Elon's Tragic Kingdom

Ed Zitron 6 min read

Elon Musk has announced Twitter’s new CEO – the former Chair of Advertising at NBCUniversal Linda Yaccarino, who interviewed him onstage at a marketing convention back in April.

On the surface she’s the perfect hire for Musk’s new “free speech” (read: right wing-tolerant/supportive) regime — she follows numerous conservative psychopaths and likes election-denial tweets, all while possessing the respectable veneer of having worked for a real company that is able to get people to pay it for advertising. On paper, this decision is verging on one that a sensible business might make — hiring someone who has a history of taking something and making money on it in an industry that resembles Twitter’s. Was Musk learning? Did he realize that advertising was what he needed to make this already-unprofitable business somewhat less unprofitable?

The answer is, as with many things in Musk-world: “kind of, but not really.”

Since acquiring Twitter, Musk has spent months appealing to the whims of Twitter’s reactionaries, pushing anti-vax theories, comparing Justin Trudeau to Adolf Hitler, suggesting doctors that help children transition should spend their lives in prison, and no longer enforcing COVID misinformation. These moves were as predictable as they are detestable, built entirely to placate a movement of people that largely lacks any core ideology beyond, to quote Francis Wilhoit, “that there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside groups who the law binds but does not protect.”

These people have few consistent moral or philosophical beliefs beyond the sense that the people they like should be elevated and the people they dislike must be punished. They, like Musk, live in an almost-constant world of hypocrisy where there is always a smarmy retort whenever their flimsy ideologies are challenged. They are obsessed with “wokeness”, but could likely not tell you what woke means, or why it’s bad, other than something vague about a cartoon character not being sexy enough.

As a result, these reactionaries are easy to appeal to — you just have to say you like the things they like, hate the things they hate, and support suppressing anyone who fails to put someone or something in the correct box. It’s an entirely childish belief system that constantly splinters off in arbitrary directions, making seemingly “good” choices in their eyes suddenly “bad” because you missed an errant piece of conservative lore.

In the case of Linda Yaccarino, her involvement with the World Economic Forum — an international lobbying organization that holds the Davos conference where, to quote Gizmodo, the rich “come together to make even more money on an international stage” — has sparked outrage with a conservative movement that sees it as a shadowy cabal that seeks to control the world.

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Yaccarino’s involvement is extremely dull, chairing the WEF’s Future of Work taskforce, as well as their media, entertainment, and culture “governor’s steering committee.” Conservatives are furious that Musk — a man worth over $100 billion — hired a member of the “global elite” that is sure to bring about a terrible new era of wokeness where conservatives are somehow repressed in some non-specific way.

Musk has spent a year playing stupid games and winning stupid prizes. In a deck for investors from last year, he spun the ridiculous yarn that Twitter would somehow have 69 million Blue subscribers by 2025, and 159 million subscribers by 2028 — as opposed to the 700,000 (which isn’t necessarily indicative of who is currently paying) who actually chose to subscribe since Twitter Blue launched. He then laid off thousands of Twitter’s workers — a chunk of whom were part of the trust and safety team that makes sure advertisements aren’t shown, for example, next to videos of animal torture, a thing that happened last week. Advertisers are scared to associate their brands with Elon Musk and Twitter, and the company has no other viable alternative revenue sources.

And now Musk is faced with another kobayashi maru with Yaccarino.

While she may be CEO, Musk will remain CTO and executive chairman — as well as the primary shareholder of the company. Yaccarino may be able to win over some of the advertisers that have slowed or stopped their spending on the platform, but the larger problem is that Twitter’s advertising product is only as good as the content it’s being advertised against. Advertisers don’t want their brands associated with bigotry, racism, misinformation or violent content.

Musk, in his attempt to appeal to both libertarian and conservative dimwits, has tried to turn Twitter into “the free speech platform” by tearing down the already-thin fabric of reliability that made Twitter respectable enough to even sell advertising against. Unless Yaccarino is somehow able to reestablish a real trust, safety and moderation team, her advertising credentials will be meaningless. There is no working future for Twitter that doesn’t involve more hiring.

Advertisers and advertising executives are risk-averse. They don’t care whether the Minions are woke, or whether conservatives are shadowbanned, or anything to do with the “woke mind virus.” Their ideal world is one where people have as few problems or opinions as possible, where one’s concerns are mostly around the deliciousness of a beverage or the score of a big game. They will tolerate such things if there is a way to make money — but only if doing so doesn’t require them to articulate an opinion beyond “we exist and here is our product.”

Twitter itself was already a dangerous place for advertisers to play, but one they tolerated because, despite its noxiousness, there was a veneer of stability — the sense that the people in control were adults that realized it’d be a real bummer if someone saw an advertisement for Fancy Feast next to someone doing something unspeakable to an animal.

It’s important to note that Twitter advertising makes up less than 1% of all digital ad revenue (compared to Google, Amazon and Facebook, who collectively account for over 60%). Elon Musk does not have the advertising industry over a barrel. While the  industry may want as many channels as possible to hock their wares, Twitter was never an essential channel, and has become even less relevant with the growth of TikTok, which already owns 2% of global digital ad spend.

Everything that’s happening comes back to one single point: Elon Musk does not understand social networking. He doesn’t understand what makes a network good, or interesting. He doesn’t understand why people use it, or why they would stop using it. He doesn’t understand how people spend money, nor how businesses spend it. He doesn’t understand the advertising industry, nor does he understand what it is he is selling to advertisers on Twitter and what would make them buy more.

He may have acknowledged a problem by hiring Yaccarino, but I give him three months before he’s making passive aggressive statements about a decision she makes under the guise of “corporate transparency,” leading her to either quit or be ousted for some vague thing about “bias” or “not understanding Twitter’s vision.”

Or, equally likely, Yaccarino will depart after she fails to convince Twitter’s once-largest advertisers to return. This isn’t a probability so much as an absolute certainty. Twitter’s now-tarnished brand — paired with the decimation of its moderation infrastructure, particularly its Trust and Safety teams — is kryptonite to those blue-chip companies with the largest ad budgets, but also an acute sensitivity for brand safety.

In any case, I refuse to believe Musk is capable of letting Yaccarino do her job without insisting that he is present at all times, making dorky statements on important calls and trying to fit the numbers 69 and 420 into every presentation.

I still don’t know what will happen with Twitter going forward. Elon Musk effectively owns the entire thing, and it’s obvious that the bankers (and minor equity holders) involved do not have the power to stop him doing anything (or simply don’t care that their money is all but gone).

The handful of minor shareholders — which include the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, Larry Ellison, and Binance — clearly lack any influence or leverage over Musk, who, just last night, tweeted the antisemitic canard that the Hungarian-born jewish financier George Soros “hates humanity,” and posted approvingly of unambiguously-racist memes discussing the link between race and crime.

Musk’s new CEO is clearly a fan of the right wing, but also might be enough of a capitalist to realize that said views might make it a little harder to find a job after Elon boots her out the door after diagnosing her with the woke mind virus.

Musk has created a perfect storm, having assumed vast levels of debt to acquire Twitter while also burning any viable source of revenue for this company, and I don’t, like some, believe he has done so deliberately. In fact, I think this entire situation is a result of a very rich man who became consumed by his own legend. He is used to things just working out through some combination of either intimidation or adulation.

Sadly, this only works when you’re selling cars or rockets that perform a specific task, and a social network is a different beast entirely. It’s a chaotic force, one that his predecessors – as the Twitter Files proved – were afraid to mess with too much, for fear that they would destabilize it or reduce the value of the content that they needed to sell ads against.

Instead, Musk is censoring Twitter at the request of oppressive governments and excitedly welcoming Tucker Carlson’s new show to his network. He is either so insecure that he can’t truly take a step back and see that he’s destroying the site, or he is just an astoundingly stupid idiot that managed to accrue a massive fortune through means that make one question if there’s any fairness in the world.

Or perhaps it’s both. Very concerning.

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