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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Elon Musk’s Need for Speed Puts Twitter in Peril

Hi, everyone. Life is good because the Phillies are in the World Series! (Disclosure: I’m from Philadelphia.) Uh-oh, they just got no-hit. Booooo!

The Plain View

In May 1998, I visited Steve Jobs at Apple headquarters to hear his plans for reviving Apple. He had been its interim CEO for almost a year, after returning to the company that fired him over a decade earlier. Greeting me in the boardroom of his suite at One Infinite Loop, he went to the whiteboard and began scrawling out his solution to the company’s business woes. He had a new product plan, a new product, and a workforce revitalized by an inspiring ad campaign.

At the time, Jobs had been developing personal computers for 20 years, his entire adult life. He was intimately familiar with the company he was suddenly running because he had founded it and led the team that created its flagship product. In his years away from Apple, he had founded another computer company with a forward-thinking approach to the internet and next-generation operating systems. Plus, he was Steve Jobs. If anyone could quickly turn around the near-bankrupt computer giant, it would be him. Yet it took him months to come up with his plan and years to bring it to fruition. While the colorful iMac he unveiled to me that day in May would help nudge Apple’s bottom line back into the black, it wasn’t until the company’s entry into non-PC devices—like the iPod in 2001 and the iPhone in 2007—that it became a profit machine. And Apple’s post-PC future wasn’t even on Jobs’ road map in 1998.

When Elon Musk took over Twitter last week, he was in a somewhat similar situation to Jobs in 1998. Twitter has been losing money and gotten stuck as a second-tier social network in terms of audience. But what had originally motivated Musk, according to his own tweets and statements, was that he regarded Twitter as the world’s Town Hall. He was going to allow more, freer speech on the platform, and fast. Adding to the urgency was that Musk financed some of his takeover with bank loans and now had to pay off the debt. Musk immediately began making moves to change Twitter’s fortunes, literally and culturally.

If hubris had a hall of fame, Musk would be a first-ballot shoo-in. He believes his Musk-itude will enable him to do what generations of previous Twitter leaders could not even begin to accomplish, swatting away historical precedent like an annoying gnat. Twitter began in 2006 but didn’t take off until almost a year later, when it became a hit at the South by Southwest conference. From then on, it experienced huge growth. A 2009 memo quoted then-CEO Evan Williams saying in a strategy meeting, “If we had a billion users, that will be the pulse of the planet.” At the time, a billion Twitter users seemed plausible, if not inevitable. And Williams believed that with this base, it would be easy to concoct a business plan that made the company wildly profitable. But Twitter never got even half of those billion users, and while it seemed to come up with a good ad-based business model, it has had only two years of profit in its almost 20 years on earth. Every person who has led Twitter has tried to boost user growth and solidify profits. Evan Williams tried. Dick Costolo tried. Jack Dorsey tried, twice. Over and over, smart people who knew the workings of the platform from the inside tried and failed to boost Twitter from an important speech platform to a giant tech power. Musk, a Twitter superuser who is only now learning how Twitter works as a company, is gunning to do it—or at least to figure out how to do it—before he puts up his Christmas tree.

Musk need not look farther than his own successful enterprises to realize the absurdity of his haste. When he took over Tesla in 2008, the company was already five years old. Musk came up with a brilliant plan to turn the company around—but it didn’t post an annual profit until 2020, 17 years after incorporation. Musk deservedly gets a lot of credit for what Tesla has achieved—and for, among other things, his persistence. SpaceX, Musk’s other company, is private and doesn’t report earnings. But making rocket ships is the ultimate test of patience—it takes years to even launch successfully, and cutting corners to go faster can wind up killing people.

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Of course, social media moves faster than space programs, and since Twitter has losses and debt, speed is critical in its turnaround plan. But not reckless speed. There’s a general understanding that Twitter’s workforce must be pruned, but moving too fast might lead to firing some of the talent that could bring the company back. (Jobs’ vetting of Apple’s workforce led him to an unsung young designer named Jonny Ive, who had expected to be laid off.) Also—it’s a bad idea to not honor contracts when you fire people because they might file distracting lawsuits.

Musk has assembled a “war room” with a few of his friends and associates. “He’s throwing shit at the wall and seeing what might work,” one Twitter employee tells me. What are they coming up with? One idea is to charge for the blue check mark that verifies certain people on Twitter—celebrities, government officials, journalists (I have one)—are who they say they are. It’s a bad idea. Checkmarks are more valuable for Twitter than they are for the recipients—people are more likely to use a service when they are confident who is speaking. Still Musk likes it as way to garner subscription revenue and somehow put big names on the same level as the hoi polloi. It’s like saying Taylor Swift should pay people to listen to her songs. Musk’s original suggestion was that Twitter charge $20 a month for a check mark. The pushback was fierce, but entertaining—a reminder of how Twitter can be as fun to watch as professional wrestling, only with 280-character zingers instead of choke holds. Author Stephen King tweeted that if Twitter charged him, he’d be “gone like Enron.” Musk began to bargain. “We need to pay the bills somehow! How about $8?”

King didn’t agree. “It ain’t the money, it’s the principle of the thing,” he tweeted, but Musk somehow took the exchange as a sign that $8 was a perfect price. Hey, he’s moving fast. As of this writing, the fee may kick in as soon as next week. Elon thinks it will be awesome. “Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit,” he tweets. “Power to the people!” He’s got it exactly backwards—the blue check mark levels the playing field by letting the “peasants,” as Musk calls his own users, interact with public figures with confidence that they are indeed who they profess to be. For instance, Elon knew it was really King he was responding to because of the blue check mark.

The war room has another idea for a rapid turnaround: The resurrection of Vine, Twitter’s lamented short-form video product that it killed in 2016, largely because competitors like Instagram were trouncing it. Still, you can make a case that Vine could have become something like TikTok, which crossed the magic billion-user line last year. Musk has reportedly demanded that engineers bring Vine back to life by the end of year. Full speed ahead! But one insider tells me that the old code base is pitifully outdated and the best approach might be to start from scratch, making the product fit for 2023. Meanwhile, Vine was discontinued in the first place because it was considered a distraction that would take too long to grow into something significant. Remember, Jobs saved Apple by clearing the deck of distractions, ruthlessly paring its product line, even if it meant killing promising ones. (One victim of the purge: the handheld Newton device, a progenitor of the iPhone.)

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As if Musk’s task isn’t hard enough, he makes it harder for himself by incessant trolling on the platform he now owns. It’s great to see a multibillionaire having so much fun, but his goofy remarks and propensity for tweeting half-baked ideas don’t build confidence. Some of his tweets are outright destructive. What possible justification did Musk have for retweeting a conspiracy theory about the violent assault on Nancy Pelosi’s husband by a man police say was set on kidnapping the Speaker of the House? Musk has cheerfully admitted, “I play the fool on Twitter and often shoot myself in the foot.” But he’s now running a race, and feet are important.

I’m pounding on Musk here, but I don’t underestimate him. Musk didn’t become the world’s richest human by accident. Just like there are times when using Telsa's Autopilot that it’s wise to take control, he understands that course-correction might be in order. The Pelosi tweet amplified corporations’ fears that Twitter might become too toxic for their ads. General Motors had already announced a pause in its advertising on the platform, and others are questioning their own ad buys, concerned about a rise in unsavory content they don’t want to see alongside their brands. So on October 28, the day after he took control of Twitter, Musk seemingly hit the brakes on the anything-goes free-speech transformation he had been trumpeting for months. “Twitter will be forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints,” he tweeted. “No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.” He was trying to reassure the Twitterverse that it wouldn’t be overrun by Trumpies and hate speechers. Not to mention Trump himself.

It’s not clear that Musk understood the implications of tossing that bolt from his war room atop Olympus. You don’t just whip up a content moderation board by convening a bunch of bleeding-hearts in an Airbnb. When Facebook, now Meta, set up the Oversight Board to look at its content moderation decisions, the group took more than two years to make a ruling on its first cases. Meta’s board has now publicly offered to help Musk form and operate his council. He hasn’t responded.

Still, Musk’s announcement was a concession to the reality that content moderation isn’t as simple as he once claimed. And he further delved into the complexities of refereeing Twitter speech by hosting a Zoom meeting this week with civil rights leaders and experts on social media. In the 45-minute session he mostly listened, agreeing with demands that he make no changes to Twitter’s policies before the upcoming midterm elections. When he spoke, it was to voice agreement. “He said he does not want Twitter to be a hate modifier,” says Yael Eisenstat, a security expert who was on the call.

One of the main demands of the ad-hoc group was for Musk to slow down, something he apparently isn’t hearing in his war room. They asked for a moratorium on rule changes and decisions to bring back people banned from Twitter for unacceptable behavior, at least until the company has sorted out its rules. And Musk agreed.

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But when he tweeted about the session afterwards, the group had a surprise. “We had asked him to take months to come up with new policies,” says Eisenstat, who says Musk agreed to that at the meeting. But in his tweet he said it would take “at least a few more weeks.” History, be gone!

Time Travel

In my May 1998 Newsweek article about Steve Jobs’ Apple revival—with the new iMac the symbol of its improved fortunes—I described his methodical approach to a company turnaround. If Twitter had existed then, would Jobs have used it to give his followers a real-time account of the process? No way.

Jobs explains that his “reluctant” acceptance of the task was tied to his belief that “the world would be a slightly better place with Apple Computer.” Some of his friends, however, think that his motivation was more intensely personal. “No matter how famous Pixar becomes, Steve is known for Apple; if Apple is tarnished, Steve is tarnished,” says former Apple exec Heidi Roizen. Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle who accepted Jobs's offer of a board seat, adds, “Apple is like a child who has a drug problem—Steve has come back to straighten her out.”

How did he begin the task? First by making peace with Apple's former blood enemy, Bill Gates. Coexistence with the dominant player was Apple's only survival strategy. The deal announced last August assured that Microsoft would continue writing Mac software, a vital prerequisite to any recovery. Then, in an even more controversial move, Jobs ended the policy of licensing Apple's software to other computer makers, contending that those “clones” sucked up profits that were rightfully Apple's.

But most important, he says, “Apple needed a plan.” Jobs believed that there was sufficient talent at Apple to regain glory, but no coherent strategy. ([Former CEO Gil] Amelio disputes this, insisting that many of Jobs's initiatives are carryovers from his tenure.) To demonstrate this, Jobs scrawls the names of Apple's mid-1997 product line on a whiteboard. There's the 1400, the 3400, the 6500 … 15 in all. “And you know how many we make now?” he asks. “Zero.” The idea was to concentrate efforts on Apple's key markets: publishing, education, and consumer. Ultimately the product list would be winnowed to four: desktop and laptops for the consumer and the professional.

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But it would not be easy. “Focus does not mean saying yes, it means saying no,” Jobs says. “I was Dad. And that was hard.”

Ask Me One Thing

Teemu asks “How much more tech can we integrate into our daily lives? What is the saturation point? Metaverse?”

Thanks for the question, Teemu. I sense that you feel personally that the saturation point is here, and anything else would be an overload. I know what you mean—when you take a step back and see how much technology is woven into our lives it seems like we humans have been overwhelmed by what we’ve built. But in practice, we live our lives not a step back, but right in the middle. When amazing things become available—cars, television, iPhones—we gobble them up because they’re fun and useful. When drawbacks later become apparent, we’re already hooked.

You may not want to hear this, but as far as adopting more technology, we’re nowhere near a saturation point. There probably isn’t a saturation point. Better AI and advances in biotechnology and brain science are going to make our current relationship with technology seem kind of quaint. When we take that step back and ask what the hell happened, there will be plenty of hand-wringing about what we lost when we became part of a giant collective intelligence that actually isn’t so intelligent and might not like us human beings. But it probably won’t make a difference, and we’ll keep using the new cool things. Plus, I predict we’ll still have sports betting!

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

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This houseplant may eat your life.

In DC, our algorithmic overlords are already here, automating processes like housing applications, finding fraud in food assistance, and informing sentencing decisions.

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