The bonfire of Twitter: an Elon Musk story

To celebrate Bonfire Night, Elon Musk seems to be spending his time setting fire to his new $44bn plaything, Twitter...

elon-musk-immortality bbc twitter

You don’t get to be the world’s richest man without upsetting a few people, and a week into his tenure as Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk appears to have been doing just that.

Since his self-published video of him entering Twitter’s offices carrying a sink last week – seemingly looking around for someone to laugh at his jape, in the same manner pauses were left in Liz Truss speeches for applause that never came – he’s been busy playing with his new toy.

Certainly, if he was looking to back up his rhetoric about Twitter not being allowed to be a “free for all hellscape”, he’s not been doing the best of jobs there. But also, he knows what he’s doing.

As the owner of the platform, he soon retweeted – then deleted – a false conspiracy theory relating to the assault of Nancy Pelosi’s husbands in the US. He’s running a poll asking whether advertisers on Twitter should be supporting political correctness or freedom of speech, those being the only two options offered. He’s digging around the edges of the culture wars that keep the traffic flowing, whilst insisting that he’s well placed to protect and nourish the platform.

Plus, he’s been busy in his latest role of Chief Keyboard Warrior (TM).

He’s been clearly enjoying himself with his new plan to charge a monthly $8 fee for people who want a ‘verified’ blue tick. On the one hand, there’s been some entertainment in  people’s panic that they won’t have a verified tick anymore (the egos he’s puncturing there are, to a degree, the egos you want to see pricked). On the other, it seems to defy the point of what the verified status was there for in the first place. Musk has been actively replying to high profile figures that complain about this, from author Stephen King to politician Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

To see him engaged in a Twitter negotiation with Stephen King already feels like a new normal. Lots of people – King included – are thus making noises about quitting the platform, but let’s see who actually carries through that threat.

Stephen King and Elon Musk Twitter exchange

This has just been week one. Week two has started with him laying off thousands of people via email.

Appreciating the world moves quickly at the moment, the seven-day tenure of Musk has been a whirlwind of activity, noise, and rumbling problems. Because in the background of all of this, one high profile advertiser – General Motors – has already backed away from the service, the board has been dismissed meaning Musk can act unilaterally, and there’s significant lay-offs too. Heaven only knows what the next few weeks will bring.

The underlying question is what’s in all of this for Musk? It’s little secret that he was for a long time trying to back away from a deal to buy the service, and was facing legal action if he curtailed his bid. Did he actually, after all his bluster, expect to be lumbered with the thing, and $44bn poorer?

There was also the fear of the impact on his other businesses, not least Tesla, and also the ongoing suspicion that Twitter is something of a poisoned chalice. It’s been comfortably overtaken in recent years by rival services such as Instagram, and whilst it’s not without influence, growth has been slow and numbers are dwarfed by some of its rivals.

Furthermore, there’s the part Twitter has played in the politic sagas of the last six or seven years, and the question over the level of hate it stirs up.

Is this what Twitter is good for, and is there a growing business there? Twitter, long before Musk got his chequebook out, was burning. Musk has just lobbed in a bit of extra petrol.

He’s been doing it seemingly at the speed it takes for him to come up with an idea, but not necessarily allowing space to think about it. But that’s alright: he’s rich, right? How can he not be a genius?

It’s fairly transparent that Musk seems to have shelved the idea of focus groups and deep level planning, and just seems to be trying things in real time. There’s something admirable about that on one level, but the seismic activity at the firm over the last week is doing little to dissuade people from the notion that he’s treating it as a billionaire’s plaything.

And maybe, at heart, that’s what it is.

Elon Musk’s favourite thing in the world appears to be Elon Musk, and Twitter has given him his favourite platform to be Elon Musk on. He can and likely will do with it what he likes, and if that pisses people off, well – that’s part of the fun, right? He’s got the money, we haven’t. That’s how it works.

Elon Musk 44 billion

Just look at the ongoing will he/won’t he over whether Donald Trump will be re-admitted to the platform. Whatever the ultimate decision proves to be, Twitter now has an owner who appears to love both the power, and being centre of attention. It’s his decision to make, and it’s not in his interests to fast-track the decision. It keeps him front and centre of the story, just where he likes to be.

This may all, of course, prove to be a mark of genius. Wherever you stand on Musk, he has very successful businesses to his name. His impulsiveness has got him this far.

But also: it feels more about him than it does Twitter. And quietly, there are alternatives. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat have been innovating quicker. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey meanwhile has thrown his energies into a rival called Bluesky. That’s inviting people to sign up for it now – right here in fact – but to classify it as a Twitter rival feels optimistic at best. Twitter took a decade to get this far. Can a competitor – and others have tried – claim its ground in double quick time?

Almost certainly not.

In the meantime, Musk’s ongoing game of corporate masturbation continues, and nobody appears to be enjoying it more than him. In the meantime, Twitter burns. It’ll continue to burn. And it looks like the person who’s appointed himself to keep it safe is covered in kerosene and pissing around with a big packet of Swan Vestas.

Mark Zuckerberg, for one, must be delighted to see it.

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