Elon Musk’s Twitter Takeover is a Disaster
Paris Marx is joined by Hussein Kesvani to discuss the mess of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, the problem with his solution to blue check privilege, and what we should learn from how he posts.
Hussein Kesvani is a journalist and the co-host of Trashfuture and Ten Thousand Posts. Follow Hussein on Twitter at @hkesvani.
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Paris Marx: Hussein, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Hussein Kesvani: Thank you for having me back on.
PM: Thank you so much, even for joining me all the way from Brisbane, Australia. Do they even know who Elon Musk is down there?
HK: I haven’t heard much about Elon or Twitter. I’m in Brisbane right now — it’s very sort of chilled and laid back and it feels like the Internet doesn’t exist. By which I just mean that I’ve been to other cities and every so often you’ll see graffiti walls and the graffiti walls will have Bitcoin logos and Bored Apes or whatever. I haven’t seen any of that over here based on my two days I’ve been. So it’s been a remarkably offline couple of days, which is quite nice. I’ve heard nothing about Elon Musk. I have not read any news. So I’m looking forward to having to sort of reckon with the idea that he is very much still up to his shenanigans.
PM: Sounds good. I wonder if it will stay that way. During your trip, maybe when you get to Sydney and Melbourne, you’ll see a bit more of that. Good thing you’re not going to Adelaide because he set up the big battery down there that I think there’s been a bit of controversy over.
HK: Oh, shit! Of course, he did; I completely forgot about that. I wonder what people’s opinions of him are over there. During the flight from London to Australia, and that was sort of 25 hours, not entirely, but we had a layover. But because I wasn’t able to access the Internet, I was sort of thinking about from the time we leave London-Heathrow till the time we get to Australia, I wonder whether he’ll have destroyed Twitter. And he hasn’t quite done it. But I feel like he could have if he tried, if he really wanted to. So I’m looking forward to talking about the ways in which he could or probably will do it.
PM: I feel like in spite of his efforts, he hasn’t destroyed it yet. But give him a few more weeks, maybe?
HK: Give him like a week or so. Maybe by the time we leave Australia, we’ll return to London and we’ll be trying to navigate the post-Twitter world and how to do a podcast in that type of environment.
PM: You’ll take off; you’ll still be able to open your bird app, then you’ll hit down in Heathrow and you won’t be able to open it anymore.
HK: It just won’t exist. No, I’m looking forward to it.
PM: So, he took over a little less than two weeks ago; you’ve missed a couple of days of it. What have you made of this whole takeover so far?
HK: So first of all, I’ve got to take the L. So I’m not on my show, Ten Thousand Posts, which I do with my friend Phoebe Roy, we have talked about Elon on a few episodes. And I think the impression was very much the case of like: Oh, he’s not going to buy it; he’s sort of gotten himself into…he started talking about it as a meme. And it kind of got a bit out of control, but he’s not really going to do it. And then there was that period of time where he seemed to be making excuses, like: Oh, Twitter has a bot problem; there are too many fake accounts. Which is kind of true, but it seemed like he was looking for an exit. And maybe he was, and again, I’m not a finance guy, so I don’t know the kind of real specifics of the deal. But my understanding was that Twitter kind of called his bluff, and basically forced him to buy the company. And I just kind of stopped paying attention, because my thing was ultimately, Elon Musk is someone who craves the attention. And my presumption was that he was going to try to find a convenient way to back out, maybe lose some money that he doesn’t really have, get some more kind of funds from banks — basically, he’ll just do Elon shit.
But then all of a sudden, seemingly, there was this video that came out where he’s walking into Twitter with a sink. Because he’s a very funny guy. And you know, hahah let that sink in.
PM: Haha, hilarious [sarcastically].
HK: Very, very good. Then I was like: Okay, what the fuck is happening right now? And then it was just like, yeah, he bought it; he bought the company. And now every time I go on Twitter, it’s really just this discourse — maybe we can talk about this a little bit — this discourse about should we move to Mastadon? What kind of alternative to Twitter? Lots of conversations about Twitter is digital infrastructure, which I think is a good thing to think about, and I think that actually is the more interesting part of conversations around Elon Musk owning Twitter. And then couple that with just all of the bizarre moves that have been made, and just the fact that he’s kind of live tweeting it all, which feels really strange. And I don’t know, it’s felt like a fever dream in some ways. And I’m not sure whatever it was just because I was reading a bunch of stuff in the run up to this trip, and things were already kind of a bit stressful. So it just added to it. And I wondered actually whether you felt the same way, where there were just periods of time where it’s like: Okay, what the fuck is going on right now?
PM: There’s a million things I want to pick up on there. First of all, I feel like, like you, my opinion of whether he was going to be able to take over Twitter or whether he was going to do it shifted multiple times during the past six months. When it was initially announced, I was like: Ah, shit, here we go. And then when he tried to back out, I was like: Of course, he’s going to try to back out; this is what he always does; this is typical Elon Musk. But then as it continued, I felt like, okay, some way or or another, he’s going to be forced to take over this company, because he’s just such an idiot. And because of the way he signed into this deal, he’s not going to be able to effectively get out of it in the way that he has in the past, based on what I was reading about this Delaware court where they were supposed to be going. And then of course, it looks like one of the incentives for him to finally stop trying to get a better deal, stop trying to reduce the amount that he was trying to pay for the company was that these details, these texts were coming out from the court, as part of this discovery process. It was looking really bad for him and his buddies. And then, of course, it was like instead of having more of this come out, when it looks like I’m gonna be forced to take over the company anyway, just going have to go ahead and do it.
But I would say, since he’s taken over, it’s just been wild to watch. He’s been the main character on Twitter every single day since he’s taken over. He’s constantly tweeting about the process of taking it over, what he’s going to do with the company, what it means that he owns the company now. And then when people say that he’s an idiot because of what he’s doing, then he starts to respond to right-wing accounts that are saying: You’re the best, Elon; you’re taking on the activist and the leftists or whatever, and blaming the problems that he’s having on external forces that are beyond his control. And it’s just been wild to watch and experience, all in real time. And it feels like for me, as someone who’s written a lot about Elon Musk, that it’s kind of like you have to be constantly paying attention now to see what he’s actually doing, and what’s actually going on here.
HK: Yes, basically, that’s kind of how I’ve started sort of seeing this. And on the last point about just having to pay attention, I think that’s a really interesting thing. Because for a while, my sort of approach to Elon Musk was: Yeah, fine, I don’t really have to pay that much attention to him. Even when he started tweeting a lot more regularly, it would be something that initially I found a bit of amusing. And then I kind of found it quite boring, especially during 2021, or something when he was doing all the sort of weird crypto scams to try and pump up Tesla stock. It was kind of like this is a guy who just like is terminally online in multiple ways. But I think actually, during the whole crypto thing, and during the whole trying to pump up Dogecoin in order to pump up Tesla, I kind of thought to myself, like, okay, he acts like an idiot online. But actually, maybe he’s a bit smarter than I expected. Not in an intelligent way. But more in a kind of conniving CEO, ultimately, this is just a guy who wants to make money, and he’s just doing it in this really, really bizarre way. Whereas now I look at the stuff he’s doing on Twitter, and, no, he’s bad at business too. It feels like we might get some poetic justice in the sense that this man who has been venerated and presented and also, just someone who fashioned himself as the Tony Stark character, the person who presented himself as just wanting kind of amazing progress and stuff.
Now, we kind of see that, no, this man was like a charlatan. And this man was able to build this reputation in economic circumstances that favored people like him — and also access to cheap credit, being able to put his wealth in stocks, being able to basically convince banks and investors that he was a really, really smart guy. So when he was able to exploit the system, he did it really, really well. And I’m wondering whether, as we approach a new economic scenario in which access to that type of credit is much harder, I wonder whether cracks are starting to appear. And I wonder whether that’s one of the things that is being shown as advertisers sort of pull out. One of the things I was thinking about, and I didn’t know whether you have any opinions on it, is that a lot has been made about corporate advertising being removed from Twitter, and advertisers not wanting to use the platform. And some of them have sort of presented it as kind of being in response to how Elon is managing the platform and be presented it as sort of an ethical thing in some ways. And I wonder whether actually what’s happening is that these advertisers are becoming more aware of who Elon is and also now that he has control of Twitter. I don’t know; I don’t know if this is making any sense. I’m just sort of just thinking about it as I talk, but I wonder whether his ownership of Twitter is kind of revealing that Twitter, the value of it maybe not as significant as it was sort of presented to be over like the past decade.
PM: It’s really interesting. Because I feel like, especially on the advertiser point, I’ve been wondering what the real impact here and what is driving this. I feel like in the beginning, when you had General Motors and later L’Oreal announce that they were pausing advertising temporarily, I feel like initially those advertiser step backs, or whatever you want to call them, were just kind of like: We’re going to pause for a second, see what’s going to happen here because of some of the stuff that Elon Musk is saying, but it’s most likely that we’re going to reactivate our ads in the near future. That was my feeling of what was going on there. But then, when you start to get Elon Musk attack the advertisers, be more outspoken in the rhetoric that he’s using around what he sees the platform as being, I feel like that kind of then scares off more of the advertisers who say: Okay, we need to back away from this now, because it looks like it’s going to be something that we don’t want anything to do with and that is going not so much that we don’t want anything to do with. But it’s going to look bad for us in terms of the types of customers that we want to attract. This is what advertising is all about. It’s not really about the ethics of the company or something like that.
But then I also think it’s a really easy move for them to do, because they’ve certainly talked about boycotts of ads on Facebook and things like that in the past where, in some cases, some of the companies would step back for a little while. And then they would be quickly back in once the raucous faded. But I feel like with Twitter, it’s such an inconsequential advertising player. And from what I hear, the advertisers have very little insight into the actual impact and the quality of their ads anyway. So I feel like it’s such a small spend; it’s such an inconsequential platform in terms of the way that advertisers use it and what benefit they get out of it, that it’s really easy for them just to pause and say: Well, I’ll just reallocate that money to Facebook or Google or Amazon or wherever else.
HK: It gives an easy escape clause. I’ve done work in social media and stuff as social media managing. And it was very clear that of all platforms that did well, for the type of companies I was working for, Twitter was the least effective platform at doing targeted ads, and hyper specific ads and stuff. Most of the time, we were sort of on Instagram. I imagine now, most stuff is heading towards TikTok, or Tik Tok equivalents, which is also why I think Elon is looking at video. One of the things he says, and it is true, is that Twitter doesn’t really make that much money, in terms of its value as a money making platform; it doesn’t really do that. I don’t think many social media platforms do make money. And you’ve talked about it on your show — we’ve talked about it on our shows, as well — about how a lot of these overvalued tech companies really don’t, if you kind of really break it down, they don’t really make money. And I think what’s interesting, I think, on a bigger scale, I think advertisers and banks, investors and so on are realizing that social media doesn’t really make money. Or it’s very tricky to sort of monetize it, while also presenting the idea of a social, a genuine social experience. I do think that there is a contradiction in those two things.
But for a long time, and again, I speak about this as someone who used to work in content management and social media and everything, it is very easy to bullshit how much your stuff has value in it. So I’ve told the story on my show a couple of times, but I had a job that was funded by an external charity. And so I would have to justify my job every six months or something. And I would mock up these charts, which were just like: Our average reach for each post went up by 120%, and that means it’s reached X amount of people, more people, and the click-through rates were much higher, and the read-through rates are higher. None of this made any sense, and none of us pointed to the idea that this was valuable. We weren’t even trying to make money! It was just like: Are people reading the research the organization I was working for at the time was doing. But I think because you’re sort of talking about value in the terms that these platforms set out, I think for a long time, we’ve sort of been talking about the value of platforms based on the metrics and the frameworks of which platform is set for themselves.
And I wonder whether we’re now coming to this point where you’re sort of seeing through all this and people are starting to ask questions about: Well, how does this stuff make money? What’s the return on investment and then realizing that: Oh, all of it is clout, and all of it is hype. Clout and hype is the stuff that Elon Musk runs on. That’s how he built this reputation as not just being a CEO, but a global innovator, despite the fact that he hasn’t innovated anything. And if anything has sort of prevented actual innovations in transportation and infrastructure from happening. And ultimately, that brings me back to this point, which is that this was such a stupid time to buy a social media platform. At a time when we’re seeing Facebook crumbling, and the massive platforms just being laughed off, where we’re sort of seeing other platforms that are either hemorrhaging or saying static. And like, again, as I think you’ve spoken about this on shows in different contexts, Twitter has collectively it’s one of the least popular platforms, it just has an outsized influence, because of the people who use them in specific professional contexts. And I suppose what seemingly happened is that post-2016, it became this ground in which to sort of enact various culture wars. And then at the same time, where digital news platforms, which again, lots of them were overvalued, like your BuzzFeeds, your Vices, and so on.
So 2016 to I think 2020, you see these series of constant layoffs, and cost-cutting, and everything. You go into BuzzFeed website now, it’s really, very much a shell of itself. And it’s quite remarkable to see that it’s effectively now just a shopping website. But where you then have news outlets that are not only cut to the bone, but are far more dependent on platforms like Twitter, I would liken to be an information bridge. It is a way in which to take content, but exists in other platforms and sort of bring it into the space where so-called influential people can then recycle it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that because of Twitter’s outsized influence, and Elon Musk being involved in those culture wars, I wonder whether his sort of bit to buy Twitter was really just a way to sort of signal to certain people what side he was of. Basically, I wonder whether it was initially an attempt to just sort of extend his PR exercise. And now he’s kind of been left with this platform that isn’t really worth much. And he’s trying to figure out how to make money.
But the problem is that his obsession with Twitter wasn’t monetary. Say what you will about Mark Zuckerberg, but he kind of wants to make money. That’s his kind of thing he wants; he would like Facebook to be the dominant platform or Meta to be the dominant platform. But he wants to do that broadly for commercial reasons. He is not someone who’s a poster, or he even uses his own platform. That’s kind of what makes some of it quite funny. And then you sort of look at the kind of conglomerates that own Tumblr, for example, I think Yahoo, or with TikTok. I think TikTok is a really good example of how aggressively corporate that is, in terms of like how much we’re chasing advertisers, the way in which they very early on built commercial influence, and networks and so on. But with Elon, it doesn’t feel like he’s making the point where Twitter needs to make money. But it’s the proposals that he’s suggesting feel so basic and derivative, but it doesn’t feel like he actually is taking that seriously. So ultimately, I would just conclude by saying that my kind of feeling on Elon right now is that he’s trying to present himself as being a serious tech CEO. But in reality, he just wants to post on Twitter. And what he’s sort of realizing is that you can’t do both, really.
PM: But before we talk about his posting, I want to ask you about something else, because it’s directly related to this. And I feel like I can’t not bring it up. And that’s, of course, you talked about kind of the badly considered ideas and new features that he’s supposedly going to roll out for the platform. Obviously, the one that comes to mind most of all, the one that’s received the most attention so far, is his plan to charge $8 a month, not only to get your verified blue check, but then you get priority on your posts that you post in replies and mentions and inserts. And there are a few other benefits with it that are rolled into the Twitter Blue. But what do you make of this plan to roll this out? It’s already started to roll out apparently, but the kind of benefits of it have been delayed until after the US midterm election. What do you make about the potential impact of this? What what’s it going to do to the platform?
HK: So I predicted quite early on that when this was happening that if he did own a platform, the first thing he would do would be to either eliminate people with blue checks or to redo the blue check process. And I think some of that was instilled by watching these right-wing followers, who sort of have this fixation on blue checks. You’ve probably seen the sort of like derogatory Wojak memes of those ilk, of angry liberal blue checks. I found it very funny being called a blue check lib or whatever by these people for making fairly mundane points that racism is bad and all that stuff.
PM: How dare you?
HK: That’s a bad thing, right? There was a very funny one where someone was like: Oh yeah, typical blue check lib. And I was like: What? But the blue check has sort of been this kind of weird fascination. I do think that there is a problem with the blue check system as it was before. So I have one and I got one just by default when I joined BuzzFeed in 2015. You basically just gave them your BuzzFeed email and they would get blue checks.
PM: Oh my god, I’m speaking to a blue check right now. I can’t believe it!
HK: I’ll send you an invoice for $8 afterwards. It was really cool to have one back in 2015. Because you’d get the special thing and I remember being like: Oh, yeah, I have a blue check, I’m basically like Drake right now. You got to DM celebrities, and I did DM Drake, but it was my first DM when I got my blue check. He still hasn’t responded to me. But after a while you started thinking about it, and you’re just like: Okay, so this hierarchy has been created. What was supposed to sort of be a verification system, which makes sense if you’re a really big celebrity, for example, now kind of becomes this hierarchical system where there are sort of like inequalities. And those inequalities mean, but like you do get like certain advantages, discoverable, posts, all that stuff, which can be kind of like useful for your career, or over time could be useful for your career. So inevitably, I think as Twitter sort of chased more members, more signups and stuff and more people exist on that platform, inevitably, you would end up like having these types of conflicts over like: I spend more time on Twitter than this average fucking blue check cuck; why don’t I have one? And I think that it all kind of accelerated a lot of kind of weird online, right-wing politics as well. The idea that like: Oh, you have this special privilege class, and you can then project. There was a reason why I think the fixation with Twitter, and Twitter media liberals and stuff sort of emerges around about 2016 to 2018, with Trump rhetoric becoming a lot more normalized.
So I kind of agree that the blue check situation does cause problems, and it does cause resentment. And where more of economic activity takes place on these platforms, giving certain people advantages over others for seemingly arbitrary things, probably wasn’t a good way to run that platform. So I sort of agree with Elon’s diagnosis, but the problem is is that his attempt to reform the blue check thing is really to stupid, right? If he had said something like: Yeah, if you work for a news organization, we’re going to take away your blue check. I think his followers would have loved that and probably wanted that. But instead, he’s trying to solve the contradiction of being the tech CEO but being the poster as well. So he absolutely wants to get rid of my blue check. He wants to get rid of Taylor Lorenz’s blue check. He wants to get rid of — do you have a blue check? You don’t have a blue check. Jeez.
PM: I don’t, no.
HK: You got to pay your $8 bucks!
PM: Yeah, I’m not cool enough.
HK: [Laughs]. He wants to get rid of all the sort of New York Times journalist blue checks and everything.
PM: Well, one of his new things is if someone criticizes him, he responds and says: Yeah, okay, but pay me $8.
HK: Well, we can go to his posting in a bit.
PM: Yeah, we’ll get there.
HK: But he’s trying to resolve the contradiction inside himself of being the poster or being the CEO. But the problem is very transparent. But his attempt to reform the blue check system isn’t part of broader thinking about how does this platform work? And how do like social relations exist on this platform? And how do power relations and dynamics, how do they play out? Because I think if he actually seriously did that, he would find that this platform really facilitates a lot of racism and sexism and transphobia.
PM: Don’t you mean free speech?
HK: Oh, yeah. All those things that come under actually, this stuff is good. I can imagine a whiteboard in his office being like, good stuff: racism and transphobia; bad stuff: making fun of me in a minor way.
PM: [Laughs]. No, permabans — they should never exist. They’re the worst thing in the world. Unless you impersonate me, then you are off this platform.
HK: Unless you say that Grimes divorced me and I don’t get to see the kids. And I think that’s the problem that kind of was trying to resolve that contradiction inside himself of wanting to just be like a power user, but then trying to figure out: Okay, well, how do I kind of take this idealogical premise, and then build that into a successful business model. So then what we have left is where you’ve got this pay-to-get-verified system?
PM: Where you’re not even verified.
HK: No, but even if you were, you’re having to pay quite a lot to do this. Now maybe there’s a kind of thinking in his head, which is: Okay, well, if you’re a celebrity, then your manager will pay your fee and it’s something that you’re just going to have to do, or if you’re a big company, then you can sort of afford that and expense that. But if you’re a freelance journalist or something, then it’s probably an expense you’re not going to take. But then we’re left with a platform where celebrities and corporations have the blue checks, which could be fine, but then the buy-to-play thing then means that you will see an influx of people who will pay to have the experience of outsized influence. And again, I think one of the problems that is probably worth addressing is that this is very much paying for a particular kind of experience that doesn’t really exist. So I think there’s a thinking among certain people that like: Oh, if I had a blue check, and my searches and my posts were really, really visible, then actually all the really smart things that I think and say will get more attention — and the problem is is that the woke liberals that run Twitter are actually suppressing it, which is why people don’t engage with my posts. So I can then imagine that you’ll have a lot of people who will pay into the system believing that, finally, they will be able to get the influence that they felt they deserved, and will find that the influence doesn’t really exist.
Because I can say that as a blue check person, even with those sort of privileges, the payoff is not so significant that it gives you any sense of influence, or power and so on. Maybe it used to; I definitely don’t think it does now. And I think that’s where the problem is. To a lot of the Elon fans that support the idea of being able to pay for a blue check, the idea’s really rooted in this resentment of believing that the libs have suppressed you, and the libs have made your life miserable. And now, you’ll be able to get one over, because by having the blue check that you’ll at the very least be just as important as them without sort of realizing that people who use Twitter really regularly don’t care that much about blue checks. And combine that with the way in which people with blue checks are subjected to harassment campaigns and so on, or who are just trying to desperately avoid being the main character, how posting is sort of changing in that way. So I guess, again, to summarize, it’s very much like his diagnosis isn’t entirely incorrect, but it’s powered by people who can sort of share this resentment of a worldview that doesn’t quite exist, or doesn’t exist in the way that they’re convinced it is.
PM: I think it’s really fascinating. And just to pick up, I agree with you that I feel like the verification, the blue check isn’t worth as much as it used to be right. It’s not as important as it used to be. Certainly, I’ve applied for verification before; I haven’t received it. I don’t really care; it’s not a big deal.
HK: I was going add one thing really quickly, which is kind of in relation to the value of a blue check. Because I think, again, back in 2014-15, the blue check would give you a bit of clout, and it might be kind of a fun thing. And sometimes, if you were a journalist with a blue check, suddenly ad agencies or PR companies will take you seriously. So when I got my blue check, I got invited to lunches and coffees and everything. I thought that was kind of cool. But the thing is, social media has sort of expanded so much now and become a lot more commercialized. So I would much rather do sponcon (sponsored content) on Instagram for stuff and get material things from it, than have this blue check if it doesn’t really yield me that much anymore. So I think that economies of influence across platforms have changed so much that I think there needs to be this much broader conversation about, considering how much time we spend on these platforms, what are we actually getting from that? And I think with a Twitter blue check, it’s literally just clout, if that. Whereas if you’re TikTok famous, then you can be in Netflix films and get invited to Hollywood parties and stuff. And if you’re doing sponcon on Instagram, at least you’ll get you loot boxes or whatever. Genuinely, it’s very funny to me that Elon is kind of thing is like: You’ve got to pay to have like this sort of simulation of clout that doesn’t really exist on the platform anymore.
PM: I feel like the part of it that I still need to see how it’s going to play out but has been more concerned than the verification thing. Certainly there’s the opportunity there for impersonation and things like that, and maybe that will be an issue. We’ll see what happens there, especially where he’s gutted part of the moderation team and things like that. But I feel like the other piece of it is the priority on the posts, and what that is actually going to look like in practice when it is implemented. And so my concern, then, is that he’s pissing off all the liberals and the people on the left, they don’t subscribe. And so then you have people on the right and his cult getting their posts kind of further boosted because they’re buying into this service. But I think that still remains to be seen how it actually works in practice, and what’s actually going to happen with it, how it’s actually going to work. So it’s hard to say for sure right now what that’s going to mean.
HK: But he kind of also misses the point of how the platform and how social relations on the platform work anyway.
PM: Absolutely. Well, I would say it’s an idea that comes out of Musk’s specific experience where his mentions are full of crypto scammers and shit like that. And so he wants the people who like him who are going to pay for the service to kind of rise to the top, it’s this idea of the mentions from someone who gets 1000s of people replying to every post that he posts, rather than the average user experience, which is nothing like that.
HK: And I think for the average user, I don’t know if they actually care that much about like blue checks or not. So you think about, I don’t know, in England, football Twitter for example. Or just kind of niche hobbyists, all those things, they have the advantage of Twitter is the discoverability component of like: Oh, people who like the same stuff as me or people who are interested in this football match, and so on. I’ve sort have looked at football Twitter and stuff during kind of other bits of work that I’ve done, and blue checks and fixations on symbols and symbology doesn’t really come up. It’s only really a sort of fixated in politics, media Twitter, of which I don’t feel there’s enough Elon supporters to be able to be profitable. But I think I was also going to add that it kind of misses the point of social relation, how even that section of Twitter operates. Because my thinking is, among sort of certain right-wing accounts and stuff, they enjoy dunking or trying to dunk on blue checks, and then they enjoy responding and being mad at Taylor Lorenz’s posts and all that stuff. It works in that kind of reactive way because Elon is fans are basically all reactive. And the whole sort of perception of Elon as being this warrior against the libs comes from this sense of feeling resentful, and feeling as if the libs have kind of made your life miserable. And therefore, you’re seeking out that conflict.
What happens when you kind of supposedly win? So what happens when the libs lose their blue checks, or many of them just decide to exit the platform. And then what you’re left with is like a shell of itself. It looks like Twitter, and it functions like Twitter. But the reason why certain Elan fans definitely wanted kind of come on there, that no longer exists. And then all of a sudden, it doesn’t become fun. And in the meantime, in order to have all your advantages, you’ve got to pay into it. But then even when you get those advantages, what are you going to really do with it? Also, what happens when these users are at the receiving end of those advantages, they get like 10 DMs a day, but all those DMs are like accounts being like: Hey, cool project, with the crypto aesthetics and everything. I can imagine that will get quite annoying as well. It’s a really bizarre solution. But also the problems of it feels so obvious. Maybe we use it fairly regularly, and I imagine that we’ve been on the platform for a long time. And we’ve also seen platforms live and die and all that stuff. So you can sort of notice patterns and everything. And I don’t know whether Elon recognizes that. Again, it all comes back to the fact that he’s wrestling with this internal contradiction of trying to be tech platform CEO, but also just really wanting to be like a poster that gets loads of engagement. And I just feel like the two don’t reconcile.
PM: I think that’s a really great segue because we’ve been talking about Elon Musk, the CEO and what is what his acquisition is going to mean for this company. But what do you make of Elon Musk, the poster? What do you make of his posts and how that has evolved over time?
HK: Well, he’s very openly a Reddit guy, right? We did a 10k posts on this, I think, at some point last year, where our friend Sophie came on to talk about his fixation with Roko’s Basilisk, which I still don’t fully understand, so apologies to your listeners if I butcher it. But Roko’s Basilisk was considered to be the most terrifying thought experiments of all time. It was like on the Something Awful forums. I wrote down like a summary of what it was I’m just trying to find it because this was a conversation that he had with Grimes online before they started hooking up or whatever.
HK: Yeah, that’s kind of how they interacted online and before they were dating and everything. So, the theory is pretty dense. But for the purposes of the thought experiment, it can be treated as a hypothetical program that causes an artificial super intelligence to optimize his actions for human good. If a super intelligence makes all its choices based on which one is best suited for achieving “human good,” it will never stop pursuing that goal, because things could always be a bit better. And because there’s no way to actually create a computer program to do human good, the AI will end up making decisions that seem counterintuitive to that goal from a human perspective. So just killing all humans that didn’t help bring it into existence as soon as possible. But so from basically I suppose, the Roko’s Basilisk situation is — I genuinely don’t understand thekind of mechanics of it — but what I do know is that Elon Musk was kind of obsessed with it, when he was a forums poster, and it fit into this kind of weird libertarian politics that he was into. But the point of the story was, he was a forums guy. And like that type of forums guy that will sort of spend ages and ages posting and arguing with everyone and getting mad and doing flame wars and all that stuff.
So in one way, what does this sort of tell us? In one way, I think Elon’s relentless posting mirrors that type of forum styles. So if you compare him to other social media CEOs, and I guess the obvious comparison is Zuckerberg. So Zuckerberg’s whole thing is very kind of polished, very corporatized, trying to basically use corporate speak in order to promote his product, with the idea kind of being that he just wants to capture as many users as possible, and keep people on board as much as he can, which is kind of where you then get Meta, which is the visual embodiment of that type of very polished, very corporate speak into a sort of VR system, but just kind of looks really odd. Again, with TikTok they have like a similar approach to it. But their thing is very much that TikTok is just a platform and you can kind of create loads of different things. And we have advertising partnerships, influencer partnerships and stuff, again, very sort of corporately driven. Elon is, as the face of the company right now, is like: What if you gave Twitter to the most annoying person on Reddit, and see if they can kind of run a company?
So he’s posting all the time. He’s trying to hide the fact that he’s angry, but it doesn’t quite get there. As you mentioned, when he responds to people, he responds to specific accounts of people who are clearly either very sympathetic to him. But he won’t respond to any sort of like low, B account. He’s talking to right-wing influencers, for the most part, knowing that they have this influence on the platform that he’s on. And I guess I wonder whether like, there’s a strategic reason for that, or whatever or it’s just like: This kind of account with 50,000 followers is telling me that I’m a really cool guy, so I should sort of engage with them. Which again, it’s a very poster thing to do to be enamored by people with big follower accounts, or blue checks, for example.
PM: It doesn’t seem like he’s just going for accounts that have a particular following or something like that. I feel like the trend is so much that he’s often responding to these really right-wing accounts. It seems very specific that these are the types of people who he is following posts by, who have the ideas that he is increasingly more outwardly associated with, if not, whether he’s held that internally or not, for a long time. It’s harder to say, I guess.
HK: And it’s sort of speaks of him being very aware of the discourse or in certain aspects of the discourse. But at the same time, he’s also a really bad poster. So when he posts memes, they are this really low quality, often watermarked memes. They’re not quite dad jokes, but they’re the jokes of an adult who is on the beginning stages of being radicalized online. So they start sharing Wojak memes, even though they’re not quite sure how suitable it is. Or he’ll sort of like post something that he found fun. Again, very much like if you’re a parent or a grandparent receive something on WhatsApp, and they thought it was funny, they would then copy and paste that and post it onto whatever social media feed they’re on. It sort of feels like, in one way, he’s hyper aware of some of the discourse or the political discourse, but in other ways, he’s kind of really behind on the visuals or where the culture war is actually at the moment. So I compare that to someone like Peter Thiel, for example, who isn’t a poster but is very, very aware of much more niche right-wing discourses, which is also partly why he goes away and funds him. So he’s basically out and he’s giving funds to people who he knows are much better posters than him. And again, I think one of the solutions for Elon is like, you should just outsource your kind of you should just outsource all your content to people who know what they’re doing.
PM: Are you looking for a job?
HK: Yeah, I’m looking. After this tour, I’m thinking about my career positions.
PM: Elon! Elon! Got your social media manager right here.
HK: I’ve given him a lot! My advice to him yesterday, which I thought was actually really good advice if he wants to revive the platform, he doesn’t need a tech solution. What he needs to do is feed the hogs on this platform. So what you need to do is combine all the worst discourses into just one thing, and make people so mad online about this conceptual thing, that he’s just shoots engagement. So he needs to talk about The Last Jedi; he needs to talk about having ADHD; he needs to talk about how age gaps — just everything, all the stuff that has made people mad in the past. He just needs to post Jungkook onto Twitter and just get all the K-pop stands just flooding in there. And again, it’s kind of a joke, but it’s sort of serious in the way where he needs to actually understand how this platform works and what Twitter is useful for. Because I know that this isn’t necessarily a part of the Musk side of the episode, but when I think about the value of Twitter, I know there are people who are like: Oh, yeah, Twitter is a horrible platform; if it dies soon, then great, we’ll finally get to move on. But if you think about all the other platforms and other platforms’ strategies, we’re doing this much wider societal pivot to video. So you’ve got your TikTok, Instagram, which is just going heavy on reels, Facebook, which is going to be like a VR platform, or wants to be a VR platform. But there aren’t really many text platforms anymore. And the thing that I like about Twitter is that it is a text platform. And it is refreshing to kind of be away from this market driven demand to monetize everything through video, which again, having been through that as a journalist and being laid off, and the whole pivot to video type of stuff, it brings out stuff in me. And so Twitter, I think, is important because of that distinction.
One of the other kind of Elon Musk CEO things that is coming out is that he’s now promoting the idea that if you go on to Twitter Blue, you can upload videos that are 45 minutes to an hour long. So even he’s looking towards the pivot to video thing, even though I don’t really take that that seriously. But it’s kind of like Twitter is useful because of that distinction. And so the person who runs it should sort of be aware of that and be aware of why people like it for that reason. And that sort of feels like the bigger problem. Elon’s whole kind of thing at the moment — he’s diagnosing the problems as just basically saying there is an elite class of liberals who have these advantages on this platform. And they use those advantages to make fun of me, but by extension, or also all the people who like follow me and respect me and all those things. But that’s not the key problem of this platform. The key problem of this platform is like much more to do with just the environment in which social media exists in at the moment.
PM: No, absolutely. And I completely agree with you with the fact that Twitter is kind of the only real text platform that’s left. And we’re thinking about social media platforms where we communicate and things like that. I don’t want to be taken photos of myself and videos of myself all the time just to engage in these kinds of discourses and conversations. It’s very different and distinct from what is available on Twitter. And it feels like if Twitter goes away, then that is just kind of lost. Sure, there’s the conversation about going to Mastodon instead or something like that. But it does feel like if Twitter dies, that form of kind of social media as a dominant form of social media kind of goes away.
HK: And I think that’s where the bigger problem is. Because I think the way that people have framed it has been like: Oh, Twitter is now being taken over by like the right-wing, and therefore we need to move to like a left-wing alternative. And like, I think the problem is that we risk the same problem as the right-wingers who felt that Twitter was too liberal, so they moved on to like Truth Social and Gab and all that stuff, which, ultimately both those platforms basically were flooded in with people who got banned from Twitter and then just used it to post Twitter screenshots.
PM: Which is a lot of what Mastodon is right now — people mirroring their tweets.
HK: I’ve never been on Mastodon so I don’t really know what it’s like. But I’m not surprised that that’s the case. We tend to spark these questions about, well, what makes Twitter a useful platform and what makes it an important bit of digital infrastructure? It’s not to say that if you left, then that’s a problem or if you stay, that’s a problem. But I think the bigger issue really is that the death of it does mean that all we’ve probably left is video platforms. But also video platforms that are much more like — I suppose, again, it’s very much like we’re existing in a broader social media climate, and an expanding content economy where everything then needs to be monetized and made into content. And the theme with the video being considered to be valuable. And again, this is a problem in the same way that media pivot to video was where you found out that actually, the video really isn’t as valuable as these platform say, is that what is sort of the end game of trying to get people to post as much audio visual content as possible? Well, it’s very good for making surveillance tools. It’s very good for the police. It’s very good for arms of the state that wants to criminalize people, especially people who are not cisgendered white men.
What you’re then doing is creating a social media climate, which is much more hyper-surveilled, and much more securitized, and far more restrictive, as well. The stakes of that feel so much higher that, in some ways, I’m not saying that Twitter is the last kind of barrier, and we need to keep it stable otherwise the gates of hell are going to break loose. All I’m saying is that Elon taking over Twitter certainly is a problem. But it is a problem within a much broader context of the Internet, and communication tech being increasingly monopolized, and then also just being made far more restrictive. And that should be a thing that sort of concerns us all. And we should really be having conversations about like: What is digital infrastructure? And how do like models of ownership and stuff operate, or what alternative models of ownership could be used facilitate? And you know much more about this than I do; you’ve done a lot of work on this, much more work on this than I do. So I will leave that to you. But to me, that sort of feels like the kind of conversation we should be heading towards in the aftermath of the Elon thing.
PM: And I think it’s a much more productive discussion than just: Oh, Elon Musk took over Twitter, move to Mastodon, that’s our big solution to what’s going on here. I think it’s a discussion that needs to be had, we’ll see if it’s actually one that that ends up happening. To close off our conversation, where do you think this all goes next? Whether it’s with Twitter, with social media more broadly — what direction are we heading in?
HK: It’s really hard to say. Because there’s this part of me that wonders whether it would have been better for Elon to just mostly maintain Twitter the way it was, and just use his CEO position to do asinine tweets about the stuff that he’s doing right now. I don’t think that Twitter is going to collapse or it’s going to sort of crumble. But again I think the contradiction inside Elon of being the poster and the tech CEO, it’ll change how Twitter functions. And it won’t change it in the way of suddenly it will become a lot more right-wing, because I think that stuff has sort of been obvious for a long time. I wonder whether it’s going to be more like the website of The Independent in the UK. So I don’t know whether you’ve ever been on to The Independent website. But it’s basically impossible to use, because the moment you go on it, you’re sort of inundated with advertising. And there’s way too much going on, and it’s just an unpleasant user experience. And I suppose another example is you go on your Facebook wall. And it’s a similar situation, where all the stuff that’s on your wall that’s supposed to reflect your interests don’t really at all, because you’ve invited advertisers to pay to become more influential. And you’ve got creators who are able to flood the system with content to make their stuff more visible. And as a result, your user experience worsens.
And I imagine that Twitter might become like that, and where you might then have an exodus, not necessarily to Tik Tok, but maybe to a microblogging competitor or something — just because the user experience kind of isn’t rewarding. So I wonder whether it will become more likely that Twitter will sort of become this place where you’ll see a lot of weird posts, where you’ll see a lot of things that are kind of familiar to you, but you’re just not interested in, and where I kind of also wonder whether like, a lack of an alternative or sort of mean, but the way in which we use Twitter will change as well. So I don’t know if you use Facebook or how you use it, I still have a Facebook account, but I use it mostly to contact a few of my friends and family members who use it mostly. So when I go in there, I will search for someone and I’ll message them, or I’ll send them a happy birthday message or something. And then I’ll just leave it. I won’t scroll around or anything. And I wonder whether Twitter will be like that, where we’ll use it to contact specific people, or we’ll use it because of a group chat function, but the wall stuff doesn’t really matter, because we don’t really use it anyway.
So I do wonder whether it’ll exist because it has to, because it’s such a big part of a kind of content economy thing, but until an alternative that actually has a good user interface operates, it will be much more likely that we will use it as maybe a WhatsApp thing, maybe just a contact book or something like that. Maybe that will change the way in which the user experience operates. And I wonder whether that will extend to social media, as well, because again, I don’t think that the whole pivot to video stuff is tenable in the long term. We’re sort of seeing fractures of it right now — the demands of platforms for people to continue to make loads and loads of content, and it results in burnout and stuff like that. It’s kind of becoming a societal problem. And I wonder whether that will change the way in which platforms and creators sort of interact with each other and their expectations of each other. Again, that’s a much bigger conversation that we don’t need to go into. So ultimately, to kind of summarize, I don’t think there’s going to be an exodus. I think that it will survive in some form. But I just think that the timeline functions of Twitter will become so confusing and exhausting. But we will literally just use these platforms as a way to contact our friends, and that’s it. Maybe I’m wrong — I probably am.
PM: Who knows, right? But it is fascinating to think about how it could change what the possible maturation of this platform is going to look like when we think about Facebook in particular. And also, as you say, obviously, I post a lot on Twitter, and I mainly only use Twitter; I don’t really use the other ones. And the prospect of something happening to Twitter makes me think now do I need to really learn or try to use a TikTok or an Instagram or something like that. And it’s just not compelling to me.
HK: I was going to say this — this is the other thing too. Because for us, our podcast and our shows and stuff like our audience sort of exists, and I think will continue to exist on Twitter. And we’ve been having conversations like you know, the TF guys, and also justl people I work with on other things about like: Oh, should we like be going to Instagram? What other platforms can be used? We were sort of looking at Substack options. I have a Substack that I don’t really update very often, but RSS feeds, mailing lists, and so on are also like alternatives as well. I think one interesting thing might be whether stuff like Patreon, or subscriber services basically, will expand to ape Twitter features. I think Substack has already done that — I’ve been getting a bunch of emails from Substacks that I follow that are inviting me to chat rooms and stuff. Discord is another example of that too. So I wonder whether if you’re a creator, if you’re existing in the Creator economy, the absence of Twitter will mean that you’ll rely much more on your subscriber based services. And so you’ll have these mini social networks that exist on Discord, Patreon, and so on, which kind of revolve around an individual and the hyper personalization, which has some advantages, I guess, in the sense of you don’t have to deal with your content ending up in a part of Twitter that it shouldn’t be, and then having to deal with being a main character or being noticed, dealing with all the bullshit that comes with people who the tweet wasn’t intended for deciding that they’re going to make your life horrible.
The negative side of that, especially as a creative, is that you are facilitating an environment of enhanced parasociality, where I wonder whether — again, this is sort of a projection, but from experience as well — I wonder whether that will mean your subscribers or the people who are your patrons and stuff will feel like much more entitled to being part of your online social media experience, for lack of a better term. And that will shift the way in which people consume content, but also the way in which people relate to the people that they pay. This kind of feeds into a broader question around transactional interactions online. And I think one of the great things about Twitter is, that because of the perception that it was free, communicating with people didn’t really feel like a transaction, it didn’t really feel like there was a sort of monetary cost to it. It simulated a social experience. And I wonder whether a post-Twitter Internet will remove that because, foundationally, the premise of it is very much that everything has a transaction. And so in order for you to talk to me, you need to pay me five bucks a month to get through my paywall, or you need to pay for this episode, or you need to pay for this video. Or it needs to sort of be a monetary reason for putting something on the Internet. And so you’ll just have a much more financialized online experience. And obviously, it’ll be a very different Internet to what we’ve been used to.
PM: No, absolutely. And these are things that Musk has been talking about as well, to add to Twitter. And certainly, those are things that I’m sure a lot of people are thinking about right now as we consider what this whole future is going to look like as Musk takes over Twitter. But Hussein, this was a fantastic conversation. I think we delved into so many different aspects of what could be happening with Twitter with Musk himself, all of the key things in this moment where he’s taking over Twitter, and we’re all just kind of balking at what is actually going on now. But thanks so much for taking the time, for joining me from Australia! I really appreciate it.
HK: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me!