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Twitter bird logo, but spooky
Illustration by Alex Castro

Welcome to hell, Elon

You break it, you buy it.

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You fucked up real good, kiddo.

Twitter is a disaster clown car company that is successful despite itself, and there is no possible way to grow users and revenue without making a series of enormous compromises that will ultimately destroy your reputation and possibly cause grievous damage to your other companies.

I say this with utter confidence because the problems with Twitter are not engineering problems. They are political problems. Twitter, the company, makes very little interesting technology; the tech stack is not the valuable asset. The asset is the user base: hopelessly addicted politicians, reporters, celebrities, and other people who should know better but keep posting anyway. You! You, Elon Musk, are addicted to Twitter. You’re the asset. You just bought yourself for $44 billion dollars.

The problem when the asset is people is that people are intensely complicated, and trying to regulate how people behave is historically a miserable experience, especially when that authority is vested in a single powerful individual.

What I mean is that you are now the King of Twitter, and people think that you, personally, are responsible for everything that happens on Twitter now. It also turns out that absolute monarchs usually get murdered when shit goes sideways.

Here are some examples: you can write as many polite letters to advertisers as you want, but you cannot reasonably expect to collect any meaningful advertising revenue if you do not promise those advertisers “brand safety.” That means you have to ban racism, sexism, transphobia, and all kinds of other speech that is totally legal in the United States but reveals people to be total assholes. So you can make all the promises about “free speech” you want, but the dull reality is that you still have to ban a bunch of legal speech if you want to make money. And when you start doing that, your creepy new right-wing fanboys are going to viciously turn on you, just like they turn on every other social network that realizes the same essential truth.

Actually, there’s a step before trying to get the ad money: it turns out that most people do not want to participate in horrible unmoderated internet spaces full of shitty racists and not-all-men fedora bullies. (This is why Twitter is so small compared to its peers!) What most people want from social media is to have nice experiences and to feel validated all the time. They want to live at Disney World. So if you want more people to join Twitter and actually post tweets, you have to make the experience much, much more pleasant. Which means: moderating more aggressively! Again, every “alternative” social network has learned this lesson the hard way. Like, over and over and over again.

Also, everyone crying about “free speech” conveniently ignores that the biggest threat to free speech in America is the fucking government, which seems completely bored of the First Amendment. They’re out here banning books, Elon! President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have identical policy positions on Section 230: they both want to repeal it. Do you know why? Because the First Amendment prohibits them from making explicit speech regulations, so they keep threatening to repeal the law that allows social networks to even exist in order to exert indirect pressure on content policy. It’s not subtle!

State governments are even less subtle: both Texas and Florida have passed speech regulations that overtly tell social media companies how to moderate, in open hostility to the First Amendment. Figuring out how to comply with these laws is not an engineering problem (not least because compliance might be impossible). It is a legal problem because these laws are blatantly unconstitutional, and the only appropriate response to them is to tell the government to shut up and go away. (A big problem here is that the courts are pretty stupid about the internet!) A challenge to these laws, partially funded by Twitter, is headed to the Supreme Court, which is the polar opposite of a predictable system: it is a group of uncool weirdos with lifetime appointments that can radically reshape American life however it wants.

You can’t deploy AI at this problem: you have to go out and defend the actual First Amendment against the bad laws in Texas and Florida, whose taxes you like and whose governors you seem pretty fond of. Are you ready for what that looks like? Are you ready to sit before Congress and politely decline to engage in their content capture sessions for hours on end? Are you ready to do any of this without the incredibly respected policy experts whose leader you first harassed and then fired? This is what you signed up for. It’s way more boring than rockets, cars, and rockets with cars on them.

And it gets worse the second you leave the United States! Germany is a huge market for Tesla. Are you going to flout Germany’s speech laws? I would bet not. The Indian government basically demands social media companies provide potential hostages in order to operate in that country; you can’t engineer your way out of that shit. Are you ready to experience the pressure Twitter faces in the Middle East to block and restrict accounts? Are you ready for the fact that the Iranian government will fucking murder people over their social media posts? (Are you ready for how Twitter is being used by Iranians protesting that government right now?) Are you excited for the Chinese government to find ways to threaten Tesla’s huge business in that country over content that appears on Twitter? Because it’s going to happen.

The essential truth of every social network is that the product is content moderation, and everyone hates the people who decide how content moderation works. Content moderation is what Twitter makes — it is the thing that defines the user experience. It’s what YouTube makes, it’s what Instagram makes, it’s what TikTok makes. They all try to incentivize good stuff, disincentivize bad stuff, and delete the really bad stuff. Do you know why YouTube videos are all eight to 10 minutes long? Because that’s how long a video has to be to qualify for a second ad slot in the middle. That’s content moderation, baby — YouTube wants a certain kind of video, and it created incentives to get it. That’s the business you’re in now. The longer you fight it or pretend that you can sell something else, the more Twitter will drag you into the deepest possible muck of defending indefensible speech. And if you turn on a dime and accept that growth requires aggressive content moderation and pushing back against government speech regulations around the country and world, well, we’ll see how your fans react to that.

Anyhow, welcome to hell. This was your idea.