Discover more from The Liberal by Tom Watson
Shoot Out The Lights
Digital gatekeepers come and go, but the combination of xenophobia and stupidity is going to be the end of Twitter - and that's a death that matters.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sorry for sporadic posting, folks - I’ve been battling various viral infections for more than a month, starting with Covid and proceeding down the line. I know many of you have has well. It’s probably the worst cold and flu season we’ve seen. But I’m here today and I thought you’d enjoy this essay on the death of Twitter, which is sadly happening before our eyes. I’d also like to say thanks to those who have taken out paid subscriptions to The Liberal - I’m so appreciative of your commitment to my writing over the next year. I’d certainly welcome a growing paid subscriber base, as we work toward making this a regular and ongoing project. And we’re also offering gift subscriptions for the holidays. So get in on that! Now on with the show.
In 1996, I took an overnight news editing job with Prodigy, the dial-up online service that was then one of the “Big Three” providers, along with AOL and CompuServe. This was in early commercial Internet territory and the dial-up services were evolving (or not) to provide service to a suddenly very online public. In truth, they were already dinosaurs and Prodigy was the most endangered of the bunch. But it was based in downtown White Plains, in a building partly leased by Sears-anchored shopping mall, and it paid pretty well. I was a budding Internet entrepreneur, a bonafide Silicon Alley “pioneer,” at the time but I had two little kids, a mortgage and car payments. A desk editor’s overnight gig made up a lot of ground.
The newsroom was a couple of floors above the Sears store in downtown White Plains, then a much sleeper village. Prodigy famously split ownership between Sears Roebuck and IBM (a third original founder CBS had bowed out). The first few nights, they taught me how to manage the proprietary content management system, which if you remember those Prodigy screens, wasn’t exactly a thing of elegance. We’d take wire service copy and photos (videos really didn’t work very well at those dial-up speeds) and build news sections - politics, business, international, sports, celebrities, lifestyles, science etc. If something went wrong, there were two choices - reboot or go roust the guys in the server room, who are virtually always high on weed (it was not a smoke-free environment).
Basically, the news section was a skin that Prodigy wrapped on the overall service to make it look like a full-fledged media company. This was the age when the big digital thinkers were constantly debating the future of “gatekeepers” and which company would win the high stakes battle to be just that for American media consumers. AOL was carpeting bombing mailboxes with diskettes, but Prodigy shipped free on every PC that IBM sold (and in every Sears store). Time Warner was rolling out its famed Pathfinder portal. CompuServe was rock solid with guys who smoked pipes and subscribed to PC World.
In any case, overnights were fun in a hazy and exhausted kinda way. This was during the 1996 Presidential campaign, so I did a lot of headlines and edits on the Republican primaries that winter. Bob Dole. Lamar Alexander. Pat Buchanan. Steve Forbes. Phil Gramm. What a country club crew they made. None of them had a chance, and everyone knew it. Bill Clinton was both popular and cruising. I plugged away nightly anyway, delivering news value to our dial-up customers.
But I knew the place was in big trouble when somebody called in sick and they put me in charge of the entire service my second week there. Sure, I was modestly competent and responsible. Maybe they picked the right guy. But leaving the million-plus paying customers around the country in the hands of a part-timer with little more than a week’s experience? Not the kind of situation that builds confidence in a major enterprise. I suspected some fragility.
And a few months later, new investors did indeed pull the plug on the main Prodigy information service, which limped along for years afterwards as a second tier ISP. On the night the place closed, they were already packing up the furniture and some of the PCs. The server guys were still there - and still high - and they somehow purloined a life-sized Darth Vader promotional cutout from one of the retail spaces downstairs. We suitably decorated ole Darth with toilet paper and other clever accouterments, and wrote some witty sayings with magic markers on the cardboard. What rascals. Then we left.
Which is what many well-known Twitter users are doing right now. Sickened by the cretinous ownership of extremist Elon Musk, a small-minded man determined to personally oppose liberal democracy through the disastrous reengineering of an important digital media platform, they’re leaving the network and conversations there for networks and conversation elsewhere. Musk’s debasement of Twitter - which despite its many faults, did hold value as the greatest news source of the era - is a reminder that a vacuous and cruel mind coupled with the ability to cobble together $44 billion allows for any form of self destruction the new ownership should choose.
In a liberal democracy, it’s Musk’s right to bury Twitter and fritter his billions away.
It’s his right to rip half the value from Tesla Motors in the process, as that company morphs from a forward-looking alternative vehicle outfit to a failing symbol of angry white nationalism.
It’s his right to make a public fool of himself with smirking MAGA tweets, journalist bans, and pernicious acts of vengeance and personal pique.
The Liberal by Tom Watson is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
In this digital era, now in its fourth decade, platforms have come and gone with regularity. Twitter will be the latest, unless Musk decides to offload it and cut his massive losses to reputation and fortune. Prodigy is long gone. CompuServe and AOL as well. Delphi, Pipeline, the Well, Pathfinder, MySpace, GeoCities - I could be here all day. Yet as we consider the role of large digital media platforms to the challenging future for a liberal democracy, we shouldn’t just write off Musk as another Howard Hughes, who lost his mind and almost everything else.
As Tom Nichols put it in The Atlantic, “He has purchased an important and influential piece of the public square not to enhance public debate, but to punish people who annoy him.”
Business Insider reporter Linette Lopez (who Musk banned from Twitter because he didn’t like her reporting) honed in on why Musk’s Twitter ownership has been such a disaster; she’s got Musk’s number, his one signature business move and his complete lack of game outside of that one move.
At previous stops in his career, Musk's employee-punishing, product-pushing plays worked. Customers seemed satisfied with what he gave them, and he was able to keep around enough workers to eventually build the cars or mount the solar panels or launch his rockets into space. This made him, until recently, the world's richest man. But with Twitter, this same behavior is already costing him. The social-media company has key differences from his other holdings that turn Musk's own strategies against him.
At the core of every Musk company is a big, world-changing promise — they sell the idea that their products and services are saving humanity from some intractable problem, whether it's climate crisis or traffic. But Musk's promises track more with religion — he has been sent to save us from our earthly sins of waste and pollution — than with science. Think about it a bit and the idea that a luxury sports car can save us from global warming or that the answer for the Earth's toxification is to move everyone to Mars falls apart, but that isn't the point. The goal of all this mythmaking is to turn investors, employees, and customers into evangelists.
This is how Musk manages to keep employees on the hook despite the miserable conditions: They are made to feel as if they are saving the world. You can see how this won't work the same way at Twitter.
And that’s because Twitter is a communitarian product. Most of its signature features were created by its own users. The “retweet?” User created. Hashtags, threads? The users. Plus Twitter is basically an intellectual product of that usership - it’s valuable not because of the 80 percent who hardly tweet at all, but because of the 20 percent who do all the tweeting and make all the news. Big names, medium names, popular on Twitter only names. It’s a huge and unique news infrastructure, in my view an irreplaceable one. Musk and his inner circle don’t understand Twitter’s inherent value. They believe it’s biased toward a liberal point of view (which, if protecting users from conspiracy theories dangerous to public health and threats of violence from extremists is liberalism, okay).
Musk is in thrall of a crowd of bullying cretins whose reason for breathing is “owning the libs,” a by-product of their own unhappiness with life and what it offers. But the libs won’t be owned, as it turns out. They’re leaving, for places like Mastodon and Post and Substack. They won’t worship at Musk’s altar - indeed, they detest the ground upon which he trods. At this point, that will never change in his lifetime. He’s finished as a “save the world” kind entrepreneur. That stored value is deader than crypto.
As an institution that’s important to American life (and to some degree, globally as well) Twitter is already in its death throes. Musk moved more quickly than even I thought possible, and I thought he’d kill it. Last night he started a Twitter “poll” about whether he should stay on as CEO. More than likely, the bailout he’s looking for has not materialized. Maybe it will be for the best. We need some new platforms. I need to write longer form pieces like this one.
And we all need a world in which Elon Musk has no relevance whatsoever.