The first stage was denial. I tried ignoring Elon Musk’s pathetic, needy acquisition of Twitter. I was reassured by the view of Jason Furman, former chief economist to Barack Obama and a serious tweeter, that the takeover would “barely affect 97 per cent of the experience”.
A week in, I’ve moved on to stage two — anger, plus sadness. Sitting in a vegan B&B in Berwick-upon-Tweed (don’t ask), I realise that Musk might well ruin my digital life. Having installed himself as “chief twit”, he mocks the media and promotes a conspiracy theory about the violent attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband. Uh-oh.
Musk’s arrival has changed the feel of the place. Twitter had felt anarchic — a commune, albeit one with a high crime rate. The founders couldn’t control it, nor could successive chief executives. We were free. Now the Tesla King is here, and everything seems to hang on his whim. It’s like the days after a revolution, when the new regime turns autocratic rather quickly.
I joined Twitter in 2010, four years after it started. At first I was so baffled that I would respond to my colleagues’ tweets via email. But I slowly became hooked on the mix of insight, humour and friends. It was faster than Facebook, which was filled with people I half-liked 20 years ago. It was cool, unlike LinkedIn. It was not too cool, unlike Instagram. I spend hours on it every day. Could anything replace it?
“You don’t improve the town square by rushing in and hosing crap everywhere,” I tweet. This gets my indignation at Musk off my chest, while ensuring that my relaxing weekend in Berwick will mostly be spent checking my phone for replies.
One way to understand social media is as a computer game where (instead of trying to kill simulated baddies) users try to rack up as many “likes” as possible by creating whatever content occurs to them. If Twitter didn’t exist, I would spend less time obsessing about UK politics, which always gets likes, and more time thinking about other things that don’t.
I also might focus on my real friends. Social media is stacked with acquaintances about whom you have strong opinions, even though you’ve never met them. One such person is a fellow writer. Almost my only interaction with her was a bad-tempered exchange, grumpier than anything that would have happened in real life.
After Musk’s takeover, this acquaintance announces that she is going inactive on Twitter, because she is too “angry to provide content for free to the richest man in the world”. She rightly notes that it has become impossible to go for a walk without looking for things to tweet about, and wishes the site would “crash and burn”. I think about gracefully sending her my best wishes for her Twitter-free life, but can’t quite bring myself to do it.
“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the trouble is I don’t know which half,” said the British industrialist William Hesketh Lever. Musk slowly learns that the same is true of his workforce. He sacks half of Twitter’s staff, then realises he doesn’t have enough people to run the company and starts trying to rehire some of them. It all feels very Liz Truss.
Meanwhile, a day before the US midterm elections, Musk recommends voting for a Republican Congress, on the basis that “shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties”. When Twitter’s sole board member is preaching the value of shared power, you know irony has died.
I wake up and delete half of the tweets I posted after returning from the pub the night before. Regret is key to the social media experience. It is also key to Musk’s ownership. As well as luring back sacked staff, he has to assure advertisers that he won’t actually let racists back. Strangely, he seems ignorant that Twitter has more than a decade of lessons in how to moderate the site. He seems to want to start from scratch, making every mistake for himself. He announces “comedy is now legal on Twitter” — and then, after many users parody him, threatens to ban any unlabelled parodies for life.
Until now, I have been blissfully insulated from Musk’s antics for two years: I wrote a column about his Covid childishness, and he retaliated by blocking me on Twitter. But now he is at the centre of every discussion, and I have to copy his tweets to another browser to find out what everyone’s talking about.
Mark Zuckerberg is firing 11,000 people at Meta. Amazingly, this is only 13 per cent of the company’s workforce. Even TikTok is restructuring. Truly the social media squeeze is on. What if these sites are a passing fad — and we one day have to explain to our children that we spent hours scrolling through angry messages and comic videos, just like previous generations drunk-drove and smoked on aeroplanes?
Meanwhile, at Twitter, important accounts start to appear with the logo “Official” underneath. This seems like a good idea to me, until I realise that I don’t have one. It does not seem like a good idea to Musk: the “Official” symbol quickly disappears. “I killed it,” the emperor announces. He follows up: “Please note that Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months. We will keep what works & change what doesn’t.” The first sentence seems more guaranteed than the second. Twitter is now selling verification badges to anyone. Someone buys one, pretends to be George W Bush, and tweets “I miss killing Iraqis.” Twitter is rich in stupidity and insight. In Musk, it has an owner rich in both.
Unlike Liz Truss, Musk has produced growth. He cited statistics showing that Twitter usage is up. But people keep saying they are joining an ad-free rival network called Mastodon. “Getting started with Mastodon is easy,” says Mastodon. False. The network is decentralised, so signing up is fiddly. And you have to rebuild your network. Moving social network is like trying to move a forest — with the trees, fungi and insects.
Meanwhile, the John Lewis Christmas advert appears in my Twitter timeline, and makes me cry so hard that I almost forget about Elon Musk and Matt Hancock. I feel myself moving to the acceptance stage: I am staying on Twitter for now and possibly forever.
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer
Follow him on Twitter at @henrymance
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