Hi Quartz members,
It’s been two weeks since Elon Musk completed his acquisition of Twitter—and here we are, already predicting how it will all end.
To be fair, we aren’t the only ones. Musk himself on Thursday (Nov. 10), in his first town hall with employees—the kind of venue in which a new owner might look to raise spirits, not pulverize them—said that bankruptcy was a distinct possibility. By which time so much had happened that Quartz’s beleagured Scott Nover had become, to all intents and purpose, a reporter on the Musk-Twitter beat.
There were mass layoffs. There were attempts to reverse some of those layoffs. There was a rollout of a monthly $8 verification fee (negotiated down from $20 in a surreal Twitter exchange between Musk and Stephen King). There was the roll-out of an additional “Official” label. Then there was the withdrawal of that label. There was an email from Musk that ended remote work and threw down a gauntlet: to earn half of Twitter’s revenue from subscriptions. There were exits of senior executives, including those in charge of privacy and safety. There was a warning from the Federal Trade Commission.
We’re sure we’ve missed a dozen other things. It’s been a blitz.
In a way, Twitter has already ended—Twitter as we knew it, that is. (The platform today, with the chaos created by fake “verified” accounts and the prospective return of hate-speakers like Donald Trump, is a different beast.) But Musk has clouded the future of the company itself; its demise now seems so likely that he might as well have taken out $44 billion in small bills and lit them on fire.
But perhaps there are still ways for Twitter to live on? We asked Quartz writers to turn out some spec-fic: to chart four possible ways in which Musk’s Twitter misadventure might end.
Scenario One: THE SLOW FADE
Imagine this: you sit on your sofa, catching up with the latest episode of the Great British Bake Off, and you get a notification. It’s from Twitter, to let you know that pro-wrestler, actor, and armchair philosopher John Cena is now following you.
What’s the first thing you do?
For me, it was to check if @JohnCena was, indeed, the John Cena. Earlier, a checkmark next to his name would have been enough. But then I began to wonder. Was this account simply an imposter paying for verification?
With 13.9 million followers and a checkmark, I’ve assumed my follower is legit (thanks for reading Quartz, John). But the moment of pause is one that’ll become all too familiar in a world in which verification can be bought. And with fewer employees around to monitor fake accounts, the experience of being on Twitter will become miserable. “Things will be broken. Things will be broken more often. Things will be broken for longer periods of time. Things will be broken in more severe ways,” a Twitter engineer told the MIT Technology Review. “Everything will compound until, eventually, it’s not usable.” The end of Twitter may well be that people just naturally drop out, slowly and then fast, out of distrust and annoyance. And if you think a hugely popular social media platform can’t diminish into insignificance, MySpace would like a word.
Scenario Two: THE STRATEGIC MERGER
In late March, when Musk was still buying up Twitter shares in secret, his friend Mathias Döpfner was among the few people who knew about it. “Why don’t you buy Twitter?” texted Döpfner, the CEO of Axel Springer, the German media giant. “We run it for you. And establish a true platform of free speech. Would be a real contribution to democracy.”
Musk didn’t accept the offer to have Twitter run on his behalf, but Döpfner’s ideas have already influenced Musk. The men share mutual admiration and, most importantly, politics. Axel Springer makes its European employees sign a pledge to support, among other things, Zionism and free-market capitalism. And though the vile tabloid Bild is the largest newspaper in his portfolio, Döpfner decries journalistic bias, and aims to build a conservative (he calls it “nonpartisan”) media empire to rival NewsCorp. In the last few years, he acquired the American publishers Insider and Politico, hoping to dominate the US market.
What Döpfner still lacks is a distribution platform to rival the newsstands, radio stations, and cable networks that have historically been effective outlets for mainstream conservative politics. Musk, on the other hand, has no credible business model for Twitter nor time to figure one out. If Musk feels he has run out of options, he may well text his pal back and strike a deal to combine Axel Springer and Twitter.
Given a chance to reset and having been rehabilitated by the imprimatur of a huge media house, Axel Twitter will become the world’s largest conservative information source. Galvanized by the platform’s positioning as an alternative to the mainstream media, conservatives will flock to the platform. Joe Rogan will bring the exclusive rights to his podcast from Spotify to Axel Twitter. And advertisers will return, as they seek to balance spending with “liberal” outfits like Facebook or the New York Times.
Asked recently about his texts with Musk, Döpfner brushed off the proposal to run Twitter as “more kind of a general thought and kind of a funny idea that we could play a role.” Now that funny ideas are all that Musk has, or seems to want, this one might make a comeback.
Scenario Three: THE UNEXPECTED REVIVAL
Part of the reason that Elon Musk’s handling of Twitter has carried so much of the fascination of a car crash is that Musk is, so to speak, not necessarily a bad driver. Sure, he’s a kook—an unstable genius, to put it most kindly. But he runs other companies, and he runs them relatively well. Tesla makes eight times the profit per car as BYD, its biggest EV competitor. In its niche, SpaceX is more efficient than NASA: lower cost overruns, shorter time horizons for projects, more nimble to adapt. Neither has witnessed the outright bedlam that Twitter has suffered in the past two weeks.
Musk can be a reasonable CEO if he is so inclined, clearly: a CEO who listens to people who know better, who plans and executes with deliberation, and who prizes long-term growth. The trick now lies in getting him to want to be that CEO at Twitter.
Maybe someone Musk respects will persuade him that his whims are damaging a platform he claims to love. He’ll step aside as CEO and permit his successor to re-fill positions—in safety, compliance, AI learning, and other key areas—that have just been hollowed out. He’ll even have some good ideas for how Twitter can turn a profit: a more meaningful subscription, say, or an integration into a super-app like China’s WeChat. (Musk’s declared plans for a super-app are super-vague, but the US has no WeChat equivalent—no app that offers texting, social media, video chat, payments, food delivery, and other services.) Eventually, a couple of years will pass, and we’ll all still be on the bird network, remembering those lunatic few weeks when Musk had just purchased it.
Scenario Four: THE FIRE SALE
This one’s easy. Musk gets sick of Twitter. He realizes it’s bleeding him dry, and keeping him from the companies that made him the world’s richest man. Or Twitter truly goes bankrupt. Either way, Musk puts it on the block: $1, to whoever will take the company and at least some of its debt.
Let’s take it further. The buyer is Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder, who made nearly $1 billion when Musk bought all of Twitter’s outstanding shares. Dorsey regrets turning Twitter into a company (he said on Twitter). What it should really be, he explained, is “a protocol. Def can’t be owned by a state, or a company.” (Email is a protocol, in that people can sign up with different email providers and still write to each other via the underlying protocol. Mastodon, Twitter’s as-yet-puny rival, is a protocol too.) In Dorsey’s purchase of Twitter will be a chance to start again, and to do it right this time.
ONE ✂️ THING
Elon Musk’s tenure at Twitter has been a highlights reel of all the anxieties unfolding (in slower motion) across the tech industry. Advertising income is slumping all over the place; no wonder Musk wants, in however ridiculous a fashion, to boost subscriber revenue. Payroll costs are high, prompting Meta, earlier this week, to lay off 11,000 employees. This was Musk’s worry as well, although again, he sank to absurdities, planning to cancel free lunches at the Twitter cafeteria, firing people haphazardly, and wondering if there were “ghost employees” collecting Twitter paychecks. Companies like Amazon are reviewing their unprofitable units; unfortunately for Musk, all of Twitter is an unprofitable unit. Other tech firms may well tut disapprovingly at how Musk has set about his mission. But like it or not, they’re all in the same, leaky boat.
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5 GREAT STORIES FROM ELSEWHERE
🤡 Check, please. Elon Musk is now peddling Twitter verification ticks for $8 a pop, and a platform-wide impersonation circus has begun. Some fake accounts have trolled diligently—one parading as Nintendo tweeted a cheerful Mario flipping the bird at scrollersby. But Wired points out that selling the blue check has more dangerous implications, laying a welcome mat for disinformation, scammers, and foreign influence campaigns.
⌛ Longtermism. If you want to understand Elon Musk’s philosophy, you need to understand “longtermism,” and if you want to understand that termism you need to learn about William MacAskill, the “effective altruism” philosopher. His worldview has powerful and deep-pocketed disciples, including the embattled ex-CEO of FTX Sam Bankman-Fried. Salon explains how this fringe ideology is seeking to go mainstream, and why it could be dangerous.
🏮 Soy sauce Western. Tai Ping Koon is a family-run Hong Kong institution with a 160-year history of cooking “soy sauce Western” cuisine. Their most iconic dish—roasted pigeon—was first hawked on the streets of 1860s Guangzhou, but would later be served to the political elite of China, including the Soong sisters, Sun Yat-sen, and Chiang Kai-shek. Andrew Chui, the fifth generation owner of TPK, shares its storied history with CNN.
🌳 Tree talk. The “wood-wide web” theory posits that trees and fungi form an interconnected network, moving information across forests and assisting their leafy members in the sharing of resources. This idea reframes the traditional view of forests as just an area with a large density of trees. The New York Times leafs through the ongoing debate within the scientific community, including why some claims may have gone a branch too far, and why others remain a mystery.
🚇 From A to B. The Wall Street Journal looks into four possible trends we could see in the coming decades when it comes to transportation. One prediction is the integration of Wonka-like, multidirectional elevators in urban centers, while another envisions cars that can wirelessly charge while on the road. Whatever the future may hold, two forces are clearly shaping it: climate change and automation.
Thanks for reading! And don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, questions, or topics you want to know more about.
Have a verified-good weekend,
— Samanth Subramanian, global news editor; Zach Seward, editor-in-chief; Morgan Haefner, deputy email editor.
Additional contributions by Julia Malleck