nothing.

What’s incredible is exactly how little Elon Musk understands about what’s going on. I have said for a while that Musk has never understood Twitter:

Elon Musk may have joined Twitter in 2010, but his experience was not like the average user’s. He has not meaningfully participated in any niche community or friend group - partly because the nature of having such a large natural following makes doing so difficult (but not impossible!), and he has not shown any real interest in actually using the website for anything other than a one-way bully pulpit. If we are crediting Musk with “getting” Twitter simply because he realizes that he has a large, responsive following, then we are - as the media regularly has - giving Elon Musk a great deal of credit that could be given to literally anyone with that size following.

I also don’t believe he was part of any community before Twitter - nothing he is saying or doing indicates he is someone that has spent significant time talking to other people, online or otherwise. David Thorpe, former SomethingAwful (one of the original holes in the internet where things dripped out) admin, put it well why Elon is currently freaking out:

A great poster is someone who is both able to cultivate popularity and remain extremely funny in a relatively effortless way. If they get mad, they can either hide it entirely or play it off in an endearing way, and they generally have a deftness to their posting that means that they have a good, solid thought at just the right time. There are also very basic rules about conduct - for example, when you are made fun of, you do not immediately get mad, and you certainly do not indicate that you are mad in any way (such as using the cry-laugh emoji, which Musk did), and when you are humiliated for something, you go quiet and do not start banning people arbitrarily. And, as Thorpe said, you do not buy the whole forum, because everybody knows you did it and will now make fun of you for the purchase and every single action you make following it.

This is why Twitter has become a kind of meta-joke emporium for the last few days. When somebody messes up online, the material eventually runs out - they apologize, or they disappear, and so on - but in Musk’s case, he cannot help but keep fueling the fire with his extremely bad decision-making. Musk paid $44 billion to run a website that is populated with tens of thousands of posts making fun of him and criticizing everything he does. He already had one of the most popular accounts in the world, and he must have imagined that the majority of Twitter users liked him based on the amount of retweets and likes he had previously got.

Musk is currently in a Kobayashi Maru of his own making - an unwinnable scenario created by his own arrogance and ignorance. Musk does not understand online communities, nor does he appear to understand the business of social media, asking random Twitter accounts how YouTube monetization works, something he should have already known or learned about before buying a social network. He does not know what is going on, and has decided that every decision he makes must be tweeted first (he has fired most of Twitter’s communications staff), which is a terrible idea because it reduces what should be a large decision into a compressed <280 character message, shared on a website that is currently used to make fun of its owner.

The only way Musk can really “save” Twitter as a meaningful revenue-generating company is to somehow lure back the advertisers he alienated. While he may believe that he can replace that revenue with features, that would first involve building features (which is much harder to do when you just fired half of your company), and then making sure said features were things people would pay for (harder when you’ve fired all those people, considering you do not know anything about social media). Twitter’s power users - people who post 3-4 times a week, make up 90% of all tweets, but account for less than 10% of overall users - were already leaving the site, and I can’t imagine what offering something for them to pay for is going to do to keep them. And that’s before you consider how much he’s alienated them just by existing.

All of this is happening at a time when Twitter now has to generate roughly $1bn in loan payments a year, which is not great considering Musk claims the company is losing over $4 million a day. To put it very simply: Musk needed Twitter to make more money, and now Twitter is making much less money. He fired a lot of people, which will reduce the amount of money Twitter is spending, but he has also reduced the amount of money that Twitter is making (which is bad) while also actively annoying the advertisers who would have paid Twitter money for advertising (which is good) who will now not do so (which is bad) and may indeed be unwilling to do so in the future (which is bad).

And absolutely none of this has made him more popular, which is killing him.

Being the CEO of Twitter is one of the most public-facing executive roles you can have, other than being Elon Musk. It is a job that invites scrutiny, because many of the decisions - even small ones! - can have massive ramifications for users of the platform. In some ways the previous executives have been smart not being extremely active on the platform, because when the company failed to do something right, nobody was personally blamed, meaning that we blamed “Twitter The Company.” While people were occasionally annoyed at Jack Dorsey, he did not crave (and monopolize) our attention, and thus it was hard to blame individual actions on one guy.

On the biggest stage, with the most scrutiny, Musk has failed. The only decisions he can make will weaken him - handing off Twitter to another CEO, rushing a sale, hiring people back, walking back paid verification, placating advertisers - and show that he didn’t really have any idea what he was doing to begin with. Musk now realizes he has paid $44 billion to be the least popular person in the world, which partly makes him responsible for 500 million little messages a day.

This is a no-win situation for him. The best-case scenario is returning Twitter to the kind of profitability that made it worth less than what he paid for it, which will require him to eat crow in a way he’s never had to in the past. He is in a constant state of half-hearted damage control to appease groups he doesn’t understand, making statements he thinks will fix things that usually just lead to people getting angrier or making fun of him more. He so badly wants to scorn “the libs” and “journalists,” but he increasingly realizes that in doing so, he takes away the thing that gives Twitter any level of clout.

He really hasn’t been able to get anything done. The only major change he’s made is firing thousands of people. He had to delay verification, or perhaps it launched broken (it isn’t really obvious what happened!), and he hasn’t unbanned anyone. He has suspended a few people for mocking him under the auspices of “banning imposters,” a move that makes him look like a big baby. Twitter is fundamentally still the same platform, and it’s obvious he doesn’t have any real plans for how it might change other than “we might be able to charge for some stuff.”

Musk has bought every billboard in Times Square, but has somehow broadcast his entire ass for several arduous days. He has made himself the king of a site that decides who is popular, yet managed to become its single most unpopular user. He has spent an ungodly amount of money to make a company more profitable, making it significantly less so without really doing much.

Musk has accidentally created a public hearing on his reputational and professional worth, where we now will see if he is a great CEO or a rich guy who kept winning until he didn’t. The public will now watch and judge him in real time as he makes the decisions that most CEOs get to make behind closed doors, in part because he can’t help but announce them personally. He cannot post less, because it will show a lack of attachment to the massive purchase he made, and if he posts more, he will be subject to the hyper-attention that made him famous.

Musk will be judged in a public, embarrassing way, and he has paid for the privilege. He lacks the temperament to deal with even the lightest of ribbing, yet he has guaranteed that’s all he will hear for a long, long time.

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