On Oct. 26, 2022, Elon Musk enjoyed his first and last good day as the head of Twitter (now X). Following a $44 billion acquisition he tried to scuttle but was legally forced into closing, he attempted a bit of prop comedy — entering the company’s headquarters with a porcelain sink while flashing a mischievous smile. It was all the setup to a groaner of a pun announcing his arrival: “Let that sink in!” he declared in the video caption of his entrance. It was a master class in cringe.
Nearly a year later, you’d be hard pressed to name a single improvement to the site under Musk’s direction. His biggest ideas have all blown up in his face: An $8 monthly subscription fee for a blue check that verified users then needed the option of hiding to avoid mockery. The abandonment of a valuable brand name and logo in favor of the meaningless “X,” which prompted a trademark lawsuit and led to the installation of a garish metal X structure on the roof of Twitter’s office — city inspectors had it removed just days later. Musk’s latest move is to have headlines stripped from article links, leaving only an image and media source, which he seems to believe looks better and will keep users scrolling. But for those who follow news on the app, it makes X that much more pointless.
Of course, these mistakes pale in comparison to the rancid vibes Musk has cultivated by reinstating right-wing extremists and peddlers of misinformation previously banned from the platform, amplifying their conspiracy theories, and ensuring their garbage posts are shoved into “For You” feeds by Twitter’s algorithms. He buys into white supremacist propaganda, panders to anti-LGBTQ hate accounts, and, with advertisers fleeing these intolerable conditions, found a way to blame the catastrophic loss of revenue on a Jewish civil rights group that combats antisemitism.
How much longer can this wreckage of a formerly semi-functional website stay afloat? Although it has shed millions of daily active users since Musk started tinkering with it, the endgame is more likely to come down to money. Seven banks led by Morgan Stanley hold some $13 billion in debt after backing Musk’s blockbuster deal last year, and the company itself is presumably worth much less at this point — even according to his own math. If X can’t keep making its $300 million quarterly interest payments, the financial firms may repossess it in order to recoup a fraction of their losses.
These days, when you mention Musk’s countless blunders in running X, you get a standard retort from his defenders. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking stock of his mounting desperation (like when he begged Taylor Swift to release music on the platform), or a technical fail that reveals an infrastructure coming apart at the seams (such as a frozen livestream at the U.S.-Mexico border, where he’d put on his cowboy hat to grandstand as an anti-immigration ideologue, a glitch that prompted him to send an email reading “Please fix this” to all employees). The reply is always more or less the same: If Twitter is really dying, why are you still posting on it?
It’s a fair question, even if it dodges the issue of Musk’s rank incompetence. I suppose a mixture of spite and morbid curiosity goes a long way toward keeping a person like me around. On the other hand, it’s not my first time having an online community hollowed out by a hostile force, and there’s something to be said for making the most of the end with your remaining friends — sharing gallows humor and a sense of humanity as the situation continues to devolve.
And one almost has to admire the scale of the spectacle: Musk spending the GDP of a small country to buy a flashy toy, only to make it crash and burn like a Tesla on Autopliot. There’s a sick thrill in watching him announce a tweak that will never come to pass — eliminating the “block” feature, for instance — and then get into a fight with @Catturd2 over it. He’s laid off thousands, and isn’t above personally firing an engineer who dares to correct him, yet believes X can still be transformed into the “everything app,” integrating payment and shopping services. That stuff is likely to be indefinitely delayed, much as SpaceX‘s long-promised missions to Mars. Who could fail to be entertained by such a saga of self-destruction?
Musk is not without his salesmanship, which, combined with unconditional, breathless hype from supporters, has kept alive the notion of his entrepreneurial and innovative genius. He and this audience are both expending more energy each day on flat denials of grim headlines and vague assurances that X is actually “thriving” like never before. Sooner or later, that magical thinking will run ashore on reality, and until then, yes, the site will survive — but in a state of waking demise, with a user base divided between those cannibalizing what’s left and the stunned spectators.
That can hardly be mistaken for a healthy, habitable public forum, let alone an asset that could one day turn a profit. It offers the illusion of life, however, in arguments, abuse, recriminations, and disgust. The paradox of what used to be Twitter is that it is now sustained by little except the mutual contempt of hardened combatants fighting for an inch of territory. Nobody wants to cede the ground.