By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
I apologize for my failure to provide a witty headline. I thought of #Twittergeddon but it never went viral, and #Twitterdammerung even less so. So I settled for “#Musk + #Twitter.” Because — for those who came in late — dimple-cheeked bezzle-Boer Elon Musk finally consummated his takeover of Twitter, leading to many headlines like this one from the Daily Mail, which is representative: “Gigi Hadid deletes Twitter because it is ‘becoming more of a cesspool of hate and bigotry’ in wake of Elon Musk’s takeover of social media platform.” In this essay I will first clear Musk, the personality and businessman, out of the way. Then I will look at Twitter, asking why it is permitted to exist. Then I’ll look into liberal Democrat aghastitude at Musk’s takeover; and finally I’ll look at the role of social media platforms in creating social capital (mostly among subclasses of the PMC), which I find the most interesting and important aspect of the entire mishegoss.
Musk is not necessarily a [glass bowl], or lunatic driven round the twist by too much money and power. Sure, with the episode of midget submarines to save the Thai Cave Boys, he was, totally, and then with his union busting at Tesla, his hyperloop scam, the tortured monkeys, Grimes… But SpaceX seems to be doing OK, perhaps because rockets are proven technology. So, with Musk + Twitter, do we get SpaceX, or do we get the tortured monkeys? Let’s wait and see! From the Wall Street Journal:
In Elon Musk’s first week at Twitter Inc., he flouted much of the advice management gurus have dished out for decades.
In the days since he closed a $44 billion takeover of Twitter, Mr. Musk has worked to rapidly overhaul the social network. He fired many of the company’s top leaders, including its general counsel, chief financial officer and chief executive officer. He conducted sweeping layoffs, eliminating roughly half of Twitter’s workforce on Friday. Along the way, he floated new product ideas, mocked internal management training, publicly disclosed a decline in revenue and hinted that other changes could be on the way.
Twitter on Saturday said it has begun rolling out software updates to charge users $7.99 a month for its Twitter Blue subscription service, up from $4.99 currently. Subscribers get their accounts verified, a service that has been free and offers a blue check mark to notable accounts.
The billionaire’s swift actions stand in contrast to those of many new leaders, who often use the first 90 days to meet with employees, listen to concerns and assess how to improve a company’s products before embarking on strategy shifts, executives and corporate advisers say.
So the business press experiences aghastitude, too, and then writes about it. I never expected to see the Wall Street Journal throw a flag for norms violation, but here we are.
However, cutting costs (by reducing headcount) while increasing revenues (by charging for account verification) is a time-honored strategy to achieve profitability (characterized by Vanity Fair, in another headline that captures well the febrile coverage of this topic, as “Canning Half The Staff And Begging People For $8“). Musk’s strategy might not work in Twitter’s case, but it’s not prima facie stupid or insane. We might also remember that all the executives Musk heaved over the side had never managed to make Twitter profitable, which last I checked was what executives are supposed to do. Or maybe not? Let’s turn to Twitter as a company.
As a sidebar, let me confess at the outset that I am a dedicated Twitter user. I curate what I read very carefully, and reject Twitter’s frequent offers to let their algorithm take over my feed. I inhabit various quiet neighborhoods that are important to me; photography, among other things. Twitter also makes finding Antidotes for Links a breeze, much easier than it was, pre-Twitter. Further, there is no better way to follow breaking news (especially with a properly curated feed). I could never have followed the twists and turns of the Covid epic without Twitter, and that very much includes the science. (It’s not easy to make a complex technical argument in a series of tweets, but some have mastered the form; not as well as a blog can, but still not badly.) In short, Twitter does a lot to make my real life, and especially my work life, more productive (and more pleasurable, because I discover things I never would have discovered otherwise). And all for free! Not a bad deal, the sort of deal a decent public utility should offer. End sidebar.
As a business, Twitter is both small (relative to tech behemoths like [makes warding sign] Google) and unprofitable.
Twitter’s pre-Musk seemingly permanent unprofitability raises the question: Why was Twitter even permitted to exist? Of course, one answer would be the vanity of squillionaires, both Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Musk having achieved that happy state. From FiveThirtyEight:
In his statements about his intent to buy Twitter, Musk espoused the importance of free speech to democracy, calling the social media platform “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
As many have seen, “debate” in our “town square” can sometimes get a little, well, heated, which is why Twitter is often characterized by grizzled, weary veterans as a “hellscape,” Then too, humanity includes multitudes of [glass bowls]. In either case, “there’s just some people that I can’t get along with.” “I mean I’ve tried and then I’ve really tried,” but all this is why Twitter has blocking and muting functions, not only for accounts, but for terms. I really don’t understand the whinging here. (Well, I do, but let’s wait for the aghastitude section). Twitter is only place in the world where I can call Rochelle Walensky a eugenicist and a criminal to her face — or at least the face of her intern. That’s not negligible. (One of my accounts was permanently and instantly banned because I called nursing home murderer and quondam Governor “Ratface Andy” — on his quarantine-breaking brother Chris Cuomo’s feed. I wasn’t sorry, and promptly acquired a new account, which Twitter makes easy, very much unlike Facebook).
Nevertheless, if Musk has decided to preserve Twitter as a “town square” out of the goodness of his squillionaire heart, he’s picked the wrong business structure. Founder Dorsey:
In principle, I don’t believe anyone should own or run Twitter. It wants to be a public good at a protocol level, not a company. Solving for the problem of it being a company however, Elon is the singular solution I trust. I trust his mission to extend the light of consciousness.
— jack (@jack) April 26, 2022
Well, I don’t and I don’t. Amazon, Google, Facebook, TikTok, LinkedIn, and the other Silicon Valley behemoths are all profitable. The exception is Uber, which is not and cannot be (as Hubert Horan has shown here in exhaustive detail). For Uber, stupid money plus a good narrative is always a possibility, but I prefer to speculate that Uber as a sort of bank shot by the investing class: Worthless in itself, but useful for other investor-friendly reasons, like destroying public transportion generally (indeed, the very notion of public goods). In other words, an unprofitable tech firm — rather like the strangely empty yet staffed Manhattan storefronts whose only possible raison d’etre is money laundering — is useful for other reasons. To someone. Who, in Twitter’s case, might that someone be? Moon of Alabama provides an interesting speculation:
The human rights team leader gave some hints:
Shannon Raj Singh @ShannonRSingh – 17:58 UTC · Nov 4, 2022
Yesterday was my last day at Twitter: the entire Human Rights team has been cut from the company.
I am enormously proud of the work we did to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights, to protect those at-risk in global conflicts & crises including Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, and to defend the needs of those particularly at risk of human rights abuse by virtue of their social media presence, such as journalists & human rights defenders.
The human rights team was the ‘regime change’ force on Twitter. It intervened in conflicts where the U.S. preferred a certain side.
Jerri ☮️ @JerusWorld – 20:42 UTC · Nov 4, 2022
Replying to @ShannonRSingh
So you are the one that was censoring pro-Ethiopian and Eritrean voices in order to help the rebel group from Tigray. May Karma pay you back for thousands of lives perished in US/West proxy war.
Shannon Raj Singh had previously meddled in Afghan and other countries’ cultures:
Shannon Raj Singh is a Legal Counsel for SAHR, advising a Kabul-based team on sexual violence litigation in Afghanistan, which aims to end the invasive and discriminatory practice of female virginity testing.
She is an international criminal law attorney focused on victim-centered responses to mass atrocities. Currently based in The Hague, she has experience working with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and a number of human rights NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa. She has also practiced as a litigator in the United States, appearing in both state and federal courts and assisting with overseas corruption investigations under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
… Twitter’s downfall into a ‘regime change’ outlet came in 2009 when it moved a maintenance window to help U.S. ‘regime change’ efforts in Iran… That was an expensive mistake. Shortly thereafter Twitter lost access to the Iranian market.
Back to ‘regime change’ assistant Shannon Raj Singh:
chinahand @chinahand – 18:55 UTC · Nov 4, 2022
Somebody should publish the pre Elon org chart. Judging by this twitter walked talked and quacked like an NGO which made it subject to banning in half the world
Twitter had become a ‘woke’ company that was mostly in the hands of the Democratic Party. By being ‘woke’ and by supporting ‘regime change’ efforts Twitter killed its own access to at least half of its potential market.
(We might also remember the role of Twitter in the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.) We have no evidence for this thesis, naturally. But it’s certainly more than plausible, given that Silicon Valley is infested with spooks, and has been since its beginning. Why would they not seize the commanding heights of global communications?
Liberal Democrat Aghastitude
Let’s just turn to our current President on this. From Axios, “Biden says Twitter “spews lies” as company undergoes massive layoffs“:
“Now what are we all worried about? Elon Musk goes out and buys an outfit that sends and spews lies all across the world,” Biden said at a Chicago fundraiser Friday.
“There’s no editors anymore,” he added. “How do we expect kids to be able to understand what is at stake?”
Moderators aren’t editors. And “will nobody think of the children” is a little shopworn. More:
Separately, when asked about the layoffs Friday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the President has been outspoken about “the importance of social media platforms continuing to take steps to reduce hate speech and misinformation.”
“That belief extends to Twitter, it extends to Facebook and any other social media platforms where users can spread misinformation,” she said.
The party of RussiaGate, the party whose CDC director calls masks a “Scarlet Letter” in the midst of a pandemic, the party that platfoms Nazis under the Capitol dome, yammers about “”misinformation”? Really? Come on, man! As for “hate speech,” if you want to see real hate, try mentioning “Susan Sarandon” in a Clinton forum (or Bernie Sanders).
Once again, the technical solution — freely available to all — is muting and blocking. If you don’t want to see a tweet about “Susan Sarandon,” you don’t have to! Jonathon Turley writes:
Perish the thought that citizens might be left to pursue the truth on their own without the government or surrogates in the media framing it for them. How could we possibly “know the truth” without our social media overlords?
This view of citizens are gullible dupes needing to be lead to the truth is a recurring theme among Democrats and media allies. It was the theme of a “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” conference at the University of Chicago with the leading Democratic leaders and media leaders in Chicago last year, including former President Barack Obama. The conference discussed how the views of the public could be shaped if government and media figures worked together to frame what is true and what is not.
Former President Barack Obama flogged this false line at Stanford in April 2022. He started by declaring himself “pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist.” He then called for the censorship of anything he considered “disinformation,” including “lies, conspiracy theories, junk science, quackery, racist tracts and misogynist screeds.”
President Biden lamented the loss of a Twitter management that was openly antagonistic to traditional free speech values. Soon after he took over, former CEO Parag Agrawal pledged to regulate content and said the company would “focus less on thinking about free speech” because “speech is easy on the Internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard.”
Like Biden, many are moving to try to deter Musk from allowing greater free speech by getting companies like General Motors to pull advertising revenue.
Speculating freely, what’s really going here is that when liberal Democrats managed to get a still-sitting President kicked off Twitter in 2020, that meant they had the whip hand over an important social media platform, which they could use for partisan ends; a great triumph for them, the PMC they represent, and (again) their
spook allies in the intelligence community. Now — as Biden’s over-the-top “spew” signals — they’re terrified their orange-colored demon figure will return to the “town square,” along with his deplorable followers, undoing all their good work.
Social Capital and Social Media
One reason I’m pleased with the #Musk + #Twitter mishegoss is that it gives me the opportunity to present and expound upon the following definition of “social capital” (Bourdieu stans please comment). From Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital” (1985):
Social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition—or in other words, to membership in a group—which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectively-owned capital, a “credential” which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word.
Bourdieu describes, in my view precisely and accurately, the value of Twitter accounts and the functioning of Twitter as a whole, from the user perspective. (For example, one of my neighborhoods provides informational resources about masks.) Bourdieu further writes:
The existence of a network of connections … is the product of …
Such an endless effort, like the infinite scroll, being the site for the extraction of economic capital. More:
… at institution, of which institution rites—often wrongly described as rites of passage— mark the essential moments and which is necessary in order to produce and reproduce lasting, useful relationships that can secure material or symbolic profits. In other words, the network of relationships is the product of investment strategies, individual or collective, consciously or unconsciously aimed at establishing or reproducing social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term, i.e., at transforming contingent relations, such as those of neighborhood, the workplace, or even kinship, into relationships that are at once necessary and elective, implying durable obligations subjectively felt (feelings of gratitude, respect, friendship, etc.) or institutionally guaranteed (rights).
Twitter accounts are divided into two classes: Those with “blue checks” (a literal credential, of which more below) and those without (in which case their credential is their body of work, as well as the quality of their network, both available for inspection. For the proles, the rites of institution are likes and retweets; not nearly so powerful
For Blue Check Twitter users, their mark of distinction has been a form of social capital — as a member of the press, of government, a celebrity, a best-selling author, in short, a top-drawer PMC — and the prospect of simply being able to buy one causes them great agita. From the New York Times:
Twitter’s verification system was initially rolled out to help prevent impersonation on the platform. It was debuted in 2009, inspired by someone posing as Shaquille O’Neal. The Twitter account for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was the first to receive the distinction.
Indeed, what an honor! More:
Since then, the check mark has become a somewhat contentious symbol. For public figures, including celebrities and journalists, it is a way to confirm that users are in fact who they claim to be. But to other users, the check mark has become a status symbol, unfairly reserved for a select group.
Currently, Twitter verification is free and only available to people who fit three metrics, according to the site: Authenticity, Notability and Activity. Authenticity is simply that the Twitter user is who they say they are—for example, a verified celebrity with a blue check has been confirmed to be either the celeb or their representatives.
Activity is similarly obvious: the user must have a complete profile, confirmed email and have logged in to the site within the last six months. Twitter also requires the user not have been locked out or suspended within the last year.
, however, is more nebulous. To apply for verification, a user can provide coverage from verified news organizations, a link to a Google Trends profile, their Wikipedia page or other industry-specific sites like IMDB. Follower count may also be taken into account. Twitter makes the final call as to whether or not someone gets the verified checkmark.
“Notable,” eh? Just let me take a moment to drag out my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:
. Note the sense of “notable” as a noun under the ancien regime. Bourdieu once more:
The title of nobility is the form par excellence of the institutionalized social capital which guarantees a particular form of social relationship in a lasting way.
So when Musk removes “Notability” and “Activity” from the metrics for a Blue Check, he’s destroying the social capital of many existing Blue Checks. And he’s right to do so, technically, morally, and from a business perspective. Read the screen shots from Musk:
(Exactly like the admissions scandals. Hegemonic PMCs gotta PMC.) And if the only remaining metric is Authenticity, yes, why not “piggyback” off the payments systems?
From the Blue Check, hegemonic PMCs, let’s turn to the residual majority: The exceptional PMCs and the dull normals (like me). Twitter, for them, has proved an important path to accumulate social capital, and in some cases, rather like the French bourgeoisie who purchased titles, working their way up to Blue Check-dom. I’ll present one thread from an account I really like:
I landed my first national piece of writing because of this place.
When I left my husband in 2015 after 20 years of marriage, tweeps helped me get on my feet.
When my Dad died in 2020, so many tweeps reached out with support and care.
This was far more than social media.
— Shay Stewart Bouley (@blackgirlinmain) November 4, 2022
I’m certain that Black Girl in Maine didn’t have a Blue Check when she started out; and I know other accounts that have enjoyed similar benefits that aren’t anywhere near being notables.
Of course, there are alternatives to Twitter. Mastodon, for example:
Jimenez is a notable example, since it’s my firm conviction that the aerosol scientists would never have found each other and coordinated their efforts without Twitter, greatly to the public’s benefit. So let’s wait and see.
 There’s really no reason for anything but a reverse chronological feed of items (or topics) from accounts I select. That’s how the blogosphere did it, and the blogosphere was correct. The only reason for the algo is to sell me something, or sell me. If I want serendipity, I’ll go out and get it when I want it. If Musk fired the people running that algo, that makes me happy,
 If I don’t want to see any Tweets with the words “smile” in them, I can block it. Handy!
 “Ratface Andy,” like “short-fingered vulgarian,” was minted by the late, great New York Spy.
 And possibly endangering whatever operations their spook allies have going, whether foreign or domestic (“cognitive infrastructure”),
 You can be 100% sure that if CDC and WHO could have suppressed any mention of “airborne transmission” on Twitter as “junk science,” they would have; that’s what they tried to do, uysing their authority.
 William Gibson gives a fine example of “notability” in Spook Country:
With the black priest shoes flat on the floor, he rocked back an inch or so on the chair’s rear legs. “If my associate weren’t so absolutely convinced of your identity, Miss Henry, things would be very different.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Bear with me. There is public history, and there is secret history. I am proposing to make you privy to secret history. Not because you are a journalist, actually, but because you are, to whatever extent, a celebrity.”
“You want to tell me your secrets because I used to be a singer in a band?”
“Yes,” he said, “though not because you used to be a singer in a band, specifically. Because you are, by virtue of having been a popular singer—”
“Never that popular.”
“You already constitute a part of the historical record, however small you might prefer to see it. I’ve just checked the number of your Google hits, and read your Wikipedia entry. By inviting you to witness what we intend to do, I will be using you, in effect, as a sort of time capsule. You will become the fireplace brick behind which I leave an account, though it will be your account, of what we do here.”
In Twitter terms, Henry is a notable.
 I’ve tried Mastodon. The onboarding process is horrid. The software is not so bad. The real issue is that Twitter provides a single space for “debate.” Mastodon, being a federation of servers, does not. Twitter, in consequence, enables a level of serendipity that Mastodon, at least in its current form, does not:
Exactly. On Twitter in one day I come across posts about politics, linguistics, music, travel, history, photography, archaeology, pop culture, comedy, religion, science, etc., from all sorts of people and communities that I would otherwise have no contact or interaction with.
— brelaung (@brelaung) November 4, 2022