Jack Shafer: The Old Twitter Is Doomed But Musk Still Might Save It

From a Jack Shafer Fourth Estate column on politico.com headlined “The Old Twitter Is Doomed”:

Is Elon Musk now running Twitter, or is he running it into the ground? His many critics have rushed to the barricades to denounce the self-described “Chief Twit,” less than a week into his tenure. You have celebrities announcing their Twitter departures. A top Democrat calling for a national security investigation into a Saudi conglomerate’s investment in the social media site. Another Democrat predicting Twitter will turn into a “sewer of hateful and harmful content.” European regulators throwing their arms in the air over the purchase. Analysts saying the debt load Musk assumed to buy Twitter might sink it. Horselaughs erupting at the news of his plan to charge verified account users $19.99 a month (whittled down to $8 a month after a quick Musk rethink).

Wherever you look, press coverage of Musk’s Twitter acquisition foretells chaos, greater political oversight and outright failure. All of that might come to pass with his purchase of Twitter. After all, Musk’s rockets have been known to blow up on liftoff. On landing. And during ground tests. Both SpaceX and Tesla, the firms that have made him the world’s richest man, came close to bankruptcy in the past decade. Tesla’s self-driving software, Autopilot, has been linked to 10 vehicular deaths, making Musk and it the target of negative publicity.

But the most salient thing about Musk’s many flops is that he’s undeterred by failure and habituated to risk. First, his Tesla seemed doomed. It flourished. Then, explosions of his SpaceX rockets became a running joke. Musk got the last laugh. “NASA tries to model everything to the nth degree,” space analyst David Todd recently told Science magazine. “SpaceX works on the basis of ‘test it until it breaks.’”

Other grand Musk bets remain light years away from triumph — his cyborg company Neuralink, his tunnel-boring technology and his Tesla Cybertruck, announced in 2019 and still not released — yet he grinds on. Twitter might ultimately collapse under Musk. After all, a social media company is a very different beast than an electric car or rocket company.

But Musk’s unceasing appetite for risk — wild, frothing, blind risk — paired with his phenomenal successes, argues against Twitter’s immediate demise. Using the past as a guide, Musk will perpetually overpromise from the Twitter tiller while keeping it in the public eye long enough to apply transformative change to it. He might fail, but if he does, the explosion will be glorious.

Musk has a strong attraction to businesses with unlimited upsides, says Edward Niedermeyer, a frequent Musk critic and the author of Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors. PayPal, a radical new way to send and receive money that Musk helped found, now has 429 million accounts in more than 200 markets. Tesla has sold 3.2 million cars and shifted the entire auto market in its electric direction. SpaceX put more satellites into orbit in the first quarter of 2022 than all other countries and companies combined. (Is there a greater venue for an upside than outer space?) Whether Twitter as presently constituted has the upside potential of a PayPal, Tesla or SpaceX is eminently debatable, adds Niedermeyer in an interview. “He’s not operating in a space with this mystique where he can pass off his decisions and moves as genius without people questioning him,” he says.

He’s had at least one early stumble, giving air to far-right conspiracy theories about the attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband only to delete his tweet not long after. It gave grist to Musk skeptics who warn his plans to promote “free speech” on the platform will simply create a haven for misinformation. One major advertising firm is recommending its clients temporarily pause any ads on Twitter.

Musk’s showmanship also allows him to fill the air with the sort of promotional chaff that spoofs his critics’ radar long enough to prevail and sneak on to the next battle. He’s notorious for displaying half-finished prototype vehicles held together with tape and clips. So be on the vigil for Musk hype. But also be prepared for him to turn Twitter into something new, and successful. As the tech press has written, Musk has given ample warning that he intends to uproot Twitter from its post-and-chat duties and replant it as a “super app” like China’s WeChat, which performs the function of a dozen apps at once: travel, shopping, chat, games, ride-hailing, banking, food delivery, photo sharing and shopping.

Such a Twitter makeover may have already been in the cards before Musk’s first bid in April, according to a recent Reuters report. An internal Twitter study found that heavy tweeters, who make up less than 10 percent of monthly overall users but generate 90 percent of all tweets and half of global revenue, have been in decline since the pandemic began. And that decline shows no sign of recovery. Nobody would pay $44 billion for a declining company that hasn’t made money in eight of its past 10 years unless they were prepared to visit creative destruction for the property. Musk’s wholesale firing of Twitter executives and his initial plans to dismiss 25 percent of its workforce foretell the doom of the old Twitter. But the firings will also recruit software engineers and other talents who want to work at a place that intends both moonshots and Mars-shots. The Musk ethos of failing quickly in public and using the data to build and try again has attracted some of the world’s sharpest engineers to Tesla and SpaceX. Perhaps it will work similar wonders for Twitter.

Niedermeyer warns that Musk’s hubris might bring him down this time. “He’s like a guy who’s been at the casino for like all night long on [a] hot hand,” he says. “He keeps rolling.”

Is Musk incredibly smart or incredibly lucky? When your engineering and business philosophy is to test everything until it breaks, smarts and luck are the only things that will keep you safe from going up in flames with your product. The users who are quitting Twitter and the legislators calling for investigations might be doing Musk a favor by helping him to bury last year’s Twitter so he can more quickly build the new model.

Jack Shafer is an American journalist who writes about media for Politico. Prior to joining Politico, he worked for Reuters and also edited and wrote the column “Press Box” for Slate, an online magazine. Before his stay at Slate, Shafer edited two city weeklies, Washington City Paper and SF Weekly.

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