Elon Musk now claims that he will step down as Twitter’s CEO, contingent on him finding the right replacement. In just eight weeks, Musk has laid off large chunks of the workforce, asked those who remained to commit to being “extremely hardcore,” unbanned previously suspended accounts, caused advertisers to flee the platform, kicked a number of journalists off the platform and then reinstated them, and polled users about whether or not he should continue as CEO (a majority voted no).
David Karpf, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and a longtime Twitter user, has been studying and thinking about the intersection of the internet and politics for years. When we spoke late last week, he predicted that the Musk drama would continue: “Every time he goes a couple days of getting a little worried that people are getting bored, he has to do something ridiculous.”
When I briefly caught up with Karpf again yesterday, he was curious about how Musk would top the week’s Twitter poll—but confident that he somehow would. “I just feel like I’ve reached the limits of my imagination for what that could be,” he said.
Below, in our initial conversation, we discussed the future of the platform and Musk’s leadership of it.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: If Twitter becomes a parable of the modern internet, what do you think the moral takeaway will be? “Don’t let billionaires buy up giant social-media websites”?
David Karpf: There is a deeply baked ideology of the internet going back to the ’90s, a sort of West Coast ideal that engineers and entrepreneurs, particularly around Silicon Valley, are the modern heroes of society. They are innovating and building a better world. They’re the good guys. The bad guys are the old industries and the regulators who get in the way.
And these innovator-inventor heroes are the ones who are paving the way to a new and better world, because they’re such incredible geniuses. But the hero has to overcome resistance, and what we should do is cheer for him because of his genius and his brilliance. And 10 years ago, Elon Musk was the archetype of that story. He was really treated as the guy who is going to kind of save the world, between his electric cars and his rockets.
There’s a lot of problems with that story. But the most basic problem is that it’s utter horseshit. And what I hope comes out of this episode is that this becomes a cautionary tale that these people aren’t genius heroes. Turns out that Elon Musk is really bad at running Twitter, because he isn’t that special.
I hope that the cautionary tale of Twitter is to stop putting your faith in the mythology of the founder geniuses, because they ain’t that special. That’s not what’s going to save the world.
Nyce: What do you think the future of Twitter is right now?
Karpf: One of the things to keep in mind is just how fast Twitter’s devolution is happening. This is, what, maybe week seven of Elon owning Twitter?
I thought that one to three months in, very little would have changed. And then he went in and trashed the place immediately in a way that has seemed surprisingly sloppy.
If this had been spread out over the course of a year, then people would have had time to migrate to competitors and figure out what’s what. And I still think that’s going to happen. But right now, we’re kind of in this moment of, like, My God, how has Twitter not fallen completely apart, both technically and also on the community level? I’m pretty sure this is actually what falling apart looks like; it’s just happening so fast that people don’t really have a place to migrate to.
Right now people are looking around, saying, “I guess I’ll start with a Mastodon account?” Competitors need more time than they’re being given, because nobody really expected him to set the place on fire as fast as he has.
Nyce: Do you think the void created by all these Twitter disruptions will be self-healing in the long term?
Karpf: In the short term, there’s going to be a gap. In the long term, there’s two ways to go, and I’m really not sure which way we end up.
I think it’s certainly possible that everyone ends up on a thing that does everything that Twitter does for us, and that former Twitter users will all end up on the same one. It’s not that there’s some technical architecture that couldn’t be reproduced. But it’s pretty hard to resolve the coordination game. I’ve been on Twitter for 14 years. That’s 14 years of both aggregating a set of people who follow me and also refining the set of people that I follow. It’s been a really good curated news feed for me, because I’ve had so long to set it up. And even though you can port over who you follow to Mastodon, that only works if everybody’s moving to the same place.
One Atlantic writer, Ian Bogost, has written about the other direction this could go in, that this is the end of the social-media age—and good riddance.
Nyce: Do you agree with that?
Karpf: I’m actually not sure. I’ve read that piece twice. I think he makes a lot of really good points. We may re-create the stuff that Twitter is good for, or it might be that we are witnessing the decline and the end of an era. I do think it’s noteworthy that Twitter and Facebook are both on the decline, though not for anywhere near the same reasons. We’ve had a decade of stability, with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram basically doing things that they always do. TikTok has taken over some stuff, but TikTok is short-term video, which is a different thing from short written comments with links.
I don’t think we should assume that we’ve reached the internet’s final form. There could be a next thing. That, then, leaves me at a loss in terms of trying to figure out what that thing is.
Nyce: Do you think Elon has done anything right as Twitter CEO?
Karpf: I mean, basically, no. But there’s one thing that he’s done that he probably deserves a little defense on. I think even if he hadn’t bought Twitter, a decent portion of the people working on Twitter would have gotten fired this year. A bunch of those layoffs would have happened just because 2022 is the year that companies like Twitter are realizing we’re no longer in a “build tons of new things” moment. The way he’s handled the layoffs is abominable and classless. But the fact of the layoffs is the one thing that I’d say, “Okay, it’s gross, but a lot of those would have happened anyway.”
Nyce: You’re still on Twitter. What would it take for you to leave and stop using the platform entirely and never touch your account again?
Karpf: I mean, so I kind of assume that at some point, I’m going to get banned. Otherwise, I’m going to treat this like it’s 2006. I was on Friendster until Friendster died. I was on Myspace until Myspace died. But I stopped using those accounts. I forgot the password to my Myspace account rather than shutting down my Myspace account.
Nyce: It seems like that’s kind of the story of the end of every social network, in a way. Not a big, dramatic “we’re all going to turn it off” one day, but a couple of early adopters get on a different network, that network proves its value, the other one stops serving its value, and you slowly forget your password.
Karpf: The scarce thing is our attention. So it’s not who deletes their account; it’s where they are spending their time. And right now I’m setting up accounts in other places but still spending my time mostly on Twitter. But I’m enjoying it less. And when something else scratches that itch and proves to be more enjoyable, that’s where my attention minutes will go. And then I will just forget about Twitter.
Nyce: Is there anything else you think people should know about this story?
Karpf: I have tried personally to avoid the Elon-Trump comparisons, because I think those are a little glib. Donald Trump was an authoritarian who ran the government for four years, did harm, and is trying to run it again. Elon’s an obnoxious billionaire. They’re different. But the thing that stands out to me is throughout the Trump era, a thing that I was sure of as a professor of political communications was that if Donald Trump was out of the news cycle for two days, he was going to do something to make us focus on him again. It was exhausting, but it was also very predictable, because there’s a rhythm to it: He required that attention. That was part of his strategy, part of his model.
And that is very true for Elon as well. Every time he goes a couple days of getting a little worried that people are getting bored, he has to do something ridiculous, and it ends up being more ridiculous than the last time. So that means this isn’t the last one. He’s going to end up topping this sometime next week.