Musk's first year as Twitter's Dear Leader is nigh
How's he done? tl;dr – not very well
Opinion Next month will see the first anniversary of Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter. The rest of the media will be full of analyses on what's gone right and wrong, and what it means for Musk and our perception of his business acumen.
But with competitors making quiet progress, it seems rude to wait that month before running the scorecard.
It is hard to know how much Musk does day to day at SpaceX and Tesla, but in his new social media empire, Musk has made all the running. Sure, he appointed new CEO Linda Yaccarino earlier in the year, but Musk still seems comfortable making contradictory statements and obviously still has an oar in with many processes.
How we got here
Like many a new dictator, Musk's tenure was bred in farce and born in chaos. He made a hugely overvalued bid that he tried to back out of amid claims of not knowing how bot-infested the platform was. This admission of lack of due diligence wasn't enough: he had to back down and buy it.
Musk then slashed Twitter's headcount by 80 percent, from 7,800 down to 1,500, then found he needed to rehire "the babies thrown out with the bathwater," in his own words. He shut down the public API. He allowed anyone who wanted to pay for something called Twitter Blue to be "verified" as anything they liked, including foul-mouthed versions of major corporates with big Twitter presences.
Of the three constituencies a social media business must cultivate – staff, users, and advertisers – he alienated the lot in exchange for no clear vision or consistent trajectory. Genius CEO or authoritarian blunderer? The question answers itself.
He did the media rounds in April admitting to some of these mistakes. Did he learn? Did he heck. In July, he rebranded Twitter to X, because he likes X, much as a dictator renames their capital city. This all but destroyed one of the strongest brands in the world – the verb tweet is well established enough in English to not look odd in lower case. Did you see that tweet? I'll tweet a reply. Microsoft has gone to ridiculous lengths to make Bing a word, and earned only scorn. Twitter had what no company could buy, with Forbes estimating the brand name's worth at $4bn.
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Musk has tried to throw that away in exchange for something that means nothing. In marketing terms, it's like inheriting the Mona Lisa, tearing the canvas out and nailing two bits of the frame together. The only bright spot is the users keep using Twitter and tweet anyway, as we shall in their honor for the remainder of this piece.
There's so much more. The tweeting quota to "stop the bots." The threat to make the platform subscription only. Saying user blocking will be nixed – the one way users can stop targeted hate speech, blanket spam, and bots. Blaming advertiser flight on conspiracies and secret Jewish cabals. Which, as you know, never ends well.
In a sane world, such massive, sustained incompetence coupled with warning signs a mole rat could see from Mars would have killed Twitter by now, with Musk's rep as a hands-on CEO on a par with Uri Geller's as a metalworker. But the man's worth a quarter of a trillion, and even with Twitter's revenues dropping by around $500 million a year, he could keep it going for half a millennium. If you don't like the numbers, substitute your own, and a good crash of Tesla and SpaceX market value would move the needle, but that's the scale on which Musk doesn't have to give a fig.
This is a bleak landscape for anyone who wants a microblogging platform that isn't run by a monstrous ego in the shape of a pyramid of cash. Waves of Twitter emigrants have ended up on Mastodon, BlueSky, and Threads – OK, just Mastodon and BlueSky. Where small, self-sufficient communities of academics and professionals have co-ordinated the move, it has to some extent worked.
Mastodon remains the most exciting alternative, even though it continues to scare naive users away through the very federated system that gives it its unique potential. Multiple independent servers give individuals and communities better control over blocking bad content and creating an environment conducive to exchanging information. But users don't understand the question "Which server do you want?" and organizations who know how to run a presence on Twitter don't see how that might work on Mastodon. Let alone that it would give them more independence and control than any other platform.
Fixing these problems will take time and strategy, but they are fixable. The speed at which this happens will depend on whether Musk keeps hammering the nails into Twitter's coffin, a task he seems intent on finishing.
It won't be a linear process, it'll be exponential. Twitter is being kept alive by communities who can bear the pain of staying more than that of moving: once that equation flips, critical mass will shift faster than you can think. Musk can play dictator all he wants, but he can't build the Berlin Wall of social media. ®