Though it feels reductionist to compare Elon Musk and Donald Trump, the Musk era at Twitter has some eerie parallels to the Trump White House. There’s a ton of confusion; lots of firings; people shredding documents; outlandish, impossible-to-execute ideas being floated; sycophantic advisers; nervous employees trying to appease a mercurial man; and tweets—so many tweets. It is an exhausting, enraging, and sometimes grimly hilarious spectacle that changes by the hour. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the extended universe, tearing your attention away can be hard.
Over the past few weeks, tech observers and Twitter obsessives like myself have been following every twist and turn that will ultimately decide the fate of the platform. Musk’s Twitter takeover is like so many things in American life in 2022: It is both dumb and consequential. Twitter, despite its relatively small size, has disproportionate importance in our politics and culture. It’s used by activists and dissidents, and what happens on Twitter does not stay contained to the internet. Moreover, Twitter’s fate is wrapped up in the identity of the world’s richest man, whose lack of expertise on how social platforms work could collapse the whole enterprise.
I hope, for your sake, that you lead a richer, more spiritually fulfilling life than I do and that the hour-by-hour machinations of Elon Musk’s Twitter account are merely a vague curiosity. But for those who want to catch up on this strange internet drama, here’s a tweet sheet to get up to speed.
October 27: The Bird Is Freed
the bird is freed— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 28, 2022
On October 27, Musk finalized his Twitter purchase. Though that wasn’t even two weeks ago, we were all spiritually 47 years younger when the billionaire implied that he was going to liberate the service from censorship and let free speech reign.
October 28: Time to Form an Independent Committee
Twitter will be forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 28, 2022
No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.
Every opinion writer knows that when you don’t have a good answer, but you need to make content, you form a committee. Musk did just that in his first few hours as Twitter’s owner, announcing that, on moderation decisions, he would not call the shots.
Except for three hours later, when Musk would make this moderation decision himself. Consistency is hard!
Anyone suspended for minor & dubious reasons will be freed from Twitter jail— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 28, 2022
October 28 and 29: Rejoice! Comedy Is Now Legal!
Comedy is now legal on Twitter— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 28, 2022
Musk loves a good laugh. He hosted Saturday Night Live, you know! Comedy is why he brought a sink into Twitter headquarters the day before he completed the deal. Anyhow, part of Musk’s goal at Twitter is to protect free expression, even when it’s subversive and offensive, as some Truly Important comedy can be. You might not like it, but damn it, you’ve got to respect it.
This, in case you were wondering, is Musk’s concept of comedy:
Finally, the truth that carbs are amazing can be said on this platform! #FreeSpeech— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 29, 2022
I said you might not like it. This edgy stuff is not for everyone.
October 30: Conspiracy Theory Sunday
You’ve probably heard about this one. Man offers to buy website, man tells advertisers he wants to keep it from devolving into a “hellscape,” man buys website, man tweets a link to a homophobic conspiracy theory at former first lady from a website that famously claimed she died on the campaign trail in 2016. An advertising veteran suggested to me that Musk’s now-deleted Paul Pelosi tweet was perhaps the most expensive tweet ever and may have cost Twitter billions in advertising revenue. And still we tweet on!
October 30 (continued): Never Apologize
This is fake – I did *not* tweet out a link to The New York Times! pic.twitter.com/d6V6m5ATW2— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 31, 2022
This is probably as good a view into the way Musk deals with being wrong as we are going to get on Twitter. When you screw up, don’t say so. Just make a joke that, if you’re lucky, will only make your haters angrier. In this case, the butt of the joke is The New York Times. It’s Trolling 101, really. Remember, comedy is legal again.
Wow, Still October 30: Brainstorming
Interesting— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 31, 2022
This is just a short reply, but it’s a good example of Elon Musk and his Twitter advisers (like the investor Jason Calacanis) conducting market research via the internet’s least scientific tool: Twitter polls. In this case, 81.5 percent of the more than 2 million respondents said they would not pay for Twitter verification. Musk saw this information and two days later announced that Twitter would charge people $8 a month to be verified.
Brief Interlude: “Halloween with my Mom”
Work-life balance is healthy.
November 1: Power to the Peasants
Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 1, 2022
Power to the people! Blue for $8/month.
Nothing moves product like a little class warfare. Musk framing his decision to charge for Twitter verification as a populist effort is a savvy business step.
Unfortunately, Musk is conflating the status elements of Twitter verification (blue-check elites) with the logistical elements of Twitter verification (curbing scammers and imposters). Reports suggested that Twitter will take away verification from users who don’t shell out $8 a month for it. It only really makes sense when you realize that Musk just paid $44 billion for the social network and needs revenue ASAP.
A lot of people (myself included) thought this was a bad idea. Others just got mad. Musk responded as all good businessmen do, bringing to mind the age-old phrase: The customer is always … complaining; charge them anyhow.
To all complainers, please continue complaining, but it will cost $8— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 2, 2022
November 2: More Twitter-Poll Market Research
Advertisers should support:— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 2, 2022
You are the world’s richest man and a titan of industry with tens of thousands of employees. You need money for the company you just purchased. That company is a social network that runs off brand advertising. Your tweet with a homophobic fake news story has led some people on the internet to suggest to advertisers that they should pull their business. What do you do? If you guessed passive-aggressive Twitter poll, you are correct.
Around this period, Musk is mulling the decision to lay off half of Twitter’s staff. He is under a great deal of financial stress and seems to be struggling with the basics of his new job.
November 3: The Very Big Idea
Because it consists of billions of bidirectional interactions per day, Twitter can be thought of as a collective, cybernetic super-intelligence— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 3, 2022
This is very classic Idea Guy behavior. Twitter as a pulsing digital brain of the commons is a nice idea and well in line with Musk’s dabbling in neuroscience. He is, as experts on Twitter pointed out, very incorrect. Twitter is not, at least not in any current form, a collective brain.
Things start to pick up here.
November 6: Beyond Parody
Going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying “parody” will be permanently suspended— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 6, 2022
Kathy Griffin, a known media personality and comedian, changed her Twitter display name and profile picture to look like Elon Musk in what turned out to be a last act of Twitter satire. Musk and Twitter suspended her account. Musk, a noted lover of comedy, instituted a new rule banning unlabeled parody accounts. Speech and comedy—both tricky things!
Surround Yourself With Yes-Men
Absolutely— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 7, 2022
To understand Musk’s Twitter experience, you need to remember that—with roughly 115 million followers—Musk is constantly being simultaneously yelled at and complimented. Many celebrities with huge followings deal with this. But few seem to read their mentions like Musk. Anyhow, here is the world’s richest man, owner and operator of three large companies, replying on a Sunday evening to a Musk fan account calling itself “Pope of Muskanity” and arguing that journalists are bad at their job.
Yesterday began the second workweek of Musk’s tenure. He celebrated it in the traditional way, by tweeting an image of a Nazi soldier in a meme about birds.
Followed by two separate masturbation jokes.
Remember, this website is (still, for now, at least) free!
Those were followed by an endorsement of the Republican Party on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections.
To independent-minded voters:— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 7, 2022
Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic.
What fresh hell will tomorrow bring? Beyond more chaos, who can say?