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The Death of The Boy Genius
After a whirlwind day in which everybody realized that Mark Zuckerberg is full of shit, Elon Musk successfully closed his deal to acquire Twitter and fired their CEO, CFO, and police chief. This immediately galvanized the most wretched human beings alive to post racist garbage, fearing no retribution in part because even before Musk acquired Twitter,, the site felt remarkably slow to kick racist trolls off of the platform (though things will undoubtedly get worse).
In 48 hours, we got a painfully lucid statement: the valley is not ruled by the best or the brightest, but the loudest and the richest. While the illusion of modern capitalism that CEOs are always smart and one step ahead might have cracked a little with the majority of modern businesses, there was always that sense that these magical creatures - the Zuckerbergs, the Musks - were lightning rods for the future, capable of seeing and doing things that others couldn’t.
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On some level, that feeling was right - except they could do things because they had money and power, and the things they saw were not always the right things or the best things. Musk’s firing of Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal policy, trust and safety, isn’t a statement that he’s making things “fairer” or “more balanced” but that he believes the thing you do when you take over a company is to fire the people who have kept Twitter in the air. He is very unlikely to “ruin” Twitter, but he is almost certainly going to send it into months (or years) of chaotic churn, either having to (as Nilay Patel puts it) face “the dull reality…that you still have to ban a bunch of legal speech if you want to make money.”
Musk has, for all intents and purposes, financially ruined Twitter. The guy that everybody thinks is a genius has chosen to buy a company and immediately burden it with $1 billion of annual interest payments. To be clear, Twitter makes roughly $700 million yearly (before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization). He has never proven to be a particularly savvy businessman - perhaps a good closer, perhaps a dealmaker, but not a “make more money than you spend” businessman (unless you can get government subsidies, of course). And now he has purchased and made himself a CEO of a company that has always had trouble monetizing its userbase, a userbase that is perpetually oscillating between rage and euphoria for almost any reason.
As a company, Twitter has never seemed to understand what it is, what its products are, who its users are, or what it does, and Musk, a guy who has never had a normal experience on Twitter, will take the helm and try his standard routine of “big ideas that only sort of make sense if you squint” and then an immediate handoff to people that understand how the thing in question works and will do the work. This might work with a car company, a weird tunnel company, or a solar company, but it’s much harder to do with a social networking company - and that’s if you don’t fire everybody who used to run it.
Elon is already having a rough time, having to write a mewling screed to advertisers the day before closing the deal reassuring them that the site will “not become a free-for-all hellscape.” He has already had to state that he won’t be unbanning people without forming a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints,” a policy that will be even more exhausting to implement than it is to type. I expect the following weeks of Elon’s life to be a slow reveal of how agonizing and exhausting running a social network is and how little fun he will have doing so.
In short, Musk bought a company with a product that’s somewhat difficult to describe for reasons he has had a great deal of trouble elucidating. He didn’t want Twitter, he wanted to prove he could buy it, and he wanted everybody to think it was cool, which they did not. He has spent $44 billion in an attempt to make people love him only to be left with a very expensive way to make people angry at him every single day for the rest of his life.
Perhaps that’s why Mark Zuckerberg is so desperate to scrap the social networking part of Meta - because social networking is a very hard thing to do right, and an even harder thing to do profitably without screwing over your users. The very nature of social networking is that it’s free, and thus your only way to monetize users is to show them advertising or content that somebody else paid you to. Doing more than that balkanizes your userbase, and while it’s possible to do this well - Discord and Twitch have found ways to do so - it requires nuance and understanding that is far beyond both Zuckerberg and Musk that they may as well not bother.
Both CEOs made the critical mistake of having too many at-bats. Zuckerberg could have easily stepped down from Facebook and handed it off to somebody else years ago. Musk could have stepped back from Tesla (or stopped buying other companies) and kept his legacy, and people would have continued to believe that he was a Big Smart Genius. In both cases, neither man could admit that we, as human beings, only have so many ideas, and only so many of those ideas are good.
Instead, they have joined hands and broken the myth of the magical genius startup founder. While selling electric cars may have allowed Elon Musk to frame himself as some Iron Man figure, the only thing his churlish, petty acquisition of Twitter proved was that he’s rich and annoying. It’s cool to sell solar panels, futuristic vehicles, or robots - buying a social network is extremely boring (and kind of hard to rationalize). Why would you want it? What can you do with it now that you own it?
Even the most bird-brained culture warrior would have a hard time explaining why Musk would buy Twitter other than “he’s rich, and he wants to change it.” Musk already had over 100 million followers on Twitter for free - why would he buy it? What possible joy could this bring him? What purpose will he fulfill? He either has to choose to do nothing and make people mad or do a lot of things and make people mad. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Musk has, on some level, become every AM sports radio caller who said they could run the team better.
We are seeing the natural endpoint of startup culture - the death of the aspirational dream of learning to code and building the next big, sexy company. Tech is no longer populated by weird dorks that have used their smarts to grow from obscurity to luxury - every hero has outstayed their welcome, devoured by their hubris, greed, and desperation. Zuckerberg isn’t the kid from the social network - he’s the ultra-rich guy burning his company to the ground while buying up acres of Hawaiian soil. Travis Kalanick isn’t the guy who changed transportation - he’s the aggressive demagogue who oversaw the creation of newer, shittier form of employment.
And Elon Musk used to be the cool rocket guy who sold electric cars. Instead, he’s likely to be remembered more for making a great deal of noise, upsetting a great deal of people, and wasting a great deal of money.
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