Web3 Won't Save Twitter from Elon Musk
Mike Pearl

Fri May 06 2022

An open source, decentralized Twitter would be great — the platform's future under a billionaire sh*tposter is a different story.

It’s anyone’s guess exactly how Twitter’s probable new owner, Elon Musk, is going to attempt to verify all human-owned accounts, crush spambots, and suspend all content moderation except where the law requires it. And it’s also anyone’s guess how he is going to make the code behind content delivery open-source, giving users a window into the way the platform’s own algorithms operate, along with the ability to go on GitHub to point out problems and offer solutions.

I say “anyone’s guess,” but most of the guessing is happening within the Web3 discourse. Basically, he’ll do crypto on it, and everything will be awesome, defi enthusiasts say. This notion is particularly prevalent among, as you might expect, crypto CEOs. Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong wants to see Twitter “converted to a decentralized protocol,” for mostly free speech-related reasons. Sam Bankman-Fried, the CEO of FTX, wrote a Twitter thread about his idea for “decentralized Twitter.” (And, wouldn’t you know it, the crypto exchange Binance is throwing $500 million into Twitter as part of an investment group that Musk has cobbled together.)

My cartoonish and haphazard rundown of all the speculation goes a little something like this:

*Deep breath* The new blue check marks will be tokens on a blockchain à la some crypto tech like Spruce, which uses Ethereum as an ID verification system. Sure, it’s not clear how a system like this would only verify bona fide humans — maybe some kind of new super-captcha? Anyway, this new 100 percent perfect ID verification system would resolve the problem with spambots almost instantly. It would also create a potential new revenue stream, by, um, allowing users on the Twitter blockchain to mint NFTs and get paid for them via the coins they get through verification? Or by monetizing their own content and creating new financial instruments, which would be, uh, I guess, integrated directly into the site’s code via Elon’s new open-source algorithm? And this would pay off for the platform itself via, I don’t know, micro-fees or something.

Little of this tech exists yet, and none of these ideas necessarily gel, but if, like me, you spend a lot of time listening to people describe their crypto enterprises, it all sounds familiar enough to read as plausible. Plus, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk are members of a famous mutual admiration society largely centered on crypto, and Dorsey has wanted to create a “decentralized standard for social media” since at least 2019, so the speculation has a firm foundation in reality.

Blockchains are being cast as a magic wand that will eliminate everything from “bot armies” to “behind-the-scenes-manipulation,” and if or when Elon deploys them, it looks like he’s also going to be pissing off the Twitter originalists by adding an edit button. If all the speculation is correct, this will happen while Musk uses an incredibly complicated financing scheme to overpay for Twitter. According to a commitment letter from April 20 (which was marijuana day lol), he plans to use $62.5 billion in Tesla stock as collateral for loans meant to cover $12.5 billion of the purchase price. He has also promised the banks that a new monetization scheme for tweets will generate some of the revenue he’ll need to make his loan payments on time.

There are things to like about Elon Musk’s vision for Twitter. If we take seriously the idea that he’s trying to create some kind of uber-transparent, open-source “digital town square,” then he’s opening the door to user-generated ideas, particularly if he truly makes the code open-source. In the future, people will supposedly be able to go on GitHub, and in Musk’s own words, “look through it and say, ‘Oh, I see a problem here, I don’t agree with this,’” and then “highlight issues and suggest changes, in the same way that you update Linux or Signal.”

It’s easy to listen to Musk’s promise of openness, as well as his claim that buying Twitter is “not a way to make money,” and start indulging in fantasies about a radically democratized platform — a social media site with the no-one-is-in-charge ethos of Wikipedia. Other social media platforms like Facebook “create an environment in which our work, our social life, and our entertainment increasingly take place in digital contexts ready-made for monetization,” according to University of Exeter political science lecturer James Muldoon, who created the term “platform socialism.” It’s easy to see how a Mark Zuckerberg-owned Metaverse would accelerate this dynamic, and it’s tempting to imagine Web3 Twitter as an offramp from the dreary, cynical economics of social media.

Maybe that’s what it would mean to do as Musk suggested back in March and “Seize the memes of production!” Maybe owning our content and having a say in the way the platform is coded puts real, meaningful power into the hands of users. Maybe an unmoderated platform is the only environment where the weak can speak in such a powerful, unified voice that the owner’s own voice is marginal by comparison.

Sadly, this scenario is incompatible with the fact that Twitter has to bring in revenue ASAP or very bad things will start happening to Musk’s investments.

Everyone is tolerating this deranged hail-mary because Musk just happens to have won similar bets in the past. He drove SpaceX to the brink of bankruptcy trying to launch a viable rocket, before lucking out at the last possible second, all while Tesla was also on the verge of bankruptcy. And he was rewarded for all that risk by getting, well, literally everything.

So he’s betting on the idea that that wasn’t a fluke, and that he wasn’t just right that time, but that he’s always right, and that he’ll be rewarded for taking huge risks again, and get even more everything. Logic would say he’s probably wrong, but who wants to look stupid again by doubting him?

I’ll be that guy. He’s probably wrong. This is probably going to be a disaster. What’s more, all this stuff about Twitter being a new DAO or something answers nothing about what the everyday experience of using it is going to be like.

The only answer I’m confident giving is: Using Twitter is going to get very weird.

I’ve written before that I like broken, messy places on the internet, so I’m a bit biased, but I’m very excited about what Elon Musk looks like he’s going to do to Twitter, by which I mean: take a big potato masher to its entrails. It might not happen all at once, but in a couple years, Twitter will be a very different place. He won’t succeed in making it what he’s imagining, because nothing ever comes out the way it looks in your head. But that’s an exhilarating thought: The New Twitter could be like when late-career Monet’s weird brain spat out his water lily paintings, or it could be like when late-career L. Ron Hubbard’s weird brain spat out the book Battlefield Earth. Either way, it’s going to be crazy.

So if you are someone who wants Twitter to be a stable, moderated communication platform, maybe because you use it to calmly share your work and find news stories to read, my heart goes out to you. It doesn’t work like that for Elon Musk, and I suspect most people who use it like that are soon going to be forced to take a more Muskian approach to Twitter. I advise you to look carefully at how he uses it, and perhaps more importantly why he uses it.

I would not be the first person to point out that tweeting seems to be a big part of Elon Musk’s recent lightning-fast money explosion — in case you’ve forgotten, the history of his fortune is basically a hockey stick graph that skyrockets during the pandemic. Everyone knows Musk has been scolded endlessly for tweeting dumb shit, but there’s clearly a method to all this, and a popular theory holds that his tweets fuel investment in Tesla stock (and side bets like Dogecoin) by bored people sitting at home staring at their phones, which then pumps up the valuation of Elon’s investments, and bolsters his reputation. It’s a concept that holds some water, though I also don’t think Musk is doing this in a coherent, planned-out way, as evidenced by all the times when his desire was both transparent and thwarted, like when he tried to pump Dogecoin on SNL, and Dogecoin tanked.

These kinds of setbacks are only natural because, no offense to the guy but: Elon Musk is no genius. It has been documented that he lacks the common sense necessary to heat up a Pop-Tart without burning his fingers on the metal guts of the toaster. All I mean by saying this is that whatever his aptitudes are, he’s not playing five-dimensional chess. When most people tweet, if they get 20 engagements on their Marvel movie opinion, they had a pretty good day. When Elon tweets, a thrum like a fluorescent light emanates from his post in the form of thousands of engagements. There are people asking him to pump their shitcoins, people asking him to look at their nudes, links to e-books about pet conspiracy theories, and that one picture of the pig shitting on its balls. And most of it all blurs together.

But some of that activity goes Super Saiyan and becomes actually worth reading for Elon Musk. Sometimes you just have to be one of the epic guys from the tech world that he pals around with in order to receive a highly-sought-after Elon reply. If you dunk on Elizabeth Warren or AOC, that might also be worth a reply. He also loves having his ass lavishly smooched. Or maybe you’re just a random nobody who replied with an amazing zinger. In any case, Musk will sometimes reply to the inciting Tweet with an angry dig or just some gnomic little deep thought he presumably half-remembers from a 4chan thread. The specifics don’t matter. It’s all fun and high-stakes, and most importantly: It makes him richer. But he believes he’s the rich guy who is rich for all the right reasons, so it’s all great.

The world’s most powerful people used to have to go to the Bilderberg Hotel in the Netherlands once a year to put their heads together as a unified cabal. Now, the world’s richest person and all his fans are an even bigger, better cabal, and that cabal has a live chat that everyone can see. Sure a lot of people get mad at the cabal, but it doesn’t matter because it’s mostly just a low-level hum

So that’s how and why Musk uses it, but what will the mysterious new experience for normies be like? Expect it to just generally feel like Twitter is not designed for coastal Democrats anymore. You’ll still be able to post a link to a Paul Krugman op-ed and say, “This makes some good points about tariffs,” but don’t expect the usual three likes. Likes, which are boring because there’s no money changing hands, will, I would guess, be de-emphasized in favor of more lucrative types of engagement. I wouldn’t rule out your Krugman tweet suddenly getting hoovered up into a user-created NFT collection called “Bug Person Brains,” which will automatically drop 1/1,000,000th of an Elon Coin into a crypto wallet you don’t even know how to use. I’m not saying that’s going to be the reality, but I’m positive that’s going to be the vibe.

Even so, if I had to call it, I’d say that a radically democratic Elon Musk-owned social platform is likelier than an actually fun metaverse app from Mark Zuckerberg. Still, this is way too much weight to put on the shoulders of any app. With the attention of the whole world simultaneously on it and in it, all while it’s propped up by a cockamamie debt scheme, Twitter is fast becoming that meme with the power strip floating on two sandals in a kiddie pool, and Elon Musk is promising to crank that power strip to 480 volts so it can supercharge a Tesla. Sparks are about to start shooting out of that thing, and after that, I don’t know what’ll happen. But I also know I can’t look away.

Graphics by Fiona Carty.