If you’re one of the Twitter users who fled to Mastodon after Elon Musk bought the service, we regret to inform that you missed one of the hellsite’s finest hours.
The weekend left Musk looking incompetent (his $8 blue check service arrived, didn’t work, vanished again), indecisive (managers are trying to bring back some of the employees he fired) and intemperate (he banned comedian Kathy Griffin’s account for “impersonating” him – which resulted in so many parodies, Musk was briefly nowhere near the top search result for his own name). One widely-shared tweet captured the full flailing feel of it:
Monday saw Musk pivot back to his usual outrage-generating, Trump-like posts. He endorsed the GOP (again), shared a meme that used a picture of a Wehrmacht soldier in World War II, and posted and deleted a joke that was apparently about jerking off to Mastodon. But users were catching wise, and one of the things they caught was that Tesla stock kept sliding after he tweeted. Musk was literally impoverishing himself. ($TSLA hit a 17-month low Monday.)
By the time you read this, Musk may well have posted a half-dozen new bids to seize control of the narrative. But the narrative called math stubbornly refuses to be changed. And the math says that even Elon Musk cannot afford what all this is costing him – especially not when the worth of his wealth is largely in Tesla investors’ hands.
“Twitter news keeps getting worse,” Gary Black, one of Tesla’s top investors and a Musk ally, wrote Monday. “Elon’s top engineers shouldn’t be running Twitter … Elon’s threats aren’t helping.”
Beneath every distraction is the underlying fact Musk can’t tweet away: He bought a business that is 90 percent dependent on advertising. He has already lost the confidence of advertisers while attempting to court them. He has talked of going “thermonuclear” on any brand that walks out, and even that isn’t as bad for advertisers as the sense of instability Musk wraps around himself like a cloak. Every outrageous tweet is a step in the wrong direction.
Meanwhile, even if the “$8 for a blue check” plan made financial sense, Musk already botched the rollout. He has reportedly backtracked on charging accounts that already have blue checks. So where will the money come from?
This is the question we must ask about an internal FAQ from Twitter’s sales team, first reported by The Verge. The team claims 15 million more people are using Twitter every day since the last time Twitter reported the daily user number in the second quarter. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean Musk’s antics are drawing a crowd – he’s barely been there two weeks, let alone two quarters.
But let’s assume they are. It’s still a crowd of Bugs Bunnies hitting CEO Elmer Fudd and his horrorshow tweets over the head with giant slapstick hammers, alongside darker political chaos from a growing MAGA crowd that Musk favors with replies. How many major brands want to be associated with all that, exactly?
Musk can’t simply fire his way to success, either. Twitter’s annual operating expenses for 2021 were $5.6 billion. That was before the debt that Musk forced Twitter to take on as part of his deal, which will cost the company up to $1 billion a year to service.
The service is bleeding $3 million and losses are rising every day, hence the panicky slapdash firing of what internal documents called “roughly 50 [percent]” of the company. We don’t know how many of them are being hired back, or contracting their services back at a higher rate like they threatened, or how much severance is costing. (Thanks to state laws in California and New York, which require him to give 60 and 90 days notice respectively, this is costing a lot more than Musk’s yes men – and yes, his inner circle is all men – first realized.)
But let’s be generous. Let’s say Musk somehow finds the $1 billion a year in infrastructure cuts he’s looking for, and that he somehow gets away with no blackouts on a hugely popular social media service that requires lots of expensive servers. Let’s say that after the dust settles on the firings, he’s saving another billion or so a year.
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Without advertisers, without a successful subscription service (which Twitter Blue is now most definitely not – it may even be costing the company money), Musk would still be left with a $3 billion-a-year hole to fill. He would have to shovel his Tesla stock into the gaping maw of Twitter. In fact, it would probably be less expensive for Musk to simply shovel piles of cash into an incinerator every day.
And if Musk and his inner circle institute a paywall for all of Twitter, as they’re reportedly now discussing? That would likely be the death knell for a beloved service that relies on a lot of users freely sharing information and creating content around the world. Musk likely imagines that we couldn’t resist the entertainment he would personally provide; he has, after all, long “aspire[d] to comedy”.
But as this weekend showed, he’s also a thin-skinned guy who lashes out a lot, and whose own internal rules seem wildly inconsistent. After a certain point, that’s not entertaining, it’s just sad.
A Twitter paywall would at least be a way for Musk to back out of an extremely expensive personal hell before it costs him his title of richest man in the world. The economics killed Twitter, Musk could shrug, not me. We’d know the truth of it: rich guy breaks shiny toy. But perhaps, when he joins us all on whichever service rushes in to fill the Twitter vacuum — Mastodon or something else — Musk could save a little face this way.
There remains one alternative: Musk sheds the chaos agent, teenage edgelord persona he’s spent years cultivating, and actually behaves like an adult with some measure of accountability towards the advertisers who keep Twitter’s lights on. But don’t hold your breath.
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