Manager or meme?

Is Musk’s takeover of Twitter a good thing, a disaster, or just very funny?  

Artillery Row

So, it looks like Elon Musk is buying Twitter after all. The howls of left-wing busybodies make for a beautiful noise. Many of them are threatening to leave the platform, which, as appealing as it sounds, is about as liable to happen as celebrities leaving for Canada if Trump is re-elected. (Perhaps Jameela Jamil has gone for good but if she reappears saying that the world needs her tweets, will anyone be shocked?)

We should ask ourselves why Twitter matters in the first place

There are reasons to be cheerful about the sale. Twitter censorship has been absurd, from blocking the New York Post’s truthful reportage about Hunter Biden’s laptop to suspending the satirical website The Babylon Bee for “misgendering” a US government official. All kinds of more-or-less arbitrary disappearances and reappearances are a daily feature of the site. Musk’s ownership of Twitter could protect the free exchange of ideas and information at a time when our political elites are using it as a scapegoat. British politicians, for example, shamelessly exploited the death of David Amess MP, who was murdered by a jihadist, to advocate for “online safety”.

Restricting speech on Facebook has long been a political concern of the bright and beautiful. Twitter, though? That’s more personal. Back in its earlier days it was a bit of a hugbox — filled with Dr Who references, puns and Stephen Fry. Free speech was defended hotly, such as when a British user was prosecuted for joking that he would blow up Robin Hood Airport if it didn’t stop cancelling flights.

Yet as Twitter expanded — and especially as Brexit and Trump inched closer — darker, ruder and more dissident voices started to proliferate. The media, political and academic classes had never been faced with such hostility, or seen average schmucks exceed their status. When columnists log onto Twitter to find a bunch of random people calling them stupid, or see the opinions of a random person with a preposterous pseudonym have far more reach than theirs, it pains them less because of its real-world effects than because it wounds their egos.

His posting has won him fans but it bears little relation to what he does at Tesla

As much as reactive pessimism is annoying, though, I want to add a dash of doubt to people’s champagne glasses. How good a moderator of thought and dialogue Elon Musk will be is dubious given that he once responded to a random person criticising him by calling them a “pedo guy”. Sure, he loves memes, and he was fun on JRE, but we should still avoid reacting to the richest man in the world — developing everything from rockets to implantable brain-machine interfaces — by thinking, “Wow, he’s just like me!” What, for example, does Musk mean by “authenticating all humans”? Some sort of CAPTCHA-style scheme or ID verification? The latter is just what some of those British politicians were pursuing.

Beyond that, we should ask ourselves why Twitter matters in the first place. What is it for? To some extent you can answer that for yourself. I use Twitter largely to make silly jokes and if you want to use it to debate, argue, banter, meme, journal or look for a date that is your business. I’m not the posting police.

But something can have micro and macro functions. The scale of the right-wing and otherwise “anti-woke” enthusiasm for Musk buying Twitter is illustrative of a sense that it serves a broader purpose and I am not sure how well it is defined. 

I do not think it is unfair to say that right-wingers have turned the idea of free speech into a magic bullet. If we only had free speech everyone would agree with us. If I wasn’t shadowbanned I would be popular. At times, talking about free speech is an excuse for not having much to talk about. As much as freedom is required for truth, beauty and humour to thrive, it is not sufficient. 

Posting can be powerful (as well as entertaining). Its concentrated energy thrusts ideas into people’s minds, connects strangers, afflicts complacence and pretension et cetera. That it haunts the imaginations of elite progressives, like a horror movie villain lurching out of its grave again, is proof enough of that.

But it has limits. Twitter is a wonderful place for promoting, exploring, challenging and synthesising research, ideas, art and activism. Their creation, though, takes patient, private and sometimes well-organised and well-funded efforts. Elon Musk knows this. His posting has won him fans but it bears little relation to what he does at Tesla.

As great as social media is when it comes to inspiration and promotion, the hard work is done elsewhere. One should not get so hooked on little bursts of serotonin as to forget that.

For myself, if I have one piece of advice for Mr Musk it is to delete the abysmal “topics” feature, which promotes tweets you “might be interested in” that invariably are not. I like one joke by a comedian, for example, and my timeline is immediately full of mirthless has-beens and never-weres. I liked one appeal to find an owner for a dog, meanwhile, and every time I opened the app for the next week my heart broke a little.

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