Twitter (finally) matters
It might be a hellscape, but sometimes it's a nice hellscape. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
First off, thank you to everyone who took the time to answer my questions Friday — both in comments and direct emails. (And also, of course, thanks to those who took the time to send Understandably a 3rd birthday present by becoming a premium subscriber.)
I took most of the weekend off, so I’m still going through everything you had to say. But thank you; I really appreciate your thoughts.
As for today … I can't hold off anymore! I'm going to write about Elon Musk and Twitter.
Why now, exactly? Well, one of my guiding lights for this newsletter is that I should try to write about things when they matter, and not before—"matter" largely meaning, "when it has an effect worth noticing on me and/or Understandably readers," and also, "when it's something that we can affect, in turn."
Otherwise, it’s just a lot sound and fury signifying nothing.
Now that Musk actually owns Twitter, and now that he's starting to put his plans into place (I use the word "plans" loosely, but still)—and now that (quelle horreur!) he might start charging me $8/month for my "blue check," however—I think the story matters.
Let me start with my relationship with Twitter. I don't remember joining, but there's a note on my account that says I created my profile in September 2008.
Early on, I somehow developed a bot that tweeted links every time I wrote an article, or else anytime anyone published stories that included certain keywords about startups and the U.S. military.
I completely forgot about this, but eventually, a friend of mine named Shannon (hi Shannon; she reads this and she's the best!) told me she'd been getting an abundance of notifications about my tweets for a long time.
So, I went in and deleted everything.
Later, I worked for a digital media company and I had to run a lot of ads on the company's dime, for which I needed to use my Twitter account. Also, somewhere in this period I got the infamous "blue check," I am pretty certain because of my writing for places like Inc.com.
OK, fast-forward to recent years. Since 2018 or so, I’ve used Twitter mainly for three reasons:
It's a good source to scan for links for the "7 other things" section of this newsletter. Sometimes, I'll even find an entire story to share, like this one or else, going back into the archives, this one (which I loved). I'll have another one later this week, in fact.
Twitter really is kind of an imperfect public square, a place where you can live your life in direct violation of my "don't worry about it until it matters" idea above. There have been many times when I've read a big article in the NYT or WSJ, and realized: hmmm, I've watched that whole line of thought emerge over the last month or more in debates on Twitter.
Finally, occasionally, I'll tweet ideas that I think are funny or insightful—kind of like a test market for things I might later share elsewhere. For example, consider this tweet of mine from over the weekend which was a response to one of Musk's recent tweets, in which he had defended laying off 50% of Twitter's employees last week because the site is losing $4 million per day:
Frankly that tweet hits on a lot of my current issues with Twitter, and why I think this debate has finally reached the point where it matters (for my purposes). It goes like this:
For years, Twitter putters along, the useful, hacked-together site that everyone loves to hate, but where there are real diamonds in the rough, but also losing between maybe $600,000 and $1 million per day (if my math and Twitter's 2021 SEC annual report are correct).
This year, Musk makes a crazy-high acquisition offer (let's call it $10 billion over what the site was actually worth the day before he actually took over). Legal hijinks ensue; he winds up buying it for $44 billion which necessitates adding about $13 billion in debt to Twitter itself.
That debt requires $1 billion per year in interest payments; thus Twitter is no longer losing $1 million or so per day; divide it by 365 and you get a $2.7 million per day loss on top of the $1 million above. Then, advertisers—supposedly pushed by "activist groups"—slam the brakes on their ad spend, causing (in Musk's own words), "a massive drop in revenue" just days after he took over.
Result: Layoffs, and Musk moving even faster than he's known to (and love him or hate him, he moves fast), to try to turn cost centers into profit centers, by offering "blue checks" to anyone willing to pay: first $20/month, but then after he gets in a public argument with "blue check" and famous author Stephen King, he drops it down to $7.99 per month.
Meanwhile, Musk feuds with other users—and mostly on one side of the political aisle. He announces that he'll be voting for Republicans, and trolls his critics. Part of Twitter cheers for this; part of the site recoils in angst, and that part’s angst leads the cheering part to cheer even harder.
I'm tired just writing this.
It’s usually a mistake to bet against Musk; he’s both brilliant and impulsive to a fault. But, what I see above makes me concerned that the entire center of mass of Twitter could shift—a process that I can imagine would accelerate as it happens.
This is especially likely because Musk said in an interview that people who pay him the $8 per month to become "verified" will get priority over all other users on the site, which makes it less of an “imperfect public square” and more of a “conversation among people who like or agree with Elon Musk.”
(“You’ll have to scroll really far to see unverified users," he told investors.)
So, where does this leave us? With a few unanswered questions:
Will Twitter remain a place that's useful for the reasons I'm currently using it?
Is there value to a “blue check” under the new regime that would make it worth paying $7.99 per month? and, related to both —
Will paying to be verified will come to suggest that you publicly endorse the site's new status quo, including the part about borrowing billions of dollars against Twitter that requires all of this to begin with?
Fortunately, I don’t need to answer these questions just yet. I can sit back, do what I've been doing for a while, and see how things develop.
Life lesson learned (yet again): Just because I think something matters doesn’t necessarily mean I know what to do as a result.
7 other things worth knowing today
We're about to reach a world population milestone: 8 billion people on this big blue marble, as of November 15. (AFP)
After laying off roughly half the company on Friday, Twitter is now reaching out to dozens of employees who lost their jobs and asking them to return. Some were laid off by mistake; others were let go before management realized that their work and experience may be necessary to build the new features Musk envisions. (Bloomberg)
This is from September, but since we were talking about Twitter: Some major advertisers including Dyson, Mazda, Forbes and PBS Kids have suspended their marketing campaigns or removed their ads from parts of Twitter because their promotions appeared alongside tweets soliciting child pornography, the companies told Reuters. (Reuters)
One of the five F.C.C. commissioners is now on record advocating for the U.S. to ban TikTok. There is no "world in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it's not finding its way back into the hands" of China's Communist Party, said commissioner Brendan Carr. (Entrepreneur)
Nearly 9 in 10 Americans (88 percent) are concerned that political divisions have intensified to the point that there’s an increased risk of politically motivated violence in the United States. Americans blame the Republican Party more for the risk of violence, but the difference is not wide — 31 percent, vs. the 25 percent who blame the Democratic Party more. (WashPost)
Someday this will be a movie: In early 2021, Matt Ryan, all 6-foot-7-inches of him, was working in a cemetery and delivering food for DoorDash. While he'd played college basketball for Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and UT Chattanooga, Covid wiped out many of the opportunities aspiring NBA players had to demonstrate their talent, so rather than sign with a team, he did what he had to do to make a living. Fast forward to this year, he's got his shot, and he's now playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. (His landscaping boss misses him, though: "His height absolutely came in handy . ... Some of the guys working for me are short—I mean, really short." (Axios)
The leadership for U.S. Air Forces in Europe has determined that a KC-135 aerial tanker did not mean to fly in a phallic flight pattern near a Russian base in Syria recently. Earlier this week, the aircraft took off from Chania International Airport and flew east of Cyprus. FlightRadar24, a flight tracking service, shows that the KC-135’s flight path included an oval and two circles, prompting the Italian newspaper la Repubblica to speculate that the plane had drawn a sky penis in front of Russia’s naval base in Tartus, Syria. Fun fact: I found this story on Twitter! (Task & Purpose)