In late 2019, like a seer atop a fog-swept mountain, a Twitter user named @maplecocaine posted this: “Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.”
The tweet refers to a dynamic on the social network in which a user posts something that spurs wide-ranging conversation, outrage, and debate. Someone whose yard has been overrun by “30-50 feral hogs.” A father who denies his daughter a can of beans in the name of problem-solving. A man who says that he found shrimp tails in his Cinnamon Toast Crunch. A woman who enjoys drinking coffee with her husband. Regardless of whether the original tweet is mundane or unhinged, the ensuing cycle tends to be similar: The post is chewed up by the masses and spit out as a deeply polarizing trending topic, leaving a trail of funny memes and thermonuclear takes in its wake.
Especially over the past few years, this phenomenon has come to define the experience of using the platform. And these main-character episodes have grown increasingly divisive and toxic. While Twitter remains an excellent place to get breaking news, find communities ranging from media types to medical professionals to furries, and facilitate important movements, it’s these main characters who have kept the platform’s most loyal users entertained, horrified, and, most crucially, logged on at all hours of the day. Witnessing the discourse surrounding a Twitter main character is as mesmerizing as watching hundreds of pigeons descend upon a half-eaten hot dog in Times Square. It’s the type of thing that makes you stare blankly at the chaos and let out a reflexive guffaw.
That is, at least for those who aren’t the piece of meat at the center of the digital flock. Which brings us to Elon Musk. The richest man on the planet, CEO of two other major tech companies (SpaceX and Tesla), and father of 10 children closed a $44 billion deal to acquire Twitter in late October. Since then, he hasn’t relinquished the main character role, dictating conversation on the platform as he simultaneously dismantles it.
Musk has long been consumed by Twitter. Though he’s never been original enough to qualify as a true “poster,” he has tweeted more than 19,000 times since joining the platform in 2009, according to a recent Washington Post analysis. Parts of his feed resemble those of many Twitter power users: He’s hatched opinions for how to improve the app and lobbied for an edit button; he’s resolved to take a break from the platform, only to return quickly; he’s declared his love for Twitter and called it a “hater hellscape” all within just over a year.
Yet much of his feed reads like a naked attempt to become the platform’s central figure, a pursuit that’s played out in increasingly harmful ways. In 2018, Musk baselessly called a British diver a “pedo.” In 2020, he tweeted “Take the red pill.” (This is both a reference to The Matrix and a shorthand used by online incel and men’s rights communities to describe a right-wing political awakening.) Recently, he’s adopted a catchphrase that’s a chaotic-bad variant of Occam’s razor: “The most entertaining outcome is the most likely.” Much like a certain former president, his damaging posts have grown too numerous to chronicle succinctly.
And when Musk reluctantly bought the platform, the aforementioned “main character” tweet took on new meaning. It became the type of saying a witch croaks after selling you a monkey’s paw; the inscription on the inside of an all-powerful ring. Most aptly, it became something a bored billionaire would take as a dare. Look no further than Musk carrying a physical sink into Twitter’s office lobby for the sake of a weak pun and some empty retweets.
Since Musk’s takeover as CEO, his frenzied tweeting has only ramped up. The New York Times Musk whisperer, Ryan Mac, reported that in November alone he’s on pace to post more than 750 times, which amounts to more than 25 times per day. Those posts have included lewd humor, links to anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories about Paul Pelosi’s attack, advice for how to vote in the midterm elections (“Republican”), and a joke about Twitter competitor Mastodon, which he referred to as “Masterbatedone.” After reinstating Donald Trump’s account this weekend, Musk tweeted out a gross sexual cartoon while inviting the former president to return to Twitter. Hours later, he called Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor a “crybaby.”
His decision-making within the company has been even more reckless and destructive. Soon after the acquisition closed on October 28, Musk booted the company’s C suite. In the first week of his tenure, hate speech spiked on the platform and advertisers retreated from it, threatening the source of 89 percent of the company’s revenue. Musk announced a product where anyone could pay $8 a month to become verified on the platform, and pressured a team of engineers to work 24/7 to ship said product. Almost from the moment it launched, this feature was used to impersonate public figures and brands. When someone mimicking the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company tweeted on November 10, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now,” the corporation’s stock promptly fell 4.3 percent. In response, the company pulled its advertising from the platform, losing Twitter “millions.” Within a week of rolling out this pay-for-your-checkmark system, Musk suspended it.
Meanwhile, Musk has casually torched the company’s workforce and the intricate systems it’s built. On November 3, he cut a 7,500-person staff in half after sending out generic messages signed by “Twitter” that promised details of severance packages “within a week.” Once holdover employees took to the platform and internal Slack channels to criticize Musk, he fired many of them too. He held meetings in which he both mentioned the possibility of bankruptcy and described how much he loved buying “gizmos.” He sent out an internal memo titled “A Fork in the Road” announcing the need for remaining employees “to be extremely hardcore” and work “long hours at high intensity,” and he offered workers the choice to accept these terms or else resign. An additional 1,200 people exited the company, leaving the teams necessary to operate the platform severely understaffed.
On Saturday, it became apparent that Twitter’s copyright strike system was not working. On Sunday, Musk reinstated Trump to the platform, citing results of a poll he tweeted out, as if it somehow represented the “vox populi.” And on Monday, more employees were laid off, leaving the current size of the Twitter workforce hovering around 2,700. You could say this situation is, uh, developing.
In less than a month, Musk has bulldozed more than a decade’s worth of efforts to establish moderation systems—however imperfect—that serve to both block damaging speech and boost healthy discourse on the platform. He has replaced it with a stream of half-assed ideas that come from his own account. He has put on an absolute master class in mismanagement, and tweeted through it all the while. Add it all up, and it’s almost too on the nose: the embodiment of Twitter’s worst qualities is now the face of Twitter itself.
Virtually everyone has a pet theory to explain Musk’s motivations here. Some say he’s doing all of this to curry favor in China. Some say he’s angling to help the far right politically. Some say he’s actually a genius who is eight steps ahead of everyone else. But the answer may be more direct: A billionaire who has spent a sizable portion of his life trying to become Twitter’s main character has gone to extreme lengths to acquire the social network, place himself at its center, and gut it from within. Just because he can. It’s an ironic fate for a platform whose legacy includes unlocking a new level of mania in the minds of its users, and maybe even in society at large.
How this saga ends is anyone’s guess. It seems too elegant that the world would wake up one morning and try to log on to Twitter only to discover that it no longer exists. What’s more likely is a slow, sad death, where all the twisted geniuses who once made the platform great slowly filter out to TikTok (where culture was already headed), Substack, Mastodon, and other communities. All that’ll be left of Twitter will be one man’s enormous ego and the sycophants tripping over themselves to prop it up.