Heidy Lee / Gavel Media

Twitter in the Era of Elon

At the end of last month, Elon Musk bought Twitter, throwing the platform into turmoil. He immediately began laying out his goals for a complete overhaul of the service, and many of his changes have already been put into action. Public discourse, along with Musk’s motivations for his transformation of the site, reveals a lot about the changing landscape of social media. Updates to Twitter’s “Twitter Blue” subscription are among the most discussed changes. Users will soon be able to buy a verified checkmark for 8 dollars a month, a move which many called shortsighted. From every indication thus far, these plans defeat the sole purpose of verification: ensuring that public figures and organizations are who they claim to be. What was once used to authenticate the credibility of accounts that represent real people and groups is now a mere indication that someone has eight dollars to spare.

Interestingly, not many even seem willing to pay for a checkmark. With a subscription price similar to Netflix and Spotify, it’s not hard to imagine why people have reservations about cashing out to Twitter. Musk acknowledged this, saying that Twitter will incentivize subscription to Blue by providing greater benefits. Chief among these benefits will be the promotion of tweets within the platform’s algorithm. Again, this undermines the intended purpose of verification, as it will give a louder voice to those who are able to pay, making the site less equitable.

Musk’s primary justification for these changes is the idea of free speech. His simple defense for any of his plans always involves the assertion that they strengthen this elusive right. To address the obvious, Musk's statements indicate that he holds a warped idea of free speech. Even if you have qualifications—but especially if you don’t—you have no right for your speech to be respected. Musk errantly thinks that credibility can be equated to a blue check and that paying eight dollars a month for your tweets to be seen makes speech freer.

Musk is also fine with banning accounts of comedians who changed their names and pictures to his likeness. Shortly after acquiring the platform, he wrote that comedy was “now legal,” but it seems he only wants to hear jokes that don’t threaten his fragile ego or poorly constructed views of reality.

What is also confusing about the changes to verification is how fluid and unplanned they appear to be. Once Musk realized that ending the exclusivity of verified accounts for public figures would lead to a flood of copycat accounts, he tweeted that any profiles “engaging in impersonation” would receive a permanent suspension. This was despite his declaring an end to permanent bans just days before. He also reduced the subscription price in a bizarrely one-sided negotiation with Stephen King. It certainly seems as though Musk—and the rest of Twitter for that matter—was unprepared to implement or even announce the updates to Twitter Blue. After all, when updates were rolled out on iOS, the features didn’t even work.

Musk’s pathological desire to be viewed as a hero of the people has compelled his every action. From the moment his deal went through, he has tried to monopolize the narrative about Twitter, while also framing himself as the platform’s idealistic savior. He laid off almost the entirety of the communications department, ensuring that he would be the face and voice of Twitter. He also got into spats with various Twitter users, both famous and not, intent on proving he was correct. He has rushed changes and clearly wants to be seen as the “cool CEO,” willing to listen to his users and adapt his company accordingly. Yet, the result of the past two weeks has been almost the opposite. Instead of making the platform more accessible and approachable, he is on the precipice of running it into the ground.

Twitter is likely here to stay, even with its complete overhaul. But one can only wonder if Musk will eventually reduce Twitter to a small group of users, blindly supportive of his antics. It probably won’t happen, but Musk sure seems like he’d like it better that way.

Ignacio Chardos
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