Notes on Twitter, 28th October 2022
So, last night Elon Musk bought Twitter! Let’s talk a little bit about what I think the future holds.
He bought Twitter for more than it is worth. You can tell this is true because after making a binding commitment to acquire it, he then made a load of excuses and paid a load to lawyers to see if he could find a way to wriggle out of it. A lot of that drop in value is not really to do with Twitter per-se, as it is to do with general economic sentiment and tech companies generally being worth less now than they were a year ago. But still! Bad timing.
The reason this is a problem for people other than Elon Musk is that he is financing a bunch of the terrific sum he paid with debt. This means Twitter now has to pay around a billion dollars a year interest on that debt.1 This is a lot of money! Twitter’s projected 2022 revenue is
just (“just”) $1.4 billion (edit! I was wrong, that’s per quarter. So I was wrong, it’s 4 times that). If Twitter doesn’t have the money, then either it will need new injections of capital (from Elon Musk? from other investors?) or… the banks foreclose on it? unclear, tbh, but not good.
So the purchase of Twitter is a bet that it could make a lot more money than it is currently making. How to do this? The classic private equity value extraction playbook goes something like this:
- buy the company by loading it with a lot of debt (yes, this one has happened already)
- slash costs (which usually means mass layoffs, and worse conditions and pay for the people who remain)
- do what you can to juice the revenue (charge for more things, trade off making more money per person at the cost of decreasing satisfaction)
- rely on the historical goodwill & reputation of the company
- sell it ideally at the point where short term profits spike, and before the long term underinvestment starts to drag it under
The private equity model is a scourge, yes.
One rule of thumb I find useful to apply is to look at people’s incentives as a guide to their future behaviour at least as much as what they say they’re going to do. Elon Musk has said a lot of things about free speech, and making an “everything platform” and about reining in spam and so on. But I think the basic model of: how does he service this debt, how does he cut costs and raise revenues is probably just as informative as to the future of the company as the stuff he’s said.
OK OK, enough about money
Let’s look at this from another side. What does this look like for the current employees?
Well, it looks bad. You have a new boss who has done the following things:
- publicly trashed, sued, etc the company he now owns
- said he was going to fire 75% of staff (but then later walked that back)
- started out his tenure with a weak physical pun about a sink
- immediately fired the executive team, a few minutes after taking control of the company
- and, importantly, decided last minute not to have the all hands meeting that had been called to actually announce these firings, leaving it instead for people to find out via the press
- also just generally seems like a shitty boss from all the press about his other companies - all those reports of unnecessary factory injuries, etc
If I was at Twitter right now… I would be reaching out to people I know in other companies and seeing if there were any good roles going. Or, I mean, I guess I would’ve done that a few months ago. Getting out before the rush, you know? And it’s worth noting that one of the classic ways that tech companies keep you when you might be tempted to leave, the prospect of stock – well, Twitter is private now, so that lever isn’t so good any more.
So, there is likely to be an exodus of talent from Twitter. And, on the other side, likely lots of layoffs in the future. What kind of impact is that going to have on the company?
- worse spam prevention - which means more spam, but it also means more arbitrary false positives
- more hateful and abusive content (even leaving to one side the big policy changes Musk is pushing for in the name of free speech - hello Donald Trump)
- fewer new features, which is a bad thing no matter how much people dislike change. Twitter Circles, the edit button, API expansion - they seem to have just gotten up to a good velocity of shipping good features recently, and I expect that to stop
- the return of the failwhale, and, more than that, random parts of the site just not working very well. Searches take longer. Follows are inconsistent. Everything feels a bit more janky.
And the thing is, most users don’t really post on Twitter. They mainly log on to read from a selection of big name accounts that they do follow. (Understanding this is key to understanding a lot of otherwise baffling product decisions - algorithmic timeline, trends, automatically giving people a lastname-bunchofnumbers username rather than prompting them to pick one themselves). But the future of Twitter does kind of depend on the popular kids who sit down and write tweets for everyone else to read. And these are the people who are most engaged with the quality of the platform, the people who are thinking hardest about whether to go elsewhere. So if this gradual deterioration of the Twitter experience drives away these users, then, while the numbers might not immediately reflect this (I am sure there will be meme accounts to fill the gap for a while), the platform is still on a slow decline.
Section break! Let’s zoom out a little.
The thing that makes Twitter special is that it is, to use the hackneyed metaphor, a town square. It’s a place that is, sometimes uncomfortably, public. Politicians can make announcements there. The media will report on things said there. You can shame a company that’s screwing you around and they will ask you to take it to DMs where other people can’t see. It’s a place you can “build an audience”, as they say.
The default audience for a tweet is “everyone”, but this is increasingly unfashionable for a social network! The big defining trend for “hanging out online” is to do it in small spaces, where you are posting only for people who you have a certain degree of trust with. This means group chats, Discord servers, Instagram close friends stories, etc etc. This is where the interesting discussion happens! Where it’s safe! Where you can post your shit without worrying that lots of strangers are going to yell at you!
But the flipside here is that to get into these communities you also have to have a degree of trust with the people who are in them already. This is pretty unproblematic and good if the group chat is, like, your family group chat. But if the chat is “game dev professionals”, and it’s somewhere where people post job links, then those degrees of trust start to get more nepotistic. And it doesn’t have to be quite as straightfoward as that - one thing that I value from an earlier version of Twitter was creative discussions being had openly, where I could lurk and absorb them.2 I think I learned a lot, and would be a worse artist and game designer without them. And now to get those same insights, it’s necessary to already be friends with the right people and hang out in the right places. And, likely enough, that means being the kind of person who shares the same kind of background and experiences with the people who have these kinds of insights.
Of course, this is kind of nostalgia for a now-vanished past, and I don’t think it’s as easy as just saying everyone should post all their spicy criticism publicly to solve this. They won’t, there’s too much scar tissue, everyone has learned not to do that. For many gamedevs, Gamergate left a lot of trauma about having a public persona that could attract hate. Similar swarms of harassment roam around even now, let alone the constant chipping of the soul of people making tedious replies or boosting hate to tear it down. I don’t think we can simply go back. But this sense of “the public” is a thing that Twitter gave us, and is an element of the social media ecosystem that has value.
Here’s the bit where I plug the thing I’m working on
I think a kind of interesting response to this kind of thing is a re-insistence on the value of good old fashioned email and websites.
Email was a big thing over the last few years, as Substack and the like took off - ironically driven by, on the one hand, writers fleeing the journalism jobs that private equity had hollowed out, and on the other, venture capital funding trying to turn email newsletters into a more enclosed platform (Substack). I think there is something solid amid that hype, though - a sense of a more direct connection with an audience. Something (despite Substack’s efforts) less dependent on a platform, and more of a model where the platform is just a service you can switch between, taking your subscribers with you.
And websites also still exist. Even more so than with a newsletter, you can make a website take the shape you want it to. It can look how you like, it can slowly change colour, it can get updated rarely or often. There’s mechanisms, although they’re old fashioned, for learning when a website has added new stuff. And there are standards, although they’re kind of new, for populating a comment section with things that people have said elsewhere. You are reading this on a website right now!
But the thing about websites is that you kind of have to be a nerd to make one. Sure, Wix and Squarespace and Wordpress.com exist, and do make it more accessible, but they’re kind of annoying, and most of them are expensive, and they’re kind of a drag to update. There’s not enough joy there (unless you are a nerd). They don’t feel like a place you wanna hang out, but an obligation to fulfil.
So this is (one aspect of) my big project right now. Downpour is a tool that lets you make a fun HTML thing from images (and later text), straight from your phone. It is a platform, in that there is built in hosting and following other accounts and all that. But it also has a button you can push which will export a particular project as a zip file that you can then put on a webhost of your choice. itch.io or neocities or any service that can serve some HTML.
Downpour is still a work in progress - it would be good if it was out now and I could capitalise on all the people looking for a life raft, should Twitter sink. But it’s already feeling good, and I can already make things with it. Here is a visual diary I have been keeping for the last week or two. Speaking from my very biased position, but it’s been fun to make? I drag images around and make a collage & set the links up, I added a few pages on the train last night, it feels easy. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what things other people will make with it.
So! If you would like to hear when it does come out, then you can put your email address in the following box:
And if you think it’s an interesting idea and want to talk about it, please do get in touch.
Why does Twitter have to pay rather than Elon Musk, you might ask? And to that I would say: good question! I think the answer comes down to “because he can” ↩
see also: the continuing complaint about projects which have a Discord in lieu of documentation, and the way that all of these private spaces resist archiving ↩
28 October 2022