Elon Musk Revealed What Twitter Always Was

Stripped down to its skeleton, Twitter is the definitive “shame network.”

An illustration of the Twitter bird logo with its skeleton visible
Illustration by The Atlantic

By most measures, Elon Musk’s tenure at Twitter has been an abject failure. The purchase has coincided with a drop in his net worth and saddled the company with debt. His obsessions with “the woke mind virus” and his peculiar decision to act as a personal customer-service concierge for right-wing shitposters like @catturd2 have alienated the billionaire from allies and, most important, advertisers; the company’s net ad revenue is projected to drop 27.9 percent by the end of 2023, according to Insider Intelligence. He is so clueless and incurious as to the desires of his user base that his plans to boost Twitter’s bottom line involved a verification and subscription product that users aren’t just uninterested in, but find legitimately embarrassing.

But Musk, who was once thought of by many as a visionary, has, in fact, accomplished something meaningful with Twitter. He’s stripped the platform down to its skeleton, giving everyone the opportunity to recognize how fundamentally embarrassing it’s always been. To observe him at work—which is to say, to watch him tweet recycled Reddit memes, feel out ill-considered company policies, and pander to far-right goobers with culture-war drivel—is to witness the platform working at its purest, basest level. Forget offensive; his behavior is cringe. It shows us what has always existed deep down in Twitter’s molten core, an elemental feeling shared by the platform’s most ardent users and that powers much of social media: shame.

“Twitter is the definition of a shame network,” Cathy O’Neil, the author of the book The Shame Machine, told me. Our feeds are often powered by people posting in pursuit of likes and retweets and dogpiling on their perceived enemies for clout. At its best, shame can be a healthy, cohering influence that enforces norms and provides accountability on social media. A broadly negative response to a tweet from your peers can signal that you’ve stepped out of line, giving you a chance to apologize. But platforms such as Twitter supercharge our instincts to shame. Joining a Twitter pile-on is usually thrilling, cathartic, and—most important for the platform’s algorithms—engaging.

Like all social-media platforms, Twitter’s architecture is geared toward promoting engagement, which means that Twitter has optimized itself to turn shaming into a frictionless experience. Design decisions such as the quote-tweet button are potent tools for taking an idea or opinion meant for one group and directing it toward another, with commentary appended. Over time, this shaming has become foundational to Twitter’s user culture, so much so that the platform developed its own vocabulary of shaming, such as subtweeting and ratioing. “We are rooted on by our buddies to insult people outside our in-group,” O’Neil said. “It makes us feel insulated and empowered to sling shit at others and feel righteous in the process.” Shame is the grist for the mill—we direct it toward others, and we experience others directing it at us.

Musk has added a new dimension to these old problems. It feels shameful to exist on a platform that actively courts trolls and rewards viral clickbait. Musk’s Twitter amplifies such ugly stuff, like the legions of previously banned far-right trolls Musk has reinstated and the briefly verified white-nationalist accounts. A great deal of what goes viral on Musk’s Twitter is what finds its way into the For You feed that the company recently rolled out, which appears to prioritize and amplify low-quality, evergreen clickbait linked to whatever is popular on Twitter’s Topics pages. The result is endless amounts of LinkedIn-style “broetry,” AI, crypto FOMO, and entrepreneur hustle porn—plus a whole lot of recycled memes.

There is also a whole lot of Musk himself. According to reports, Twitter shifted its product to artificially boost the visibility of Musk’s tweets. “Elon is the perfect embodiment of what I mean when I say that algorithms are opinions embedded in code,” O’Neil said. “This technology is never neutral—people in power help decide what they privilege. Algorithms are policy, and Twitter’s policy is to make Elon Musk the focus of everything.”

Buying a global communications platform for $44 billion to boost your own posts and make yourself the main character is, even by the standards of mercurial billionaires, almost cartoonishly insecure behavior. Although Musk appears to be shameless, the rest of us live with the acute mortification of participating on a platform that now goes out of its way to amplify hateful rhetoric, anti-“woke” culture warriors, and scammy hustlers. To stay on Twitter is, although not a tacit approval of Musk’s behavior, certainly helpful to its owner’s cause. And then there’s the humiliation that comes with interrogating why you’ve chosen to stay on the site despite it all. Maybe this is the result of feeling powerless to quit. But there is also the more subtle, still-potent recognition that comes from watching Musk’s daily cringe parade and seeing a twinkle of one’s self in his posts. Speaking from personal experience, this is the shame of scrolling and mocking the billionaire’s posts, while feeling a deep uneasiness that you, too, are stuck here. As embarrassing as Musk’s behavior may be, you are ultimately trapped on the hellsite, responding to the same algorithmic incentives, unable to log off.

Those still wandering the parking lot of the abandoned strip mall that is Musk’s Twitter are left with a nagging question: Where do I draw the line? Before Musk took over, I found it easier to quell my shame and justify my time on the platform by reminding myself of its utility—as a source of news and entertainment and as a personal publicity device for my career.

Under Musk’s leadership, much of that utility has vanished. As numerous close observers have noted, Twitter feels both technically and spiritually broken. The platform no longer feels crucial during big breaking news events, such as Donald Trump’s indictment, for one. Musk’s product road map (stripping trusted accounts of verification, as he finally did yesterday; restricting access to the platform’s data to accounts that provide updates during emergencies; and labeling certain news outlets as state media) seems designed specifically to destroy what made Twitter a destination for real-time information. In doing so, he forces us to see the all-caps screeching of Twitter’s collective id: It’s just about all that remains.

Take a spin through Twitter’s trending topics on a given day during Musk’s tenure and you’re likely to get a sense of this contextless chaos. Here’s one such example:

Musk’s personal tweets are an intensely embarrassing embodiment of the behavior that the platform now privileges. Best of Dying Twitter chronicles the billionaire’s weird penis jokes and obsession with the numbers 69 (a sex joke!) and 420 (a weed joke!). It has served as a reminder that those of us left have made a conscious choice to reside on Musk’s global whoopee cushion.

Even Twitter’s most famous trolls and shitposters seem weary of having to live on Musk’s playground. Last week, Dril, one of the internet’s most famous anonymous posters, revealed his identity in a profile for The Ringer. Dril, whose real name is Paul Dochney, called much of the site “disgusting.” Most notable, though, is that despite his genuine popularity and influence on Twitter’s culture, Dochney suggested that parlaying his talents into legible success off the platform has been difficult. Dochney’s story gets at a layer of shame that’s hard to pin down: After all the agita, the energy, and the unbelievable amount of time spent toiling in the feed, what do any of us really have to show for it?

I’m not sure that Twitter will die in any dramatic way under Musk. But the site’s continued existence is beside the point: He has sucked the life out of a vibrant part of the internet. One observer saw Dochney’s decision to reveal his identity as “one of the most unambiguous signs that twitter is doomed.” And yet, Twitter will likely continue on in some zombie capacity as a place for hustlers to crow about ways to supercharge your business with AI.

People will keep posting, no matter how shameful it feels. But we can no longer hide from the system we’ve chosen to participate in, and something about that is liberating. Musk’s awful, tweets make the innate shame of playing an algorithmic game with no end and no winner impossible to ignore in ourselves.

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