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23 November 2022

Inside the Twittering machine

Will Elon Musk turn Twitter from a dysfunctional social media platform into a new kind of digital dystopia?

By Bruno Maçães

There is something prophetic in the way the tech barons Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and now Elon Musk seem to have staked their fortunes on the plausibility of new virtual worlds. Meta, the company that owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, wants to build virtual reality platforms – the so-called metaverse – where the internet can finally deliver on its promise: experiences instead of screentime. Amazon is a universal marketplace that might eventually shift all aspects of economic life to the digital world. Musk seemed to be an exception – an engineer working with atoms rather than bits and computer code. But his acquisition of Twitter on 27 October this year was a calculated ploy to conquer the metaverse.

Indeed, there is a good case to be made that Twitter is the first metaverse. Why spend time and effort building a virtual world when one is there and ready for the taking?

Musk was interested in the obvious contradiction between Twitter’s central importance for politics and culture and its shortcomings as a business. An extraterrestrial visitor to Earth might well conclude that Twitter was the nervous system of human existence. Most major world leaders, business chiefs, celebrities and journalists are present and active on the platform. Politicians and public figures often communicate between themselves on Twitter as journalists wait for their pronouncements to appear there first, before they’re circulated on traditional media.

[See also: The chaos at Elon Musk’s Twitter is a parable of US power in the age of Big Tech]

Travelling around the world to give lectures on global politics, I often ask audiences which city they would nominate as the world’s capital. Some say New York. Others choose London. Still others suggest Beijing or Shanghai, swayed by the idea that a new hegemonic power has risen in the east. They are all wrong. The capital of the world in our time is Twitter. Are you better connected with the course of events by logging on to Twitter, or by walking on the streets of New York or Shanghai and looking for action and inspiration in their thousands of lifeless coffee shops? Today, cities are places where you can sit down in a quiet corner to access current affairs and debates that are happening elsewhere – the internet.

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Musk, then, wanted to acquire this capital, and he did so in the quick, decisive style of a military conqueror. His logic seems obvious: a platform of such social and political power needs only to be properly managed in order to become a source of endless economic advantages for its possessor. It is difficult to think of a case in history in which political power could not be turned into virtually infinite riches. Think of the East India Company in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Power is the easiest thing to monetise.

What makes Twitter so special and so unique compared to larger platforms such as Google or Amazon? First, Twitter is dangerously immersive; addictive, if you prefer. I say that as someone who has spent too much time scrolling its timeline – but without ever regretting it. Perhaps the reason is as simple as the limit on what you write. Your posts, confined to 280 characters, are so brief that they quickly get subsumed by the mass of other posts and users. On Twitter you are never in control. You enter Twitter. You are inside the machine.

Second, Twitter feels like a game. For some, this idea is perverse, but once you realise you are playing a game rather than having a conversation, your expectations for decorum and the depth and quality of exchange quickly adjust. Twitter is a series of gamified moves during which you take certain risks with your avatar to accumulate high scores in attention and approval, measured by followers, likes and retweets.

Twitter isn’t a platform (a medium of communication) so much as it is a virtual world where a parallel life is constantly developing in different directions, even during the times you are logged off and not using it. I like to give the example of the PR executive a few years ago who boarded a long-haul flight from London to South Africa immediately after posting a uniquely stupid tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time the plane landed in Cape Town, she was trending worldwide, and her whole life had collapsed.

Twitter culture, and the norms and rules that define it, is idiotic, dangerous and destructive of generous and reflective habits – the kind that might obtain in a real coffee house or seminar room. But it’s also immensely exciting. As a game but also, more and more, as a way of life. Spending an hour on Twitter is like being at a cocktail party with thousands of people, where you can listen to just one sentence and immediately turn away to listen to someone else. For some, it might feel better than the real thing.

It is because Twitter is such a precocious metaverse, and so much more successful than any existing rival, that Musk couldn’t resist the urge to own it. For an entrepreneur, nothing can compare to the concept of building a virtual world to which everyone might one day migrate. Transportation or energy networks might be foundational to modern life, but they exist in the material plane. The metaverse is a new virtual world to replace the real one. And everyone is supposed to live in that world – a world you built and, therefore, control.

[See also: Is this the end of Twitter?]

Here is a possible path to the metaverse as Musk conceives it. Start with Twitter as it exists today: a giant self-promotion machine where creators of all types converge in search of fame and money. So far the company has been unable to monetise this potential, but that feels like a lack of imagination more than anything else. How many books does Twitter sell? How many television shows, how many movie tickets? Imagine creators began to be rewarded on Twitter for their work, the way writers are on Substack or artists are for creating NFTs. And imagine further that Twitter did this by using its own proprietary currency, the future currency of the internet. Even a tiny fee on each transaction could transform Twitter into the most profitable firm on the planet.

The second stage of the Twitter masterplan would concern location. If Twitter is a virtual world rather than a platform, then this world must be built according to a general structure. Some users will be able to occupy central locations, with the algorithm making them stand out from the masses, while others will vegetate in some remote corner, leading an almost invisible existence. Deciding on these matters would constitute a power of life or death over our virtual selves. Soon you may be asked to pay to be seen and admired.

Almost everything about this vision is deeply disturbing, even before we consider its feasibility. When Zuckerberg says the metaverse will be distinct from the internet because we will be “inside” the new digital environment, he points to a basic problem: no single firm should be allowed to organise how a virtual world works, as the whole point of a virtual world is to guide our movements, our thoughts and our emotions. Those who controlled the nature of reality – even virtual reality – would be like gods ruling over mortals.

Another problem is whether a virtual world can actually be built by a single company or actor. There is a contradiction in terms in the notion of a metaverse that has been constructed by one company, something that Meta is reluctantly accepting. To all evidence, its ambitions have been scaled down and Zuckerberg is looking for partners to help build it. A metaverse requires high levels of autonomy and persistence, which cannot survive if one organisation remains in charge.

The technical capacity of an individual company can no doubt offer specialised services such as chat or payment platforms, but the complexity of a virtual world capable of rivalling the real one is beyond what Meta or Twitter can provide. If the metaverse ever comes into existence, it must be the product of genuinely decentralised structures. Twitter’s success in the past was partly due to the decentralised power structure within the company, where it often seemed that no one was in charge. Its co-founder and former CEO, Jack Dorsey, was more guru than boss. Musk is mistaken if he thinks Twitter will be better when subjected to a unified leadership.

The way this contradiction will unfold in practice has been obvious for some time. To acquire full control over Twitter, Musk had to load the firm with about $13bn in debt. The company’s interest expense is now at least $1bn a year, possibly more if interest rates in the US continue to rise. It is unclear how Twitter can generate this kind of money. Musk’s strategy is to gut its workforce, while looking for ways to increase revenue, even if they come at the expense of Twitter’s appeal to a broad audience. Some of the ideas look desperate, such as a proposal to allow users to pay to send direct messages to celebrities, or the $8 subscription for blue ticks – previously awarded for free to validate the authenticity of high-profile Twitter accounts – which was introduced in early November.

In the meantime, it’s been reported that hundreds of Twitter employees have resigned in response to Musk’s cultural reset, with many leaving after he sent an email on 16 November that asked staff to sign up for “long hours at high intensity”. Building a metaverse with just a few dozen desperado programmers and engineers will generate a cascade of technical problems. We might expect the $1.2bn that Twitter spends annually on research and development to be diverted to more pressing financial obligations, such as servicing all the new debt and equity interests.

Twitter is not alone. Many of the same problems seem to affect Meta, and even Amazon, although on a much smaller scale. Zuckerberg recently admitted that he over-estimated the feasibility of his metaverse dreams. We are heading towards something of a showdown, when it will become clear that the boldness of Big Tech’s projects, the next stage in the digital revolution, exceed what individual companies – despite their wealth, resources and access to political power – are able to achieve on their own.

[See also: The future world order will be decided by the war over semiconductors]

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette