Elon Musk Officially Bought Twitter — Now the Real Drama Starts
Unpacking the immediate aftermath of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover
By now, you’ve probably heard that Elon Musk finally made good on his words and officially bought Twitter for $44 billion a week ago. Predictably, chaos ensued, as Musk kicked out the senior executives and took over the company board, proposed to sell the “blue check” verification mark as a perk of Twitter Blue, and suggested major layoffs. Analysis by the Network Contagion Research Institute, a research group, shows that the use of the N-word on Twitter increased by almost 500% in the 12 hours after Musk announced he had completed the deal, as fringe hate groups on 4chan encouraged people to seize the moment to test the limit of “free speech” by amplifying derogatory slurs.
Already a controversial figure for some of his recent tweets, Musk’s erratic M.O. has not inspired much confidence from either users or brand advertisers. Estimates from Bot Sentinel suggest that more than 875,000 users deactivated their accounts between October 27 and November 1, while half a million more were suspended.
Even celebrities are voicing their dismay at the new owner. Celebrities like TV producer Shonda Rhimes, musician Sara Bareilles, and actors Jameela Jamil and Josh Gad made it known that they intended to delete their accounts or take a hiatus from Twitter in response to Elon Musk’s takeover, citing concerns about hate speech and misinformation on the platform, and disbelief that Musk would know how to properly deal with these thorny issues. While Twitter often lags its competitors in monetizing its platform, it does typically stand out for its outsized impact on public discourse and opinions. Considering celebrities are part of what keeps users on platforms, Twitter could lose some of its cachet as part of the zeitgeist if they actually leave the platform, or even start to engage with it less frequently.
While Twitter becomes a slow-motion clown car trainwreck, other tech companies are seizing the moment to reshape the social media landscape. This week alone, we have had a series of interesting social media updates that reflects the circumstances around Musk’s Twitter takeover:
First, Mastodon, an open-source decentralized social network that has been around for a few years, suddenly gained momentum among people looking for alternatives. The company said on Thursday that 230,000 people have joined Mastodon in the last week alone. Thanks to these new sign-ups as well as people returning to old accounts they had set up previously, the network now has 655,000 active users.
Similarly, Meta subsidiaries are not sitting this one out either. Instagram announced that starting this week, as part of a limited test, it will begin allowing a select group of digital creators to mint and sell NFTs on its platform, thus offering a potential new home for Twitter users with hexagon-shaped avatars, who are eager to discuss or promote crypto-related products.
Meanwhile, WhatsApp officially launched its new discussion group feature, Communities, this week, which can host group chats of up to 1,024 users, designed to help organizations, clubs, schools, and other private, interest-based groups to tbetter communicate and stay organized. Both Meta apps are trying to capitalize on the fact that some of Twitter’s communities are looking for new homes.
Moreover, Meta also expanded its “professional mode,” letting all creators globally earn money from various monetization programs, including Reels Play bonuses and subscriptions, potentially siphoning more creators away from Twitter, whose own monetization programs are still nascent.
Then there is the newsletter platform Substack, which is normally pretty far away from a social media platform. Yet, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie published a post stating that it’s time for a “real alternative” to Twitter, and plans features to let writers and readers “hang out”, show their status, and more. On Thursday, Substack announced a new opt-in Chat feature, which allows newsletter writers to host discussions with their subscribers, and foster more direct, personal relationships with their readers, similar to the way that DMs work on Twitter. Interestingly, Twitter reportedly plans to shut down the newsletter platform Revue it acquired in January 2021.
All these new social features and updates that popped up in the week since Elon Musk became Twitter’s owner are quite indicative of the destabilizing force that the billionaire provocateur has brought to the social media landscape. If Twitter’s divisiveness under Musk exacerbates, it could cause more to flee the platform and seek new habitats in strange places.
As Nilay Patel acutely pointed out in his widely-read op-ed on The Verge, the real product of any social media is content moderation, the quality of which is what separates a good user experience from a terrible one. We all go on social networks to see interesting, funny things that are relevant to our interests, and not to be inundated by offensive trolls and spam messages.
Yet, everyone hates the people who decide how content moderation works, because then it becomes not just a content issue, but a political issue on free speech and censorship. No wonder that US officials are now considering opening an investigation into Elon Musk’s Twitter deal and whether foreign investors, including a Saudi prince, might have been given special privileges to access user data. Until Elon Musk understands and processes this, Twitter’s chaotic drama is only starting, with him in the uncomfortable leading role.