No. 138: 🐦 Twitter.
It’s lucky Musk loves free speech.
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Before I move through the gears towards a full-throated rant, a whole-hearted request:
As you will likely have seen in the press, Twitter is laying off a large number of staff.
I know a number of people at Twitter who will be looking for new employment in the near future.
Any regular readers of hi, tech. will know how cynical I am about corporate culture.
You can imagine my surprise as I met numerous Twitter employees over the past couple of years, all of whom genuinely loved working at the company and loved working with each other.
They worked extremely hard on difficult problems every day, but they loved the challenge. I’m sure it won’t take them long to find something new, but hopefully they will get another opportunity to work on those big questions.
If you do know of any open roles in the news industry, please do get in touch.
I think you can just respond to this email and it’ll come to my inbox, or reach out on LinkedIn here.
And now for the main story:
Musk: A Fable of Hubris, Unfolding in Real Time
There is a fine line between genius and idiocy.
It is a line as fine as Elon’s hair:
It is baffling that the wealthiest person ever has decided to reveal his intellectual limitations to the world when, just like he did with his scalp, he could have covered them with falsehoods forever.
You see, I enjoy writing this newsletter. I enjoy the interactions I have with you all. I enjoy razzing the Zuckerbergs and the Musks and all the other dateless wonders in tech.
But I’ll tell you this: If I somehow came into possession of one million dollars, you’d never hear from me again.
I’d be gone. A dot.
No internet, no bloody LinkedIn posts, no nothing. I’d buy a modest home, a wardrobe full of timeless cashmeres, a lot of books, and I’d close the door. Perhaps I’d finally perfect Escoffier’s five mother sauces.
Now if I had billions, imagination would really take over. I’d have gold shoes, an emu farm, I’d buy Versailles (the whole region, not just the palace), I’d save the koalas - and that’s on day one.
I certainly wouldn’t spend my time shitposting on Twitter for crypto bros.
Sure, I have a personal grievance with this Musk guy.
I am also, as a lifelong jock, inclined to dislike nerds.
And I’ll ask you this: Have you ever met a likeable person that liked Mr. Musk?
However, what with this being a serious publication and all, there are deeper questions to ask about his actions since taking over Twitter.
As we know, he was embarrassed into sticking to the bloated offer he made for the company. He is on the hook for quite a lot of money, from quite a lot of serious financial institutions.
The Twitter business model clearly wasn’t working.
Cutting costs, if only to pay for Musk’s own gargantuan hubris, does have some logic. Even if it was all handled with a diplomatic nous that would shame Berlusconi.
It is also true that Twitter should not depend on advertising for the bulk of its revenues. Were Musk the galaxy-brained visionary his followers claim him to be, he would have a better idea.
But he’s not and he doesn’t, so it does depend on advertising. It should make a lot more from advertising than it currently does.
Diversifying Twitter’s revenue streams is sensible from a theoretical perspective, but it would be best to build from a strong base first.
Instead, Musk has alienated advertisers within a week of taking charge.
Then he complained about brands pulling their budgets from Twitter.
When advertisers explained their reasons, he blocked them. What a snowflake, eh?
For the record, those reasons run as follows:
Advertisers asked a number of questions about brand security as soon as the Musk takeover was announced. They wanted to know that if they paid to advertise on Twitter, their ads would be seen in a relevant context.
This is a basic request.
Twitter at first did not answer, then answered without providing any assurances.
This matters: Twitter, like other ad networks, sells a chunk of its inventory ahead of time. These discussions related to 2023 ad buys and would normally have generated up to $900 million of guaranteed income for the company.
Advertisers held off until they received more clarity.
Musk fired the content curation teams.
Then he chaired a call with advertisers, telling them that content moderation would not be affected by the lay-offs.
Advertisers felt less than reassured.
As someone who is on at least nodding terms with the basics of the advertising world, this all seems blindingly obvious to me.
We shouldn’t forget that Musk has no clue what he is doing here, and his petulant tweets show that he is rattled. We are watching a fable unfold. Dickarus flying straight into the sun.
And yet, advertisers do have a strong desire for an alternative to Google/Facebook/TikTok. They would have been receptive to a new offering from Twitter, where they currently spend a tiny fraction of their budgets. Instead, because of Musk’s actions, they are taking that tiny fraction elsewhere.
So why is content moderation good for business?
Ok, for advertisers, it provides reassurance that their brand can steer clear of the kinds of sentiments some people insist on sharing on Twitter.
That’s a start, but we shouldn’t forget that Musk has supposedly bought Twitter for the “public good”. We should never forget that Jack Dorsey fully approved of Musk’s takeover, stating that the latter was uniquely placed to improve the service.
There are other ways that Twitter can increase its impact and its revenues, many of them dependent on some form of moderation.
Musk tweeted this week about Twitter’s potential as a “hive mind” that would enable new forms of human interaction. Yes, you and I noticed this at least a decade ago; Musk is rich, so we have to watch him have these painfully late epiphanies.
It’s not that simple, “bro”.
First, a new research paper that compares Twitter posts with opinion polls finds:
“Individuals seem to tweet only when their minds are made up, whereas surveys can capture responses as individuals are making up their minds.
Twitter is where people go to reaffirm what they already believe, both by posting and sharing content.
That instinct could be channelled in other directions, but not without some form of curation and moderation on the platform. Left to their own devices, people will not seek out or engage critically with contrasting opinions.
“The social norms on Twitter disincentive individuals from publicly posting the kinds of internal debates they have on surveys that lead them to express more neutral attitudes.”
So, people post what they already feel sure of and they do so in strident terms.
Musk is laying off pretty much everyone who is responsible for moderating Twitter. That means we are left with millions of users just stating what they already believe to be true, as forcefully as possible. And we have no-one to contextualise these statements, so opinions are even more likely to be accepted as true by their audience.
In other words:
If Musk is intent on increasing the “social good”, he’d have been better off spending $44 billion to buy everyone on the planet a cushion to scream into.
Then we wouldn’t have public record of all the bile people want to spew, plus we’d have a cushion.
Now, you might contend that these statements reflect Twitter as it was when Musk bought it. If these content moderation and curation teams were so successful, why is Twitter already full of country club bores stating platitudes and fighting?
I would counter that you will see the impact of their difficult work through its absence.
There is an argument that Twitter allows users to discover new voices and opinions. I found the research study I linked to above by following a Wharton professor I only heard about two weeks ago, for example.
If used thoughtfully, it can even stimulate innovation. MIT research compares two hypothetical users and explains how careful management of one’s feed increases the likelihood of encountering new ideas:
That would be cause for optimism, were Musk not intent on charging people $8/month for a blue tick. He also says non-paying accounts will be suppressed in the content feed. That may be a lie (he has form), but we must take it at face value for the moment.
If you believe that intelligence and talent are randomly distributed, a more open Twitter is something to embrace. A Twitter that promotes the views of those wealthy and self-indulgent enough to pay for promotion would be quite the opposite.
We will be left with a self-selecting elite that pays to broadcast their opinions as fact.
This is at odds with any notion of “free speech” but as we identified in the introduction to this article, Musk is not interested in consistency. He’s not even concerned with his reputation as a clever businessman, such is his dedication to flux.
Is it all bad news?
There are functional improvements that would improve Twitter. These can be addressed by focused engineering work.
For example, have you ever tried searching for a historical tweet on there?
Given the amount of data Twitter has access to, it could be a powerful search engine.
It would also be possible for an enlightened leader to take some of the research on Twitter and design ways to increase its social utility. By nudging users to curate more varied feeds, Twitter could generate more of the conversational interactions it claims to champion. The notion of a self-organising “hive mind” is, if you’ll pardon the pun, for the birds.
There is a reason we have roads and traffic lights and speed limits. There is equally a reason we should govern social networks with a utilitarian interest in the collective good. It makes business sense, too.
Since Musk seems unlikely to grasp any of this, many of us are left a little saddened by what we are likely to lose.
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