Here at Galaxy Brain, we have our best people working around the clock to come up with mental models for the world. Most of them are harebrained or break down upon close inspection, but one endures. There is a single steadfast rule for being alive right now, and it is: Do not bet against the dumbest possible outcome.
Anyhow, it sounds like this guy is actually going to buy Twitter:
This is a reality that I thought I was mentally preparing for (see the “single steadfast rule” above). But the truth is that I wasn’t, because I’m not sure what Elon Musk buying Twitter really means. So let’s talk hypothetical outcomes (while keeping in mind that we refuse to bet against the dumbest ones).
The Dark Timeline
There is, I suppose, a world in which Musk goes wild and attempts to turn Twitter into a Truth Social/Gab/Parler free-for-all. This seems like it would have to start with a total gutting of senior leadership and the instatement of some kind of Musk loyalist regime. (I’m honestly not even sure who would qualify, though such people certainly exist!) It could involve reinstating banned accounts, particularly former president Donald Trump’s. There have been attempts to quantify exactly what Trump’s presence on a social network actually means, and what it boils down to is that his Twitter account was a megaphone for bullshit. Shortly after he was banned from Twitter last year, a social-media analysis from Zignal Labs found that “conversations about election fraud dropped from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 mentions across several social media sites in the week after Trump was banned from Twitter.”
This finding was overplayed by the media to suggest that Trump’s presence on Twitter boosted disinformation on the platform by 73 percent. That’s a blunt and unsophisticated analysis based on one search of mentions on one topic (election fraud). The truth is that we don’t really know all the myriad ways that one huge account can change a platform, though I think one can argue that Trump’s Twitter account was a chaos agent that had downstream consequences that reached well beyond the boundaries of a technology platform.
But if this is the darkest timeline, we’ll assume that many other accounts would be reinstated, perhaps even those of serial harassers and peddlers of conspiracy theories (welcome back, @RealAlexJones!). There would be gloating and giddiness from many of America’s Worst Accounts and smirking “free speech” justifications from Musk and Twitter. But the best way to think about the bleakest scenario is not to focus on any individual accounts, but to think about the aggregate effect of the zone re-flooding with all the garbage that’s been kept at bay for a while.
I don’t imagine that one will wake up and open Twitter and see it magically transformed into a total cesspool of hate, harassment, and false information. But I can imagine a “going bankrupt” quality to Twitter’s degradation—it might happen slowly, then all at once. You’d see more targeted harassment of women, people of color, and the LGBTQIA communities. This might look and feel like isolated incidents to most users, but for many individuals, the day-to-day use of the platform would get much worse. One could imagine an organizational directive to give less authority to Twitter’s Trust and Safety and moderation teams, which would then make enforcement of accounts breaking Twitter’s rules that much harder. Twitter’s focus on trying to create and prioritize “healthy conversations” will be not only discarded but openly mocked as some kind of snowflake-y pipe dream. This would be replaced by a more nihilistic internal directive that is akin to: Twitter is purely for shitposting.
The darkest-darkest timeline is the one where the world’s richest man runs a communications platform in a truly vengeful, dictatorial way, which involves Musk outright using Twitter as a political tool to promote extreme right-wing agendas and to punish what he calls brain-poisoned liberals. This is the scenario I’ve seen some privacy folks worrying about. (What might Musk do with all of the private data the company collects, including our non-encrypted DMs?) This nightmare unfolding is easy enough to imagine, but it would probably trigger a revolt from existing employees, who would need to be replaced by people who share Musk’s values. I suppose anything is possible! Still, the most realistic dark scenario is more boring: Moderation and safety features and support are largely defunded/de-emphasized, the zone is re-flooded with shit, and bad things stem from that.
The Weird/Chaotic Timeline
This is the one where Musk remains invested and interested in doing experimental things with his new platform. The most cited example is an edit button, which he could introduce to the delight of some and the groaning of many others. A Musk-owned Twitter could introduce this feature carefully, study how it changes the platform, and tweak it accordingly—or it could move fast and break things by tossing it onto the platform and simply seeing what happens. The break-things ethos is the one I think about most when considering a Musk-owned Twitter—lots of quick building, throwing shit at the wall, with very little consideration of the consequences.
In this timeline I can imagine a lot of early-morning/late-night tweets and polls from Musk himself floating trial-balloon ideas for the platform. Think, “Twitter belongs to the people. We are bringing Twitter back to the open internet #decentralizedtwitter.” One thousand news cycles bloom, and we’re left to speculate what on earth he’s actually talking about. These trial balloons might amount to nothing or become hastily developed initiatives. You’d probably get a lot of vague company blog posts from generally confused product managers outlining visions like putting tweets on a blockchain, and then likely get a splashy rollout for a product that is mostly vaporware (tweets, except they take five hours to show up and you have to pay gas fees).
This timeline is where you can virtually insert any tech buzzword and assume Musk will float some version of it into Twitter. Using Twitter data with artificial intelligence to do … something? Funneling more resources into things like a paid Twitter Blue subscription service; A Sisyphean effort to authenticate all real humans that is basically an expanded blue-check-ification of accounts (remember Facebook’s failed ‘Real Names policy?) The sky’s the limit in this strange, exhausting timeline.
There’s also a place in this timeline for Musk to make some good changes, like increasing transparency on the company’s internal processes and technologies. But so far, even some of Musk’s better-sounding ideas for Twitter have crumbled under a little bit of scrutiny. The biggest one: his desire to (possibly) open-source Twitter’s black-box algorithms. A nice thought! Transparency is good! But, as plenty of experts have pointed out, algorithms are often opaque not because they’re hiding extremely nefarious “shadowbanning” practices, but because keeping them opaque stops them from being relentlessly gamed by bad-faith actors and entities like spammers. (For what it’s worth, Musk also wants to get rid of spam on the platform—lol.) It’s also worth noting the stakes of some of Musk’s proposed reforms:
It’s possible that, over time, enough of these “move fast” attempts to change Twitter could fundamentally alter the way that the platform looks and feels—but that would likely be a change that takes years to unfold.
The Recent Past Is Future Timeline
When it comes to content moderation, Elon Musk doesn't know what he’s talking about. (For an explainer, read Mike Masnick’s excellent piece from last week.) A number of the changes that Musk has suggested are things Twitter has already attempted to do, or even implemented. I strongly believe that Musk has thought about Twitter as a service only as it relates to his user experience—which is, to say the least, a unique one. As one former senior Twitter employee put it to me this morning, Musk’s musings about improvements to the service are mostly “highly solipsistic things that are only about his experience of the product as a user with 80 million followers and a consent decree with the SEC.”
And so, owning Twitter may prove to be a boring logistical nightmare for Musk—one he might offload onto underlings while directing his attention to things that interest him. He’d still come in for the culture warring and the trolling—I’m sure he’s delighted by the notion that his every missive will carry the new weight and context of coming from Twitter’s Keeper. The thing Musk might ultimately enjoy most about owning Twitter is the ability to attract more and more attention to his potential power. Imagine, for example, that after the deal is done, somebody tweets, “How long till Trump is reinstated now,” and Musk quote-RTs it with something cryptic like the eyes emoji. People will inevitably get riled up.
This timeline—the most plausible of the three—is a blend of the dark and the weird ones: In it, he reinstates some accounts like, say, Trump’s, the platform is fundamentally worse for it, and after a few early wins, he loses interest in the day-to-day operations. His early efforts will be exciting for him and maybe even consequential for us but, if 10 years of following Twitter’s content-moderation and management decisions have taught me anything, I am not sure the things he implements are going to yield the kind of results that can compete to keep his attention alongside everything his other companies are doing. And so some small things change but it's not nearly as dramatic as we envision now.
Contrary to what some are predicting, I don’t think this version of Twitter looks like Parler or Gab or Truth Social—I think it looks a lot more like Twitter did in, say, 2016.
This is not a good thing! Twitter in 2016 was often an awful place, especially if you were a woman, Jewish, a person of color, or a member of any minority group. Because Twitter is still an awful place—but one with a lot more tools, like setting who can see or reply to your tweets, that victims of harassment can employ—certain people seem to have forgotten that blatant, vile harassment used to go almost unchecked.
Take Ben Shapiro, who, by all accounts, seems to delight in a Muskian, free-speech-maximalist takeover. Back in 2016, the Anti-Defamation League cited Shapiro as the top recipient of anti-Semitic hate on the platform, the result of coordinated attacks by trolls—not even bots! I’m not going to show examples of the tweets, but I urge you to take a look at the report and see for yourself. Is Twitter a perfect service right now? Absolutely not. But somebody like Shapiro probably appreciates that there are fewer people with SS avatars tweeting Photoshopped images of him in a gas chamber than there were in 2016.
In a past life, I used to chronicle the way that Twitter’s product inaction created a “honeypot for assholes,” as a senior Twitter executive once put it to me. Here are some of those stories:
- Maybe you remember when Twitter didn't initially block attempts to disenfranchise voters on the platform in 2016?
- Or when the company paused its verification system after verifying the white supremacist who organized the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville?
- How about the time when these 70 rape threats against a programmer were dismissed?
- Or when 90 percent of respondents to a BuzzFeed News survey in 2016 said Twitter didn't do anything when they reported abuse? Or when Twitter suspended a woman's account after she tweeted the anti-Semitic images trolls had sent her?
- Who could forget the time when ISIS beheading photos didn't qualify as abuse?!
- Or when it allowed promoted tweets from a Nazi website?
A quaint trip down memory lane. All of these egregious examples of harassment and hate were the product of a platform that prioritized free-speech maximalism and underinvested in tools for users to protect themselves. If you read that list out loud to Musk, he might say that all of those examples are horrific, and then offer some bromide about how good speech can cancel out the bad, or that a Twitter empowered to innovate will find creative solutions to maximize speech and protect users. But we absolutely do know what happens when Twitter relaxes its rules. It’s not an academic question—we’ve lived that reality.
It’s also worth noting that 2016 Twitter, despite its retrograde anti-harassment tools and rules, was still used aggressively by most of the same power users that frequent it today. It was much easier to harass and get away with it and people had fewer ways to appeal to authority and there were far more truly trollish accounts that made many people miserable, but … people still used it. There were still good tweets and funny tweets and stupid but harmless tweets alongside the truly horrific stuff. I mention this only because (a) I am not convinced droves of people are going to leave if Musk signs the papers and (b) I don’t think that making Twitter significantly more exhausting, miserable, and toxic is going to turn it all the way into Gab (though again, it would not be good thing!).
In the “honeypot for assholes” era I wrote about in the summer of 2016, Twitter employees described the internal culture to me as “never once tranquil” and “intense, chaotic, and morale-draining, despite working with some of the best people I’ve known.” This also sounds a lot like the way that some of Musk’s current employees describe working at his companies. Those who followed the first 10 years of Twitter’s corporate development might remember that the company had seven heads of product in six years and ever-evolving priorities, which was the result of a company led by executives who never really had a good idea of what the company was or should be. As I reported in 2016:
One source recalls that, when asked, Jack Dorsey refused to answer exactly what kind of tool Twitter was. “He said, ‘Twitter brings you closer,'” the former employee recalled. “And I said, ‘To what?’ and he replied, ‘Our users always finish that sentence for us.’
A Musk-owned Twitter could mark a return to this kind of vagueness. Because in some very important ways, Musk embodies the spirit of the platform back when it was founded. It is a spirit rooted in grand plans but that draws on inputs and the lived experiences of a very narrow, homogenous group of people (in Musk’s case, his own Twitter experience). It is a spirit that has a shallow understanding of the ways that the platform shapes social, political, and cultural dynamics and a strange contempt for nuance in thinking about those subject areas. It is also a spirit that is guided by bravado and hubris, in thinking oneself smart enough to solve the incredibly thorny conundrum of democratizing speech while preserving healthy discourse.
It’s not all that clear to me what Musk actually wants out of Twitter. The only thing I’m confident about is that Musk will return the company to its founding ethos—one that all of Twitter’s founders later lamented as overly simplistic or naive about the nuances of running a technology platform at scale. And so, Twitter will be left to face the problems of an aggressively polarized and increasingly toxic political and cultural environment with little of the crucial hindsight of its past. I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like the dumbest possible outcome.