It sometimes feels like a lifetime, but Elon Musk has been CEO and owner of Twitter for less than two months. Those two months have been characterised by chaos, by wild and sometimes absurd decision-making and rapid retractions, by claims and counter claims, and by a strong sense that the whole thing is almost wholly out of control.
Management by ego and ‘planning’ by petulance is in some ways entertaining to watch but may not be the most appropriate way to run a social network that has, so far, held a unique place in the world, particularly in terms of politics, journalism and current affairs.
Musk’s management style
Is the management style sustainable? Many observers have just been waiting for it all to fall apart – and it may be to Musk’s credit (!) that he has managed to last this long. Has that time come? One of Musk’s favourite moves, to arrange Twitter polls to ‘make’ key decisions (or, as cynics might say, to validate the decisions he’s already made) seemed to have backfired when he asked Twitter whether he should step down – and 57.5% of the 17.5 million accounts that voted said he should.
Some suggested that this was what he wanted – that he had been looking for an exit route, that his co-investors wanted him to resign – but his subsequent actions suggest otherwise. Within 24 hours of the result, he has changed the way he runs polls, allowing only paying subscribers (mostly his fans) to vote, tweeted that no-one else was capable of running Twitter, and been told that the poll was probably rigged. Will he resign? It does not seem likely – but under Musk, nothing is predictable.
All this, though, is a bit of a sideshow to the chaos that Twitter has been under Musk. In the last week alone he has banned some high-profile journalists, seemingly because they upset him, banned people from putting links to other social networks (notably including the emerging rivals, Mastodon, Hive and Post) in tweets and bios – a move that goes counter to the whole trend of interactivity and diversification that has characterised the social media market for the last few years – and then had to reverse both of those moves.
Meanwhile, the underlying problems – most notably the collapse of Twitter’s advertising revenue as a result of Musk’s approach, not just his chaos but his backing for conspiracy theories and far right politics – all remain, and nothing Musk has said or done suggests he has any real way to resolve them. Indeed, he seems determined to make them worse – amongst other things giving more power to the paid accounts, including allowing them to influence the way Twitter prioritises tweets and accounts – and raise tensions even higher with journalists.
What this reveals – or perhaps confirms – about Musk himself may be the most troubling part of the whole story in some ways. His fans portray him as a misunderstood genius, or use his self-acknowledged Asperger’s as an explanation (or excuse) for less acceptable aspects of his personality. But with his purchase of Twitter this has all come right to the fore, and for a great many people it has not been a pretty sight.
This may have been part of the reason that not only has Twitter been in trouble, but Tesla’s stock has crashed, and Tesla’s investors have become distinctly twitchy. It may be that Musk loses not just Twitter but Tesla – as well as his status as the world’s richest man, which he lost in the last week. Buyer’s remorse may be the least of his problems in the next few years.
Does Twitter have a future?
There are a number of potential futures possible for Twitter. This mess could rumble on for months – not much longer than that – or something more concrete could happen. Twitter could literally collapse – either financially or technically. It could turn into just another of the networks currently occupied by the right-wing and conspiracy theorists – that particular trend is one of the more likely.
Or, if Musk really does want to exit, he could hand it over to some kind of technocrat who would run it on logical, practical grounds. This last – the best for those of us who really like Twitter – is sadly the least likely outcome. Musk has shown no signs of wanting a sane, practical future for Twitter. We can only hope that he finds a way.
More from East Anglia Bylines