December 20, 2022

Elon Musk and Twitter seem to be circling the drain. When Musk banned any links to Twitter competitors on Sunday, prompting criticism even from former allies and a humiliating climbdown later that day, it appeared as if Musk had fully jumped the shark, transforming from a wily trickster into the desperate corporate Mussolini that his critics have long accused him of being. But Musk’s inability to set forth any credible vision for Twitter doesn’t mark him as some sort of failed evil mastermind. Rather, it reveals something peculiar about the ungovernability of Twitter and of online services in general — and about Musk’s total failure to understand their nature.

First off: it is clearly absurd to claim that Musk is playing some N-dimensional chess game with his antics at Twitter. Musk loves to be bold, and he has been uncommonly lucky, making his fortune from PayPal’s success despite being ousted twice and suffering little from the failures of quixotic efforts like Neuralink and the Boring Company. But Musk’s usual management strategy — creating a crisis and then yelling at people until it is fixed — is uniquely unsuited to Twitter. If there are any lessons to be learned from the platform’s accelerating decline, they are to be found in the failure of this strategy.

This failure is rooted in the paradoxical nature of being a “thought leader” on a public platform. Few people have their every move covered to the extent that Musk does, and it’s tempting to think that he is setting the agenda. Musk surely believes this about himself, at least part of the time. His real skill, however, is not in generating ideas and selling them to the masses — it’s in jumping on already-growing trends and giving them a little (or not-so-little) shove in order to make himself the face of them.

Consider his takeover of Twitter. A badly-run and barely profitable company proved itself incapable of managing the highest-profile public forum in the world, creating chronic dissatisfaction among its users. For Musk, it was fairly easy to leverage his public persona to give a face to that dissatisfaction and to hold out the possibility of a solution. Vague gestures at “free speech” — since revealed to be absolute nonsense — were enough to attract the lumpen Right, even as the progressive Left was already losing its investment in Twitter’s future as online discourse fractured into hermetic subcultures that preferred not to even be aware of one another. And the thin blue-check line of verified users, consisting of many media elites and celebrities, remained sufficiently invested in Twitter to stick around after Musk’s purchase and the imbroglios began.

But as Musk quickly discovered, serving as a figurehead for inchoate popular anger is one thing, and governing a platform is quite another. When Musk banned a number of journalists covering him who had supposedly “doxxed my exact location in real-time”, the hypocrisy over the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” was certainly rich, but equally mystifying was some of those journalists continuing to use the platform after being unbanned, undermining their own outrage. No one came out well in the conflict, and Musk ultimately discovered that he had a lot less power than he thought — and that it wasn’t going to be easy to improve on the performance of Twitter’s inept old management. And his fans, though numerous, weren’t numerous or obedient enough to power his new vision of Twitter, as he learned when he put the matter to a poll.

Musk is, as I have suggested, a trickster, but most tricksters would realise they’re not in the business of administering the world’s largest public forum. Musk’s failure to do so betrays, ultimately, his failure to see that the power he wanted to grab wasn’t actually there. He seized control from Twitter’s board and management by purchasing the company. He seized control from its employees by firing many of them and bullying those who remained. He seized control from the media elite that annoyed him by demeaning them, trying to charge them subscription fees for verification, and banning them. And yet none of those moves actually gave him control of anything. He couldn’t seize Twitter itself, that weird cyborg monster of hundreds of millions of people connected in real time via unpredictable and unreliable algorithms. Running Twitter is not like running Tesla. It is closer to running an economy, where self-organisation is not just one possibility but the only possibility.

Twitter’s old management clearly couldn’t tame that beast. Musk didn’t seem to realise that in arguing against Twitter’s mismanagement, he was undermining his own claim that he could do any better. The chaos, inconsistencies, and poor judgments of Twitter’s old regime, as revealed in the internal Twitter files leaked with Musk’s approval to Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi, are not the nothingburgers that Musk-haters would have them be, but neither do they give any indication that Musk, or anyone else, could do any better. Social networks are fundamentally ungovernable, admitting to only approximate regulation, and as the fastest and most open of the lot, Twitter was the most ungovernable of all. That problem, whether on Twitter or on its successor services, is not going to go away, even if Musk does.

Instead, what we have been witnessing over the past few months is Musk receiving a crash course in the fundamental problem with administering social networks: there is no real power to be held, or at least none that can be exercised in anything resembling a straightforward way. This means that whoever takes the reins, there can be no heroes, only more and less catastrophic failures. As with Twitter itself, the only way to win is not to play.