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15 April 2023

Elon Musk has laid bare the devil’s bargain we all make with the internet

It really is quite something to realise that you are, effectively, a website’s bait.

By Marie Le Conte

Grand pronouncements about the internet are usually quite naff. “If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product” seemed deep when it first got bandied around, then quickly became overused and quite glib.

We weren’t stupid: we knew that, say, Facebook was selling some of our data to brands and whoever else had deep enough pockets. We’d just decided it was something we could live with if it meant we could keep in touch with all our friends and acquaintances in one place, for free. It felt like a straightforward trade-off. Oh, those halcyon days.

It is now 2023, the idea of updating your status and browsing your tagged pictures feels like a quaint and distant memory, and those trade-offs no longer seem so easy to figure out. What apps and websites should we be using? How guilty should we feel about using them? Who benefits from us using them?

These questions have been asked a lot about TikTok over the past few months, as multiple governments have chosen to ban the Chinese app from politicians’ and officials’ phones, prompting concern about whether everyone else should stop using it too. Personally, I haven’t worried too much. As a happily ageing millennial, I have to confess that I never got on TikTok. I hated being young and seeing my online spaces get invaded by boring old people, so it’s only fair I shouldn’t post my own boring old content on hip new platforms.

Twitter, on the other hand, is a place I find fascinating. While the national security implications may not be quite the same, a similar degree of soul-searching is under way there too.

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Watching Elon Musk try and fail and try again to reshape the app into his image has shown just how complex its ecosystem is. What his many mishaps have demonstrated is that there is one crucial thing he is seemingly yet to grasp: Twitter is all of us or it is no one at all.

Musk blatantly loathes what he sees as the blue-tick liberal elite: the thousands of journalists, politicians and wags who do not share his political views and have long been the most prominent figures on the website he chose to buy. The users he champions are the libertarians, the small-time trolls and the crypto bros who feel they have an axe to grind. Most moves Musk has made so far – introducing Twitter Blue so anyone can buy a blue “verified” tick, trying to strong-arm those who already have one into paying for it, building the “For You” tab that shows you content the algorithm (wrongly) thinks you’ll enjoy – can be seen as attempts to inconvenience the former and please the latter.

[See also: Twitter is dead]

What Musk doesn’t seem to get is that he needs the blue-tick elite, smug and woke as they are, to keep going. He is trying to cater to the portion of the app that hates them without quite realising that, really, they love to hate them. There’s a reason why a string of right-wing “free speech” platforms have been launched, all promising to replace Twitter, but none managed to fully get off the ground. It’s like building a combat video game and forgetting to put any enemies in it.

If Musk keeps alienating mainstream publications, celebrities and the rest of the chattering classes, he may just lose it all. Without anyone to argue with, the users he does cherish will quickly lose interest and go somewhere else.

This does raise the question: what role are we playing in this ecosystem? I am using “we” not quite in the royal sense here but with the assumption that, if you chose to read this particular article in this particular magazine, you at least feel a kinship with those chattering classes. Where do we fit in?

It really is quite something to realise that you are, effectively, a website’s bait. Your role is to post and to get trolled, to receive vicious replies and bilious quote tweets, to drive engagement even if it raises your blood pressure. We’re not the product; we’re the prey.

Then again, I and countless others have managed to build careers, friendships and romantic relationships thanks to Twitter. We didn’t sacrifice ourselves on the altar of the bird app without receiving anything in return. There was a deal on the table, and we took it.

The real question, then, is what happens when the deal changes? There is no guessing what Musk may do next, but a number of writers have already begun moving to Substack. The one-time newsletter platform has become shameless in its pursuit of Twitter power users, most recently launching “Notes”, its own micro-blogging feature.

More broadly, it has, for the past few years, made it possible for journalists to get paid for their work, and for keen readers to financially support their favourite writers. Coincidentally, it is also estimated to have made millions by tolerating anti-vaxxers using its platform, and generally taking a very minimalist approach to content moderation.

When Musk took over Twitter, Lulu Cheng Meservey, then a vice-president at Substack, made it clear where her sympathies lay, posting that “if you’re a Twitter employee who’s considering resigning because you’re worried about Elon Musk pushing for less regulated speech… please do not come work here.”

[See also: I closed my Twitter account. So now what?]

Its leadership may not be as obviously erratic as Twitter’s, but Substack is no panacea either. Of course, this doesn’t mean that writers should shun the platform altogether, as the benefits remain too great. Still, its free speech absolutism feels ominous – how many more conspiracy theorists and bigots will be able to build a platform for themselves via Substack?

And at what point will regular journalists on the site begin to act as window dressing, legitimising the cranks they share a website with? Should those journalists be held responsible for their fellow newsletter writers? Again, the uncomfortable questions begin piling up, and there are no obvious answers to any of them.

In this context, it feels easy to be nostalgic for the era of MySpace and MSN, when we knew little about our overlords and cared even less. Hell, even the Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s quirks now seem nearly charming in retrospect.

Sadly, what has been learnt cannot be unlearnt; our lives online can only ever rely on a series of uncomfortable deals made with various devils. That is the game we’re playing – you, me, Musk and everyone else. We all resent but need each other, stuck in both an uneasy and increasingly unstable alliance. Let’s try not to think too hard about what would happen if it all collapsed.

[See also: If Elon Musk thinks running Twitter has been painful, he should try using it]

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