Elon Musk said something distinctly interesting on a stage this week – but it’s not necessarily the line that everyone is talking about.
It certainly would normally be newsworthy if the owner of a company that made around $4.5 billion a year from advertising at the time of purchase tells advertisers to “go f**k yourselves” – twice – not just on-the-record but live on stage. It would normally be even more newsworthy when that company’s CEO, hired to keep advertisers on board, was present in that live audience when that epithet was said.
But “normally” rarely applies to Elon Musk. While it was shocking to hear him actually say the words out loud, everything about how Musk has been running the site formerly known as Twitter has been telling advertisers – as well as a good chunk of the site’s most dedicated users – to go f**k themselves.
It doesn’t change much that he’s shown he’s fully aware of what his approach amounts to, though it can’t help the already doomed efforts to win advertisers back to a social network that will always be dependent upon them.
What was significant, however, was Musk signalled far more clearly than he ever has before that he knows X/Twitter/whatever is doomed. His diatribe was not coming from a position of strength – it is incredibly rare that the owner of a multi-billion dollar tech company says on a public stage that the business is likely to fail imminently.
Twitter’s likely demise isn’t – sadly for those of us who liked it, flawed as it was, pre-Musk – newsworthy. Any analyst worth their salt can see that when you buy a social network that will always rely on advertising and gut everything that brands need for reassurance and safety, things will go badly.
When at the same time you’ve loaded it with billions of dollars of debt, which would require Twitter to generate larger profits than it had ever managed before, you have what can only be called a death spiral – Twitter’s doom was foreseeable and foreseen (including in this newspaper) from the first month of Musk’s tenure.
It still matters that Musk is publicly acknowledging this is what’s coming, though, for two reasons. The first is that it’s clear he’d rather burn $44 billion dollars than admit he was wrong and reverse direction. Musk initially tried to portray himself as the only possible saviour for a business that was already going bust, but this wasn’t true.
He’s now trying a new narrative: that if Twitter dies it’s the fault of deliberate action by “woke” advertisers and corporations that aren’t happy with the new direction – which he portrays as being about “truth” but which in practice is about tolerating dangerous misinformation, violent threats, and hate speech.
Attacking your main source of revenue when you’re in a cash crunch is like cutting your safety line while you’re hanging from a cliff. Musk knows that, but has decided he would rather keep the credo with his new fanbase – who aren’t likely to buy electric cars any time soon, either – than try to make Twitter work.
There’s still the second reason the remarks matter: Musk is saying that if he can’t have Twitter working his way, then no-one will have it. His implication is that he’s not going to look to sell Twitter at a loss if he can’t make it work – he would rather break his toy than let anyone share it.
That might not be entirely his choice: the US has bankruptcy rules for corporations and thanks to Musk loading it with debt, Twitter owes a lot of money to several large banks. They will almost certainly have a chance to offer whatever is left of Twitter to a possible saviour when it fails.
But for anyone still on the network, it’s worth knowing this: Musk is the captain of the Titanic. He’s aiming it at the iceberg, and he’s accelerating as fast as he can.