May 18, 2023

Perhaps Elon Musk has no idea what he’s doing. That is the possibility that has dawned on many, since the angel investor took the reins of Twitter (including the platform’s founder Jack Dorsey). Musk’s $44 billion acquisition was greeted with outsized expectations, of course. But the prevailing view is that his tenure as CEO has amounted to nothing more than a series of slapdash executive decisions.

But amid widespread ridicule of his monetisation schemes, plummeting ad revenue, and declining investor confidence, Musk decided (wisely) to change course, announcing that he would hand over day-to-day operations to new CEO Linda Yaccarino; the news came, just after Tucker Carlson announced last week that he was restarting his show on Twitter. These dramatic moves signal a prospective turnaround in the fortunes of the struggling social media giant. Musk will stay on as executive chair and CTO, continuing to set the platform’s overall course.

Throughout all the arbitrary changes in company policy so far, it is important to remember that Musk has, in fact, been working from a larger vision — one that he had stated plainly in October, just as he took the helm at Twitter. “Buying Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app,” he declared. Last month, it was revealed that Musk had merged Twitter into a shell company bearing the enigmatic name “X Corp”. It is part of a set of holding entities in Delaware, each with a variation on the brand name,“X Holdings”. But what exactly is “X”?

Quite simply, an everything app integrates a much larger range of functions than are usually found in a single app, and in doing so become absolutely essential to everyday life. It may enable messaging, social networking, peer-to-peer payment, shopping, ordering meals, ridesharing, exchanging QR business cards. Tencent’s WeChat, which is used by Chinese citizens for all these purposes and more, comes closest to the ideal of a “Swiss army knife” app. It is the model that Musk wishes to emulate.

If a Chinese citizen picks up his phone to interact with others online or undertake a commercial transaction of any kind, chances are he is doing it through an interface provided by WeChat. It goes without saying that the Chinese surveillance state therefore has an easier time monitoring information. Indeed, in 2018, WeChat was enlisted by the Chinese government as the vessel for its electronic identification system. And where most Americans might recoil at such an extreme concentration of unaccountable economic and technological power in the hands of a single firm, Musk apparently sees it as a positive development that could and should be replicated in the West. “If you’re in China, you kind of live on WeChat,” he has commented. “It’s really an excellent app, and we don’t have anything like that outside of China.”

Few have reckoned with the significance of Musk’s ambition to turn Twitter into something like Tencent. He may yet prove too undisciplined to pull it off; but Twitter probably has enough institutional weight, and Musk enough wealth and time, to survive multiple false starts. Indeed, the appointment of Yaccarino as CEO may be the stabiliser needed after nearly seven erratic months of Musk’s direct rule, while Tucker’s migration to Twitter places the platform in the novel position of being able to compete with cable news for the attention of its many millions of older viewers (who may now be enticed to join Twitter at last). He is also said to be considering more big moves, such as introducing stocks and crypto trading, as well as a new dating app on the social media site. If successful, such initiatives would bring Twitter a few steps closer to becoming the omni-functional platform of Musk’s dreams.

Yet even as Musk generates headlines, his ultimate goal of an everything app remains opaque. The lack of critical attention paid to it — relative to the rest of his overexposed public persona — is a failing among the political forces that claim to be opposed to the pernicious influence of Big Tech. The same conservative and libertarian Musk fanboys who oppose government domination over individual lives seem to have no problem with the thought of one’s whole existence being mediated by a single app — or with Musk’s open admiration for an innovation pioneered in a totalitarian state that many on the Right (including Tucker Carlson) claim to fear and despise.

Across the spectrum, concerns around social media mostly revolve around either content or terms of access — too many racist and sexist posts, according to the Left; not enough viewpoint diversity, according to the Right. But neither side seems able to grasp the broader problem: the inescapable ubiquity and hegemony of social media itself. And yet, it is a problem that may get a lot worse, with the integration of powerful new AI.

Rather than representing a break with the old Twitter, Elon Musk’s takeover is perhaps better understood as a continuation and intensification of the trajectory the tech giant has always been on. From the moment it exploded into mainstream awareness in the early 2010s, Twitter has all but conquered politics and culture in America, deforming the terms of democratic debate. But if Musk gets his way, Americans would be forced to “kind of live on Twitter”, just as the Chinese do on WeChat. What could possibly go wrong?

The real “mind virus”, to use to use Musk’s evocative phrase, is not so much being woke as being “Twitter-brained” — that is, mistaking the petty, supercharged, hyper-reactive atmosphere of the platform for real life. So far, this bleak condition remains largely confined to the closed world of political and cultural insiders. Twitter is not exactly an everyman’s app — about 69% of journalists and commentators regularly turn to Twitter for news and networking, while the figure is only at 13% among the general public — meaning that the very particular kinds of neuroses and pathologies that being on Twitter breeds recur only in a small, self-referential sliver of society. Transforming it into a WeChat-style everything app would spread this atomising, anti-social mind virus to the wider public — and wreak further damage to the health and cohesion of the body politic.

For all Musk’s pseudo-revolutionary “lords and peasants” talk about wanting to democratise the accursed medium, it may just be better if the “peasants” are spared from the Twitter-induced cognitive rot that’s afflicted the “lords” of the media and political establishment. American society needs far less Twitter, not more. And the same goes for the other major apps, like Chinese-owned TikTok and Mark Zuckerberg’s no less megalomaniacal and soul-sucking Meta, which — surprise! — is also developing its own version of the everything app.

That the so-called “techlash” mainly manifests as squabbles over privileged content — rather than pushing against total technological saturation — is a sign of its limitations. Yes, some long-overdue ideas have gained traction: proposals to ban infinite scroll, laws to remove TikTok from government-owned communication devices, and, most notably, Utah’s move to regulate children’s access to social media. (If Tucker were serious about carrying on the populist fight against big tech, he’d argue on behalf of policies like these — even at the risk of angering his friend Elon.) But given the scale and depth of the damage wrought by these apps to the social fabric, these measures are too little, too late.

Of course, there is another option. Many users, great and small, have come to acknowledge the demoralising, hellish quality of life on Twitter. If they abandoned the platform en masse, they would trigger a social media revolution. The costs of leaving the platform might, at least initially, be high — in terms of diminished “clout” and visibility — but they would be outweighed by the psychological benefits of disconnecting. Such an exodus would pre-empt the emergence of an everything app and maybe even lay the foundations for the return of more civilised public discourse.

But we’ve known for a long time that Twitter is toxic. If there were going to be a grassroots protest, it would surely have happened by now. With their worshipful attitude toward technology and novelty, Americans aren’t well placed to drive the techlash. In fact, they’ll probably crash the internet, in their rush to download the everything app.