Burning Down The House
10:46 AM EDT on May 14, 2023
Because Twitter is so big and open-ended, and because it is a product of the grandiose and impatient and deliriously shallow world of Silicon Valley, the ways in which it has been talked about by the people who talk about it most have mostly been ridiculous. For all the site has been—sometimes a place where important things happen, more often a place to watch less-important things happen alongside if not truly with other people, always a wall on which to write graffiti and a periscope that would show you a stranger being weird—it has never been what they said it was. The overheated register in which Silicon Valley types have tended to talk about Twitter as The Global Town Square, a horizonless agora in which all of humanity can meet to uh engage in free speech together or whatever, is how they always talk about whatever they are selling, right before they move on to selling something else. For better and worse, these people like Twitter—many people do—but they can't say why, or call it what it is. And so it has to bring people together, for the future's sake.
You can see the problem. It is a miraculous thing, or anyway an impressive one, to invent a platform on which anyone can speak to anyone/everyone else, about anything. But because these people don't really value people or togetherness very highly, or have much to say, or consider the future as anything but a place where they will become richer, they don't really know what to do with that. "Bringing people together" is a value-neutral thing, and a mass of humanity does not become a community—and is not prevented from becoming a mob—simply because they're all in the same place. Silicon Valley types want whatever's next because there might be money in it, but also they are fundamentally not very interested in inhabiting or maintaining the new realities they shape; it's too much like work. Maintaining things is hard, and requires much more care than making things does.
Over and over again, this limitation reveals itself. The capitalists forever engineering the future declare victory before the work is done, or even meaningfully begun, because they are bored and would like to cash out. It is bleakly funny to watch these recklessly wrought futures rise amid acclaim and then recede and recede to the size of their imagineers' actual vision. It's also a colossal waste. They just wind up iterating and re-iterating ever more optimized and anti-human versions of the present, in the hope that the next might finally be the one that runs itself.
This is why Elon Musk was always the worst possible person to own Twitter. Musk has long been one of the thirstiest, corniest, most tiresome posters on the site, which is saying quite a bit. More worryingly, though, Musk has used the site—relentlessly, exhaustingly, constantly—in a way that suggested he had no idea what it did, or how people actually used it, or even why they might. His posts were joke-shaped and troll-scented without ever containing humor or even identifiable trolling; his mentions were filled with supplicants and hangers-on, all talking over each other to promote their various business gambits and themselves, to the extent that any identifiable distinction existed. Musk's account increasingly alternated between fervid re-phrasings of reactionary cable news bugaboos—they're trying to make the Minions woke or whatever—and concerned-seeming replies to posts about the same dumb shit.
His priorities, upon assuming control, seemed to resolve to firing as many people as possible and bringing the site into line with both his peculiar personal conception of order, his world-historically dire sense of humor, his opaque but ominous personal politics, and his cohort's metastatic sense of ambition, which dictated that every site's aspiration should be to become the entire internet. Musk moved quickly, and broke things—the things and systems and livelihoods he was determined to break, but also the technology that prevented the site from boosting animal torture videos. Everything got much worse, and much more like Musk's own posts and replies. "Basically, he’s taken all the good things about the site and made them very bad," Dan Ozzi wrote in his REPLY-ALT newsletter. "He invented problems that didn’t exist and ‘fixed’ them in the most comically disastrous fashion."
This is familiar. For all of Musk’s luridly corny extravagances, he has always been defined by his deficits. He wants very much to be funny, but manifestly is not; he wants to be seen as brilliant and heterodox and fearless, but has the opinions and tastes and politics of a very rich middle-aged man who isn’t especially curious or literate; he sees himself, or anyway sells himself, as a visionary and a pioneer, but has revealed himself time after time to be a classically cretinous capitalist. Musk's vision for humanity is grandiose and obscure; his impulse to stomp on anyone unlucky to find themselves working under him has always been more clearly and shamelessly expressed. His big ideas unfailingly reveal themselves to be either grubbing for state subsidy or "buy and pave a space, and put up a gate at the entrance." The first was off the table, and so Musk attempted to turn the free site he'd bought into a subscription-driven business.
This would not work as business because, as Ed Zitron has noted, the ham-handed subscription service that Musk created aligned much more closely with his strange understanding of the site than it did with any observable desire in the marketplace; also characteristically, neither the site itself nor the subscription services worked very well. More broadly, the attempt to bring the site to heel was doomed to fail because Twitter is too messy. This is not an engineering failure; it's foundational. That mess is functionally what the site is, both the elemental output unit of its users' labor and, in aggregate, the product that Twitter puts up for sale. Musk tried to impose order where the site was least under control and therefore most vital and valuable, seemingly because he does not really approve of other people; he introduced chaos into the elements of the company that once ordered the mess enough to make it legible to users and sellable to advertisers. He did that part because he's a showboat and a dunce.
If this is making circa-now Twitter sound bad, I assure you that it is actually far worse. There is no level at which the site can be said to function effectively, except as a representation of Musk's priorities. In that regard, though, it is fascinating. The (poignantly small) percentage of Twitter users who paid for Musk's subscription service received, for their money, the right to have their replies slotted in atop everyone else's and algorithmically boosted in a special feed. This means that some strange people who previously believed that their posts had been unjustly suppressed are now finding a bigger audience, very much against that audience's will.
The various scammers and hustlers and aspiring drop-shipping magnates and inexplicably self-assured freelance life-coach types are all there, of course. They are drawn to Musk because they aspire to be rich and epic themselves, and post as if their livelihoods depend upon it, holding forth at great length and with little depth on whatever they think might redound to their benefit. As in all the worst online spaces, there is a sense that the hucksters outnumber the marks; a trench of jostling anglerfish, gaping and preening and starving for lack of prey.
Which is remarkable, actually, considering that the largest percentage of Twitter Blue subscribers are people whose identity as howlingly obvious marks seems to have supplanted virtually everything else about them. They are drawn to Elon for the same reason that moths crisp themselves on lightbulbs. It is difficult to imagine what kind of person would give money to the richest man in the world on pure servile principle, but observing them only confuses things more. Most posting is difficult to parse, given the amount of lore and lingo inherent to the site, but there are levels of incomprehensibility previously unknown and unimagined—homebrewed memes that are somehow greasy to the eye; acid social commentary delivered very confidently to empty rooms; little glimpses of baroquely gnarled personal worldviews revealing themselves through superheated replies to like ABC News. These accounts use Twitter in the same way that people use the comment sections on local newspapers' websites—as a place to say the most disgusting and spiteful thing they can think of at that moment, or to ask why something is news, or just to see if anyone is out there.
Many of these users struggle with what the humorist Dave Barry long ago called “humor impairment,” which was less the inability to make or take a joke and more an inability to perceive one. As with Musk himself, there is the sense that somewhere along the line a string of cry-laughing emojis have tragically supplanted the capacity or willingness to laugh. The shape of a laugh is important to how these users express themselves—the jarring mirthless cackle of Tucker Carlson, who revealed last week that he plans to move his show to Twitter somehow, or a burst of ROFL's that says "I am laughing in a wised-up way at this stranger's dismay about a school shooting"—but the actual form and content of laughter seems somehow out of reach, or too great a risk.
It makes sense that these users would be drawn to Musk, even to the point of posting like him, because he resembles them in his sour incuriosity, and is aspirational in his impunity and wealth. As it happens, that type of rich authoritarian—distractible, idly vicious, relatable in his proud pissy cretinousness—already has an avatar in American politics. Musk sought out this population of blowhards and temporarily embarrassed grand inquisitors and armchair genocidaires, and they invariably found him, but this is a tough crowd. Where Musk has struggled to keep that constituency happy, it reflects less on his seemingly sincere receptiveness to their hair-trigger credulity, bigotry, and vengefulness and more on the fact that these people are fundamentally unappeasable, and fundamentally opposed to being appeased.
This worldview, as expressed through a sprawling cast of independent operators, is built around not just incubating but selling a very specific type of grievance. Each of those operators is the protagonist of their own dim hero's journey; so is Musk. But there's no community or coalition to find, because the selfishness that defines this politics is inherently so unstable. There are just too many enemies in it for the world to make sense as anything but a concentric field of threats. Musk held some appeal in this context as a potential annihilating godhead, but he was always going to disappoint—not because he is clumsy, or insufficiently brutal, but because this politics is grounded in disappointment.
These people live to be betrayed, as they believed themselves to be when Musk announced last week that he would be hiring a politically conservative NBC executive and former Trump appointee as the company's CEO. The conservative influencer Cat Turd 2, whose approval Musk has sought with unseemly vigor, immediately declared the CEO "a far left loon deeply infected with the woke mind virus." The incoming CEO's role with the World Economic Forum was disqualifying for reasons seemingly too dire to identify but possibly having to do with COVID vaccines. Twitter subscribers threatened to cancel their subscriptions; Cat Turd 2 declared Twitter dead.
For all the overwrought ways in which Twitter has been described—Carlson called it "the place where our national conversation incubates and develops" in announcing his move—the comparison that always made the most sense was too small-bore for the big-thinking types. I've always thought of Twitter as a house party that I could visit or leave at my leisure. Different things were happening in different rooms, some of them for me and some of them very much not. Over time I learned how to find the scenes and conversations I liked, and came to recognize the people I saw in those rooms as friends. (The owners were of course not around.) This is a fine thing for a website to be, I think.
But if you are the sort of person who goes to parties aiming to win, or just spend your time there haranguing other partygoers to buy the supplements stacked in your garage or agree with your awful political opinions or just interrupting other people's conversations by saying "whatever!" or "sounds woke!"—in that case, you would not have fun there. Some of those people would leave. Others, because they are more ambitious or angrier or lonelier or some combination of the three, would stay while growing ever more upset about how they were being treated. They would also tend to avoid the other people who seem to be feeling the same way, due to not wanting to associate with less-successful types. They might forget that they could leave; things might get dark.
They might think, while circulating and periodically lobbing hate speech into rooms full of people they've come to regard as enemies, that it could be funny, or anyway not entirely undeserved, to just burn the house down with everyone inside it. The more those people navigated that rapidly emptying space—other people were leaving, things suddenly felt edgy and crowded and late—the less sure they would become that they were joking. Maybe they really did want to burn it down, on principle or just out of spite. But you'd need a lot of money to do that.