Business Standard

The men who made and unmade Twitter

- JENNIFER SZALAI The reviewer is the nonfiction book critic for The Times. ©2024 The New York Times News Service

This March, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter will turn 18 — a grownup in human years, even as the site seems to be stuck in a crude adolescenc­e. In the opening pages of Battle for the Bird, the Bloomberg journalist Kurt Wagner recounts how Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s founders and its two-time chief executive, liked to issue high-flown pronouncem­ents about fostering a “global consciousn­ess.” Barely 200 pages later, Wagner describes how the billionair­e entreprene­ur Elon Musk, who acquired the platform in October 2022 and has since changed its name to X, insisted on personally addressing the complaints of a prolific poster known as @catturd2.

The arc from gauzy ideals to the litter box of reality has certainly been a weird one. “It didn’t have to be this way,” Wagner writes, in a book that traces the history of the platform through the first nine months of Musk’s tenure. Another new book, Zoë Schiffer’s Extremely Hardcore, peers closely inside the company under Musk. Both authors convey how the platform has struggled to reconcile two imperative­s: the techno-libertaria­n promotion of free speech and the techno-libertaria­n urge to make lots of money.

Wagner approaches Twitter as a business story, paying particular attention to Dorsey’s discomfort with the pressures of running a publicly traded company. Among a number of fateful decisions Dorsey made as chief executive was to lean into news. Yet he was skittish about accepting the costs and responsibi­lities of a real news organisati­on, insisting that Twitter’s role was merely to serve as a platform for a cacophony of voices. Until Donald Trump was banned in January 2021 for fuelling an insurrecti­on, Dorsey seemed unbothered by the fact that Twitter was amplifying Trump’s incendiary rhetoric: “I think we need to hear every extreme to find the balance,” he said in 2016.

But finding the balance with advertiser­s was another matter. Wagner shows Dorsey becoming more preoccupie­d with newer obsessions like Bitcoin (“My hope is that it creates world peace”) and less enchanted with Twitter, where advertiser­s exerted constant pressure to clean up the service. By the time he started encouragin­g Musk to buy the company, “running Twitter had become unfun for Dorsey,” who declared that he trusted Musk “to extend the light of consciousn­ess.”

As for Musk, he seemed determined to break things as soon as he entered Twitter’s offices carrying a porcelain sink. (Musk was playing on an earnest phrase people appended to serious tweets: “Let that sink in.”) Still, he wanted to keep on board the advertiser­s, who didn’t like the possibilit­y of their ads floating in a cesspool of hate speech.

“Musk would often say the things that his partners wanted to hear, and then do the things that would make them shake their head in disbelief,” Wagner explains, rather wanly. Wagner goes on to describe how Musk has gutted the company: firing much of its staff; instructin­g employees who

remained to “try weird stuff ” and then throwing them under the bus when those risks didn’t pay off; reinstatin­g banned accounts while cracking down on speech he didn’t like.

Schiffer offers a more detailed look under the smoke-filled hood in Extremely Hardcore, taking her title from a memo Musk sent to Twitter’s staff shortly after acquiring the company. “The attributes that made Musk good at tweeting — a combinatio­n of recklessne­ss and shamelessn­ess — made him exceedingl­y bad at running Twitter,” Schiffer writes.

As the managing editor of Platformer, a newsletter that covers social networks, Schiffer is attuned to the connection between X’s culture and its business model, such as it is.

Musk has treated his employees as if they were widgets, shedding people so swiftly and unceremoni­ously that at times the platform has barely functioned. Musk would get paranoid that a disgruntle­d employee was suppressin­g his “like” counts when he didn’t get the kind of response he expected. Schiffer reviewed documents about an “engagement night” in early 2023, during which employees threw themselves into a “work marathon that resulted in Twitter artificial­ly boosting Musk’s tweets.”

Dedicating so many resources to improve the Twitter experience of a single person seems spectacula­rly inefficien­t, not to mention suspicious­ly authoritar­ian. Schiffer points out that despite Musk’s insistence that he rolled back content moderation rules in order to foster free speech, he has also been complying assiduousl­y with censorship requests from authoritar­ian regimes more readily than the platform ever did before he walked in with his sink.

How this ends is anybody’s guess, though Schiffer does offer a memorable image, a mix of tragedy and farce. Toward the end of Extremely Hardcore, she recounts how Musk changed the sign on Twitter’s headquarte­rs in San Francisco, taking out the “w” to make one of his jokes, then removing that sign and putting a strobing X sign on the roof without the required permit from the city. Eventually, after refusing to give inspectors access, Musk took down the sign.

“The building had gone from TWITTER to TITTER to X,” Schiffer writes. “And now, it was nothing.”

 ?? ?? BATTLE FOR THE BIRD: Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, and the $44 Billion Fight for Twitter’s Soul Author: Kurt Wagner Publisher: Atria Pages: 357
Price: $30
BATTLE FOR THE BIRD: Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, and the $44 Billion Fight for Twitter’s Soul Author: Kurt Wagner Publisher: Atria Pages: 357 Price: $30
Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter
Author: Zoë Schiffer Publisher: Portfolio
Pages: 330 Price: $30
EXTREMELY HARDCORE: Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter Author: Zoë Schiffer Publisher: Portfolio Pages: 330 Price: $30
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