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This Week in Elon: smashing the irony button

Elon has some big ideas for Twitter

Image: Dami Lee

Elon Musk may want out of his deal with Twitter, but he has some ideas about how to run the bird app, and they involve layoffs, subscriptions, and… a sarcasm button. Musk turned up on Thursday for a video chat with Twitter employees, and the employees promptly leaked its contents to reporters — including my Verge colleague Alex Heath and The New York Times’ Mike Isaac, who ran a liveblog of the event while it was happening. An apparent digression about aliens notwithstanding, the meeting’s results were fairly predictable but illuminating for anybody who’s spent too much time obsessing over ominous phrases like “authenticate all humans” in the past few months.

In Thursday’s meeting, Musk had the energy of a rich MMORPG fan who buys a studio so he can implement his totally rad spell and weapon designs while beleaguered game designers worry about the day-to-day operations of their jobs. (In fairness to rich gamers, when this once literally happened, at least the devs weren’t imploring their new boss to stop trash-talking them in public.) Twitter employees asked repeatedly about whether they’ll be able to work from home, getting a pledge from Musk that “exceptional” workers can remain remote. In less positive developments, Musk reiterated hints that Twitter will cut jobs to become profitable. That plan sits alongside tactics like upselling Twitter users on subscriptions and adding TikTok-style algorithmic recommendations, plus your average internet-company mainstays like payment processing.

Playing Twitter technoking might be more fun than dealing with the rest of Musk’s business empire this week. Tesla’s cars are getting more expensive (along with everything else) and employees are getting laid off. His lawyers are still seeking a sympathetic court for his years-long tweet-fueled battle with the SEC, and they’ll probably bill Musk a few more hours to handle a crypto buyer’s long-shot lawsuit accusing him of Dogecoin racketeering. The FAA is asking SpaceX to make a round of changes in its Texas launch site, while SpaceX employees are circulating an open letter asking Musk to, for God’s sake, stop tweeting. SpaceX has reportedly responded by firing at least five of them, a move reminiscent of some retaliation that got him in legal hot water back at Tesla.

At Twitter, Musk still has no responsibilities. He told employees that he wants to “drive the product in a particular direction” in the long term, but he’s “​​not hung up on titles” and doesn’t really care about being CEO. For now, he can just dial in on his crappy hotel Wi-Fi and riff on potential new features like an “irony” label that indicates whether tweets are serious or not. But the more Musk talks about what he’d change, the more contradictory his vision gets.

As funny as I find the concept of an irony button, it’s a classic type of addition to the service: something users hacked together a solution for years ago, integrated into the formal interface. (/srs!) But Musk also seems to be simply throwing ideas at the wall and walking them back when questioned, with no clear vision beyond “get a billion users and become wildly profitable,” a far cry from his early calls for unfettered speech. He’s willing to casually propose plans that would upend how Twitter works, but when pressed, he retreats into positions the company has effectively held for years.

Take the aforementioned authentication of “all” humans, something Musk promoted as a way to fight spambots. Verifying that each Twitter user represents a real person would likely be disruptive and erode anonymity, a feature pre-Musk Twitter has fought to preserve. Possibly for that reason, Musk scaled the idea back in Thursday’s meeting, discussing a possible Twitter Blue authentication service where people would pay to prove they’re a human and have their allegedly more trustworthy tweets prioritized. The thing is, Twitter already prioritizes things like replies based on account credibility. And if you’re concerned about freedom of speech, there’s a real tradeoff to massively prioritizing users based on their ability to pay. So Musk’s proposal will either involve slightly tweaking something Twitter already does, or it will seriously compromise ordinary non-billionaire users’ ability to speak.

Musk drew a similarly well-trodden distinction between “freedom of speech” and “freedom of reach” on Thursday. “I think people should be allowed to say pretty outrageous things that are within the bounds of the law, but then that doesn’t get amplified, it doesn’t get, you know, a ton of reach,” he said. “We have to strike this balance of allowing people to say what they want to say but also make people comfortable on Twitter, or they simply won’t use it.” The speech / reach division has been a common talking point for years among platform executives, and reducing sketchy content’s visibility is standard operating procedure for Facebook and Twitter itself. It’s a core piece of the vision for Bluesky, the open-source Twitter offshoot that predates Musk, and more time-tested decentralized platforms like Mastodon have grappled with the complications of the principle.

It’s also a supremely ironic thing for Musk to call for because Musk has complained repeatedly about Twitter restricting the reach of content, particularly his content. In April, he was speculating about a “shadow ban council” suppressing a tweet insulting Bill Gates, and shadowbanning is the purest expression of limiting reach: you can see your pretty outrageous tweet, but other people don’t have to. Musk has suggested that it’s different if the limits are transparent, so Twitter can solve any problems by making its recommendation algorithms “open source” and letting people examine them. As Will Knight at Wired has explained, this is a red herring. There are real benefits to opening up social networks’ algorithmic black boxes, but it almost certainly won’t tell the average person whether their “Bill Gates looks like a pregnant man” tweet should organically have more faves.

Musk has, for lack of a better term, a commitment to a particular free speech aesthetic. He likes provocative trolling and portrays himself as part of a common-sense straight-talking middle of American politics, stating in Thursday’s meeting that he is “the center of the normal distribution of political views in the country.” (It’s true that he has his political bases with both parties covered, but he also recently tweeted support for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — a stridently far-from-centrist Republican — becoming president.) He frequently describes his support for speaking “within the bounds of the law,” repeating the phrase at least three times in the Q&A.

When confronted with the many problems that stated commitment poses, though, Musk sounds like any other risk-averse social network operator. If anything, he seems unusually interested in shaping what gets seen on Twitter. Per Recode’s meeting transcript, one of his big-picture goals is for Twitter to offer a more socially conscious version of TikTok’s powerful recommendation algorithm, pushing interesting and informative tweets to users (I’ve lightly edited the quote for a bit more, uh, clarity):

It’s important to make Twitter as attractive as possible. And really, that means not showing people content that they would find hateful or offensive, or even frankly content they would find boring is not good. We don’t even want them to see boring content. Unless — we were talking about TikTok last night. And TikTok obviously does a great job of making sure you’re not bored.

[...]

You know, TikTok is interesting, but, like, you want to be informed about serious issues as well. And I think Twitter, in terms of serious issues, can be a lot better for informing people about serious issues. I do think it’s important that if there are two sides to an issue, it’s important to represent multiple opinions. But you know, and just make sure that we’re not sort of driving narrative. There’ll be — give people an opportunity to understand the various sides of issues.

TikTok is a fascinating case study on the line between moderation and invasive censorship. It has almost completely escaped accusations of political bias, even during that weird period where Trump wanted to ban it from the country — possibly because the people who shape free speech discourse don’t congregate there much. But far from not “driving narrative,” its algorithm has produced a bizarre emergent vocabulary thanks to soft bans on words like “suicide” and has changed the way a generation speaks. Algospeak is everywhere. It’s the kind of system that should prompt deep consideration of social networks’ power.

Instead, Musk seems as confident as ever in his power to dictate apolitical and neutral moderation — assuming he ever actually gets to wield the banhammer.