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Musk Has A Strategy. Perhaps.

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Despite the growing consensus that his erratic actions will leave Twitter in bankruptcy or reduced to a fire sale, I’ve allowed myself to presume that Elon Musk has a perverse plan to make Twitter viable.

Defending Elon Musk’s recent behavior isn’t an easy position to maintain. It’s hard to disagree with the doomsayers as evidence of Musk’s mercurial management grows by the day. A Musk statement du jour cannot be trusted, he’ll reverse himself in a few weeks, days, or even hours. He fires employees on a Monday and tries to rehire them by week’s end. He promises a Content Moderation Council as a counterweight to his Free Speech Absolutism and then scraps the deal, blaming “activists” in the process.

Another very recent example: Within hours of banning a number of journalists for “doxxing” him and his family, he pardoned most of the offenders on the basis of a Twitter poll.

Two notes, here.

First, many critics protest that Musk’s governance-by-Twitter-poll is an offensive joke, there’s no quality control, no sample representativity.

Second, not all offending journalists have been reinstated. For example, Business Insider’s Linette Lopez remains suspended, seemingly for reporting broader Musk mischief at Tesla — we don’t know why because Musk hasn’t offered an explanation.

Let’s pause and consider what Twitter actually is. We, yours truly included, occasionally emote as if Twitter were a kind of public good, an institution that belongs to We The People. But, as Musk’s often regal behavior should remind us, Twitter is no longer a publicly-traded corporation, but a privately-owned business that’s solely accountable to Musk and his co-investors. Musk is “Chief Twit” who says and does as he sees fit.

He’s also willing to test the legal limits of his actions. The New York Times reports that Musk may have stopped paying rent for some of the properties that Twitter occupies and is looking for ways to not pay severance packages to terminated employees. Ominously, Musk has parted ways with Alex Spiro, a legal aide who has helped him successfully negotiate treacherous legal straits in the past.

Musk occasionally resorts to not-so-veiled threats which he then promptly deletes — but not before someone preserves it:

We could continue a jeremiad of his misdeeds, but (according to my theory) Musk doesn’t care. Following the teachings of well-known (and enduring if not endearing) politicians, he knows he can brazenly renege on his commitments and repeatedly lie without consequences.

Nor will we engage in discussions of Musk’s personality disorders, regardless of his own willingness to discuss them publically. I’ll limit myself to saying that he probably has learned to best use whatever personality traits he possesses or is possessed by. It’s made him successful more than once.

With this in our temporarily amoral mind, we can try to infer Musk’s strategy for Twitter, impute some method to his zigs and zags.

Step one: Do and say whatever it takes to create traffic. Social Network History now tells us that good news and good deeds don’t get much attention. Controversy, hate, and verbal violence feed an ascending spiral that fuels traffic. (One might want to take a look at Charles Arthur’s felicitously titled Social Warming, a book that lucidly explains how and why social networks drive us mad.) So let yourself go! Say and do controversial things, contradict yourself, make media enemies! Enjoy yourself and watch traffic increase across the platform.

And, anecdotally, it seems to have worked: My feed is definitely more active. But, as I’ve noted before, I have no idea of the algorithm Twitter uses to direct its flow to my account.

Still on unreliable anecdotal evidence, Twitter may have a captive audience. I see users vocally announce their departure from Twitter…but “Dammit, they don’t go!”. Personally, after repeated unsuccessful attempts to get a Mastodon account, I finally managed to get on the sfba.social server of the Mastodon federation (sfba as in San Francisco Bay Area). So far, I find it more difficult than the Tweetbot client that I use.

(Parenthetically, I like the ad-blocking Tweetbot enough to pay for it, but I wonder how long such an arrangement will last.)

We’ll also remark that tweets that contain links to Mastodon yield the following message:

“We can’t complete this request because this link has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful.”

More Step One developments to come, perhaps on a daily or even hourly basis.

Step Two naturally follows the increase in Twitter traffic. Turning to advertisers, Musk offers a reenergized platform with increased reach. Depending on the ad agency or its client, Musk can pitch a more diversified audience than under the previous regime. “The new Twitter no longer is prisoner of a woke audience, it now reaches the entire economic and political spectrum. And as you’ve seen with our recent affirmative action against trouble makers, Twitter is now a clean and well-lighted neighborhood.”

This pitch may or may not work. Could Musk convince Bernard Arnault, the sober head of the LVMH empire and recently anointed richest-man-in-the-world, to advertise delicate properties such as Louis Vuitton luxury goods or Dior perfumes?. It’s perhaps because of his noisy Twitter adventure that Tesla shareholders have voted to denude Musk of the richest man mantel.

(French readers might enjoy L’Ange Exterminateur, by Airy Routier, an unauthorized Arnault bio, now a little dated but filled with revealing details on Arnault’s early years and very determined mindset.)

Herein resides the delicate manœuvre: After any means allowed, say and do what’s needed to increase traffic, can Musk perform the required volteface and convince Twitter’s cagey advertisers that the authoritarian Twitter 2.0 offers enhanced brand safety and reach?

Now a new development: According to The Wall Street Journal and other sources, Musk is raising fresh money for Twitter. A small investor (he put a mere $1M in Musk’s Twitter takeover) was approached and offered to invest more at the same $54.20/share price.

If true, this is a bizarre move. Why this small investor, and why no bigger wallets? It doesn’t sound like a bullish Musk.

Tomorrow, new episodes.

— jlg@gassee.com

Musk Has A Strategy. Perhaps. was originally published in Monday Note on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: Musk Has A Strategy. Perhaps.

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