Ideas

Elon Musk & the Unnerving Influence of Twitter’s Power User

Elon Musk is tweeting up a storm, and he’s loving every minute of it. With 21 million followers, Musk has emerged as one of the defining Twitter voices of 2018, someone who will happily and democratically engage with anybody who @s him. Like other gazillionaires before him—Rupert Murdoch, Marc Andreessen—he’s found in Twitter a fun and unfiltered platform for self-expression. Unlike Murdoch and Andreessen, however, he’s still at it. And he needs to be stopped.

The perennial lesson of the internet is that it will forever find ways to subvert its egalitarian and democratic promise, delivering instead levels of inequality that would make North Korea blush. Musk is not personally responsible for turning Twitter into a celebrity-focused inequality engine, but he’s Exhibit A of why that development has been a bad idea.

How did Twitter become the world’s most anarchic social media platform? Well, one good way of finding inequality is to look at the difference between mean and median. In an equal set, they’re the same; in an unequal world, they can be wildly different. (Ask yourself, for instance, what would happen to the mean and median net worth of the individuals in your office if Bill Gates were to walk through the door.)

On Twitter, while the median number of followers per account has always been just 1, the mean has been steadily rising. It was 208 in 2012; it was 707 in 2016; and it’s probably much higher today. Having a million Twitter followers used to be an astonishing achievement; now someone like Katy Perry can add 10 million followers in less than a year. Similarly, Elon Musk has added 5 million new followers in the past six months. (Five years ago, by contrast, his follower count stood at a comparatively normal 225,000.)

This isn’t a case of a rising tide lifting all boats: Twitter, as a platform, is growing notoriously slowly, with total monthly users growing only by about 11 percent in the past 3 years. The really amazing thing about Katy Perry’s 110 million Twitter followers is not its absolute magnitude as much as the fact that the site’s entire monthly active user base is only about three times that size.

Which is to say: Twitter is becoming increasingly concentrated on a tiny core of power users. It’s less and less a distributed mode of many-to-many communication, and more and more a broadcasting hub for the elite—a highly unequal place where their least-considered, Ambien-addled opinions get amplified to a global audience of millions.

Twitter, as a company, has encouraged this development. It goes out of its way to coddle the elite: It broadcasts their impressive follower counts, it serves them up a lovely ad-free experience, it showers them with blue checkmarks. At the highest level, the children of the elite become verified as early as eight months old, even as the service bans others en masse for tweeting before the age of 13. Most importantly, Twitter now serves up an algorithmic feed peppered with enormous quantities of “in case you missed it” tweets, which seem designed to ensure that the most popular tweeters become ever more popular. Just so long as they keep on tweeting.

For Twitter, the Elon Musks and Kanye Wests of the world are its growth engine: They’re part of the reason its share price has doubled since October, even as competitors like Snap have languished. And yet for Musk and West themselves, Twitter is just as lightweight and painless to use as it is for you or me. It takes no more thought or effort for them to push out a tweet to their tens of millions of followers than it does for your neighbor’s teenager to tweet an uninspired juuling video.

Most of the time, the top-tier Twitter elites understand the power in their pocket and the responsibility that comes with it. “If you’re a celebrity, then you realize it’s actually really bad for you,” says LeBron James (42 million Twitter followers). “If you’re a part of it and it bothers you, then you should probably just delete it.”

Even people far down the Twitter totem pole have worked that out. I used to love getting into Twitter fights in the year or two after I joined in 2008. Back then, Twitter wasn’t nearly as gamified as it is now: It didn’t publish individual tweet-by-tweet metrics that would encourage people to try to maximize engagement. Yet even in those pre-Gamergate years, it didn’t take me very long to realize that my Twitter fights weren’t necessarily as fun for the people I was fighting with as they were for me, and that they could have nasty spillover second-order effects. By the time I hit 10,000 followers, a year or two after I first joined, it was clear to me that my tweets were reaching a large enough audience that I had to be careful what I said about others—especially people who didn’t have a significant following of their own.

Today, the Twitterverse is more brittle and dangerous than ever. Certain individuals act as magnets for a vile and bilious group of misogynist hatemongers, and will predictably make life an utter misery for any woman they disagree with in public. Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for setting such Twitter mobs upon his enemies; Donald Trump has not been, yet, even though the effect of his attacks can be even worse.

And then there’s Elon Musk, similarly trailed by a toxic mobwielding vitriol and rape threats, many of them specifically targeting journalists.

Most people, upon discovering the deeply harmful (if possibly inadvertent) effects of their tweeting, would change their behavior. But Musk isn’t most people. He’s a rugged individualist, one of Peter Thiel’s oldest friends, who has made his billions in large part through simple yet supreme self-confidence. He is not ashamed of the trolls; instead, he shrugs them off. “Hello,” he says, “have you met the Internet? Everyone gets harassed.”

Such dismissiveness is further evidence of the Olympian detachment that tech billionaires have from actual people. Musk will happily invest his fortune into AI research to prevent humanity as a whole being eaten by self-aware software, but when faced with gruesome working conditionsin his own factories, or the immiseration of any female journalist who dares to criticize him, his response predictably and invariably betrays an utter lack of empathy.

So who’s going to do something about it? Clearly Musk isn’t. In its search for popularity and reach, Twitter has created something terrible, and it is now faced with just two choices. Option A would be to roll back the inequality machine by removing public follower counts, retweet counts, and all the other numbers that have turned the service into an increasingly dark game. Option B is to continue to encourage the 99.9 percent to play that game, but to crack down hard on the 0.1 percent who make it so unpleasant for so many. That crackdown would have to target not just the trolls but also their leaders: anybody who, deliberately or otherwise, causes troll armies to be mobilized against Twitter’s weakest denizens.

Option B, then, would mean much more than simply banning the obvious bots and racist trolls. That’s the Twitter equivalent of jailing street-corner pot dealers—and equally effective. Rather, it would require shutting down everybody who makes the problem worse rather than better. Up to, and including, Elon Musk.

Musk, in his bubble of privilege, thinks he can behave however he likes, to whomever he likes, without having to face any consequence. For him, trolling journalists and scientists is likely a brief and enjoyable distraction from the stresses of running two independent multibillion-dollar companies, while trying to simultaneously build a third. It’s not fun, however, for the commons as a whole, and to be honest it’s probably not even healthy for Musk.

Which means that if Jack Dorsey really wants to make Twitter a little bit nicer, and significantly less unequal, he must ban Elon Musk. Neither of them will like it, but it’s for their own good—and that of the rest of us too.

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