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Three Stories About the Death of Twitter
Twitter's Red Wedding was something to behold.
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1. Angry Birds
Friday was Twitter’s Red Wedding with Elon Musk firing something like half of the company. It was so bad that Twitter closed the offices for the day and had everyone stay home. Employees discovered whether they were fired or not-fired by whether their work-email suddenly 404’d or kept.
That’s no way to run a railroad.
Elon Musk has turned Twitter from a minimally-functioning company into a distressed asset. And he did it in a week.
Kind of impressive, actually. Let’s talk about it.
First up is Dave Karpf’s newsletter:
Elon’s first week running Twitter has gone worse than I expected. I said last week that I thought the platform would be pretty much unchanged in 1-3 months and then effectively dead within a year. Now it’s looking like it’ll be pretty different in 1-3 weeks and effectively dead within six months. (Nice job, Elon. You spent $44 billion to bring back the fail whale.)
Elon, it seems, is on tilt.
I’ve played a fair amount of poker over the years. One thing you sometimes see at the card table is a pretty good player who, once they’ve lost a good chunk of money, starts trying too hard to win their money back very fast. Bad luck early begets bad decisions late. . . .
Consider this scenario: imagine Elon waits a month, insisting they’re conducting a thorough product review and developing a long-term strategy for growth, sustainability, and profitability. Then he announces that their first major initiative is to revamp and improve the existing Twitter Blue service. The price will go up from $5/month to $8/month. It will include an additional verification pathway, along with a couple other new features. He also describes how this is going to fit into their strategy to combat spammers and scammers.
I suspect that would’ve gone over pretty well. They would need to come up with a plan for how new-verified meshes with old-verified (as Jason Goldman suggested on Twitter, you can easily solve this by making the check marks different colors). They would need to set the right price point ($8/month, not $20/month). They would need the other features to be compelling. But it all sounds like the type of thing that Twitter-as-we-know-it might do if it was better-managed. Sure doesn’t sound like a platform-ending nightmare.
Compare that scenario to how Elon (And Calcanis, and David Sacks) actually framed their idea this week: (1) Leaked the proposal to scrap the old verification system and start charging power users $20/month for their previously-free verification badge. (2) bargained down to $8/month in a reply to Stephen King because “We need to pay the bills somehow!” (3) Insisted this was a grand populist move, describing the current setup as “Twitter’s lords and peasants system.” (4) Tweeting “you get what you pay for.” (5) Tweeting “To all complainers, please continue complaining, but it will cost $8.” (6) Retweeting David Sacks’s tweet “The entitled elite is not mad that they have to pay $8/month. They’re mad that anyone can pay $8/month.”
This is maybe the worst imaginable way to frame the new Twitter Blue. Musk is effectively saying “hey, I spent $44 billion to own this thing, and have to come up with an extra billion per year to cover the debt payments. We’re all going to have to chip in to make this work. Don’t be cheapskates, alright?” Then he’s describing the power-users who are the platform’s most valuable asset (for free) as elitist snobs who need to start paying to keep the privileges they’ve been given.
This is exactly the dynamic I was talking about last week when I said that while it was theoretically possible that Musk could improve Twitter, in practice, the $13 billion debt load he saddled the company with makes improvement unlikely. He needs cashflow über alles.
That’s why he’s firing half the staff to save on outflows and simultaneously thrashing about trying to juice revenue. It’s not going to work. You cannot ship new products for a mature platform, on the fly, with half the workforce (and institutional knowledge) gone.
Another reason why it probably wouldn’t work is even in the best of circumstance, Twitter isn’t really a business. It’s a utility. And its value is derived almost entirely from its position as a utility.
The rap on Twitter has always been, “This is a poorly-managed company. They don’t ship products. They don’t innovate. That’s why they’re the ugly-duckling of the Web 2.0 brood.”
I’ve never thought this was right. Twitter is close to utility status. To believe that there’s a gigantic, hidden store of value in Twitter that was just waiting to be unlocked by an eccentric genius—after 16 years as a company—is to disbelieve in the efficiency of markets.
Anyway, more Karpf:
Elon is planning to roll this new verification system out next week. Expect flaws. Expect bugs. Expect exploits. There is a reason why you don’t rush major systemic changes like this. Elon is wrecking the platform he just bought because he keeps trying to make his money back all at once. . . .
Advertisers are already fleeing Twitter. The company’s primary revenue stream is declining. Elon, predictably, has decided to blame “activist groups,” as though he is some sort of cancel culture victim. . . .
This is all a predictable outcome of Elon’s first week of chaos. What advertisers are asking for is assurance that the company will remain basically unchanged. What advertisers are seeing is a 500% increase in use of the n-word, and Musk himself tweeting a fever-swamp conspiracy theory, and Musk announcing that the old verification system is going to be scrapped, details on how they’ll manage misinformation and impersonation TBD, and Musk firing half of the company, decimating the content moderation team.
Karpf makes the following observation:
I suspect we’re going to learn that surveillance capitalism becomes a much less effective business model during a tech crash.
I agree. I would propose a corollary: We’re going to learn that ZIRP made a lot of eccentric weirdos look like they were business geniuses.
2. Bird Brain
Max Read remembers the bad old days of Twitter:
It can be hard to remember this, but in the early years of Twitter roughly 90 percent of accounts were celebrity “parody” accounts -- parody in the thinnest, most liability-denying sense of the term -- called things like “@WillFerralREAL” or “OFFICIAL Kat Williams” or “Official Ted (Real).” For the most part, real celebrities were not on Twitter, and these accounts, which were not affiliated at all with Will Ferrell or Kat Williams or Ted, the talking bear from the Seth MacFarlane movie Ted, were designed to meet the hopes and expectations of inattentive fans with plagiarized one-liners (or, worse, AIM away-message type platitudes) in order to amass an audience that could be exploited for money, say by selling tweets directly.
Archeological traces of this era still persist, like the unforgettable fact that the Twitter handle from which Donald Trump preferred to communicate as president and commander-in-chief was “@realDonaldTrump,” because when he joined Twitter in 2009 someone had already established a “parody account” at @donaldtrump . . . The feature that makes this great dance of tragedy and mediocrity possible is “verification”: The process through which Twitter assigns a special blue check-mark to accounts officially attached to prominent people and institutions. . . .
[A]t the moment of the feature’s origin, Twitter’s main concerns were less “foreign influence campaigns” or “political misinformation” or “free speech” or whatever, and more “how can we get Tony LaRussa to stop suing us?”
The burning need in 2009 to help users differentiate between @EllenOFFICIAL and Ellen Degeneres has largely been forgotten because in the years between beloved rapper Kanye West saying he would never join Twitter over the fake Kanyes on the platform and controversial rapper Kanye West being suspended from Twitter for saying he would go “defcon 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” -- a period during which “verified accounts” have become an ordering principle across most social media platforms -- verification has become a strangely charged idea on Twitter, one of many subjects at the center of a partisan war between two broad camps of Twitter power users, an ongoing and generally pointless struggle between a deeply annoying SJW-Democrat-media confederation and an impossibly witless IDW-Republican-tech coalition that seems to be both the worst thing on the site and also the thing it is specifically designed to foment.
At some point in the next few weeks the blue-check on Twitter is going to morph from being an identification marker to a marker of who’s a sucker and who isn’t.
The problem for Twitter is that Musk and his tech bro friends think that Twitter verification delivered value primarily to the people who are verified. (Projection. It’s always projection with guys like this.)
In reality, the blue check drives value primarily to the user base who is consuming the product.
By incentivizing the Famous People not to get blue checks (suckers!) who will be incentivized to get verified? The kind of people who could never have gotten a blue-check in earlier times: spammers and trolls.
Musk’s subscription gambit will decrease his platform’s utility for the rest of the user base.
On Friday afternoon, former NFL player and Twitter blue checker Chris Kluwe changed his screen name and profile pic to impersonate Elon Musk. Hilarity ensued.
What could possibly go wrong?
3. Gone Bird
Alex Thomas is coming to grips with leaving Twitter:
Four years ago, I deleted Facebook. Three years ago, I deleted Instagram. Two years ago, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone and after each subsequent log-off, I felt noticeably better. And so at this moment; at the end of Twitter as we know it, I feel fine.
But why? Why feel fine? I ask. Twitter was awesome, the defining space of our generation. Our lives on Twitter and “the grid” — that social media metaverse where we pruned our personas like bonsai trees — were something that our parents couldn’t have imagined. It was new and people like new when everybody is participating. But new can be exhausting; because eventually, it begins to feel old. . . .
When we first arrived, Twitter was a fun place. People were funny, smart and edgy. At some point, we stumbled across the rather obvious realization that we were the product and we’re not getting a dime for our time. That’s a fucked-up realization but probably even more fucked-up was our reaction: of course they’re selling our data but who honestly gives a shit? Twitter was fun, we ran a quick cost-benefit and decided we still loved the grid.
Yes, in the early years, Twitter was fun. Not MySpace-fun but better than Facebook. It was a joke we were all in on. Sure there were assholes but it was a party and any decent party has a few assholes to liven up the mood. When Twitter stumbled into the real-world, it was weird but it didn’t break anything.
The blue bird stopped being fun when we elected a Twitter president and when he used the platform to spur his followers into attempting to overthrow American democracy. And then it was very much not-fun.
January 6th, changed a lot of things — like 9/11, there’s an America before Jan 6th and an America after Jan 6th. And those two places look markedly different. I remember being outside the Capitol on that day and looking into the furious eyes of the people that Trump brought to Washington and realizing that the country wasn’t ever going to be the same. Something was irrevocably broken in America and, if we’re being honest, Twitter probably bore some responsibility in the wreckage. . . .
I had thought about giving it up entirely, deleting Twitter. I’ve deleted my account for months at a time before and found it’s wonderful. But Elon buying the site has offered me (as a soon-to-be-former blue check) one final bit of joy — the richest man in the world wants me to pay him eight dollars to retain an outdated status symbol. And I get to tell him lol no, fuck you and your dumpster fire.
And that feels better than fine. It feels pretty good.
I don’t know about you, but I agree with pretty much all of that. Read the whole thing.
If Twitter dies, then what? I don’t know that there has to be an answer.
Network effects are powerful and cannot be manufactured at will. Maybe there is no “next” Twitter. It could be that the youngs are already deep into TikTok and never coming back. The olds will die before they leave Facebook. The MAGAs are going to Truth/Parler/Gettr. The influencers are already on Instagram. The Twitter hive-mind could just sort of dissipate and then the media pros will move to Substack, where they can post as much as they want, just at a slower cadence, and maybe even make a couple bucks on the side.
That’s one possible future.
There are other paths. A new platform emerges, could gather the essential first-movers, and eventually replicate something like Twitter’s niche. Or an existing platform (most likely TikTok) could absorb people leaving Twitter by shipping a new feature, or having Twitter users evolve their behavior.
Unfortunately, even if Twitter does die, it won’t be fast enough to help us with 2024. The platform is likely to still be capable of sowing discord and disinformation 24 months from now. Twitter will die and its final act of vengeance will be helping put Donald Trump in the White House again.
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