Will we look back and see that, despite initial chaos, Musk averted Twitter’s demise and built something incredible?
By Johan Steyn, 22 November 2022
Tweet, tweet, chirp, chirp. The “modern town square” and its new boss filled the virtual airwaves in recent weeks with a flip-flop dance of mania. Elon Musk made me think of a man who proposed to marry a woman, and then said he would not. He proposes once more, only to change his mind again. All this with a cool $44bn lobola hanging in the balance.
At long last the wedding takes place. The honeymoon is a disaster. The groom is a narcissist who tells his new bride she needs to work gruelling hours cleaning the house. He expects “extremely hard-core” commitment otherwise she may just as well leave, never to return.
This is classical Musk. Known for working long hours like a madman, even sleeping on the floor of the businesses he has built, he expects the same from those around him.
In April I wrote this in Business Day: “Twitter: the modern town square is in trouble. I am a great fan of Musk but I am greatly concerned that the wealthiest person alive could become the owner of a force that shapes world opinion. The modern town square is in trouble.”
Reflecting on this I recently wondered if Twitter really is that important. Many employees showed Musk the proverbial middle finger and left, not willing to work like crazy people. With so many jumping ship, will the platform crash? And if so, what then?
It is one thing to get rid of the fake accounts, the trolls, but now also the people? What is he doing? Will we one day look back and see that, despite the initial chaos, Musk not only prevented Twitter’s demise but that he built something incredible?
If, in the meanwhile, the platform crashes, will we notice? Is Twitter really that important? There are already hints that the exodus is straining the system. Some users reported having difficulty obtaining the required verification messages for two-factor authentication. It has been reported that test pages have appeared live.
Some users report receiving a renewed onslaught of spam in direct messages and on their feeds, while others report receiving new replies to long-deleted tweets and the disappearance of their saved tweet drafts.
Twitter will not be abruptly and completely shut down. However, security experts have warned that the drastic layoffs could make it simpler for malicious actors to compromise user accounts by exploiting the platform’s vulnerabilities.
Twitter’s strength resides in its capacity to function as a global water cooler, a constant backchannel for informal contact and the propagation of gossip. It is a place for the exchange of ideas and arguments among influential individuals, thus what occurs there can have real-world effects.
What Twitter lacks in financial resources, size, and development potential it makes up for in a manner that is much more difficult to define, which is perhaps what makes it so intriguing. It has an outsize effect on the media we consume, the stories we hear, and the way we live.
I suspect that Musk will prove his critics wrong, once again. But the price to pay for Twitter’s future success will be much more than a lobola.
• Steyn is on the faculty at Woxsen University, a research fellow at Stellenbosch University and founder of AIforBusiness.net