Mayer, then the CEO of Yahoo[!], didn’t just misjudge Tumblr’s culture—she misunderstood what a social network is: an intricate web of human beings who’d collectively found it useful to communicate on certain terms.
Change the terms, and the web unravels.
If you’re reading this, you know Elon Musk buying Twitter
is bad news. Not because Elon Musk is capital-b Bad (though he is), or the people running Twitter are super great (they aren’t, or at least not at running Twitter). It’s that Musk wants to buy Twitter specifically
to impose free speech
, by which he means let let white people use the n-word
Free speech was originally Tw[i]tt[e]r’s guiding principle. Their senior executives famously called themselves “the free speech wing of the free-speech party
”! Despite being flooded with porn-spam bots
(and constantly crashing), Twitter still fostered instant, real-time, brain-to-brain connections between people all over the world in a way that was addicting as it was exciting.
But for every Sharknado
there was a Balloon Boy
, and for every #WeNeedDiverseBooks
there was a Gamergate
. It turns out Twitter spread lies and hate as fast as truth and love, with terrible social costs. The company struggled mightily to clean up the trash without wiping out the benefits.
It wasn’t until they made their guiding principle new user growth
that they realized Facebook Uncles and Instagram Moms don’t want to wade through stinky marshes of spam and abuse just to keep up with the news. So now, all 76-plus-million active American Twitter users have a large suite of tools to keep themselves safe from abuse, harassment, misinformation, negativity, and stuff they just don’t like.
Between user and investor demand, Twitter’s platform has consistently evolved away from unfettered free speech and toward a curated, high-quality experience timeline. The app we callled The Hell Site is far from perfect now, but most of the terrible stuff on there is simply a reflection of how terrible the rest of the word is and not a pox specifically on Twitter. Highly visible and/or vulnerable creators feel safe enough to keep Tweeting, and casual users get enough value every time they open the app to keep opening the app.
That’s what Elon Musk wants to undo.
Musk’s plans are fundamentally contradictory: Get rid of content moderation, yet remove spam from the service. Make more money while cutting ads. “Unlock” Twitter’s “potential” by driving away millions of casual users.
What he’s actually going to do, if allowed, is screw it up.
But Musk can’t unilaterally make content moderation work the way he wants it to, because he doesn’t know anything about content moderation. He’s going to be relying on his employees to do it for him—the ones who’ve been working so hard for so long solve all these same problems.
If he makes them remove the solutions they’ve developed, Twitter will become an unusable cesspool like Parler, Gab, or Truth with a quickness—and his acquisition will go exactly like Mayer’s acquisition of Tumblr did.
If Twitter employees can make Musk—who can’t possibly have the time to be as hands-on at Twitter as he is at SpaceX and Tesla—realize his proposed changes will be both extremely difficult and utterly destructive? Well, little about Twitter’s day-to-day experience will change. And if Musk does manage to change Twitter the way he wants? Well, sure, it might spell ruin for Twitter—but it will definitely spell ruin for Musk.