[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
I write this on December 16, 2022, as the landscape shifts convulsively, as Twitter becomes the main character on Twitter. It’s reasonable to wonder what comes next.
Anybody who says they can predict what’s going to happen is wrong. But we can peer down one or two of the infinitely-forking paths into the future and maybe see something useful.
However many the paths, there are only two interesting outcomes: First, and most likely, Twitter no longer matters. Second, and not impossible, it finds a route back to relevance.
Is my investigation pursued in an even-handed spirit? Not in the slightest. While Twitter has been a remarkable and in my experience mostly good part of the big picture, I’m hoping for it to fade away and open a better path forward, based on standards-driven federation, open to everyone, and at least partly free of the clutches of Big Tech.
And that’s what I really want to write about; I have some of that down, but it feels like the future-of-Twitter issue needs discussing first. So here we go.
Scenario: The walking dead · This supposes that things go on about as now, with Elon doing crazedly offensive things; John Gruber captures the flavor well.
The heads of state and policymakers and CEOs and Nobel-prize winners melt away, alt-rightists get progressive voices silenced, and what journalists remain are only there to cover the Twitter-disaster story. There’s a tide of litigation from justifiably annoyed European regulators, and a background roar of bankers demanding interest payments on the $13B Elon convinced them to lend. Interesting individuals leave the stream, trolls mass at the margins…
It could go on for a long time. Because the Eurocrats are slow, and the banks really don’t want to write those loans off. But Twitter would become a shambling travesty, looking for brains to eat.
Ejecting Elon · Let’s look at the paths that lead to good outcomes, which all rely on the assumption that Elon Musk gets out of the way. I can see two different ways that could happen.
Maybe one day pretty soon Tesla’s Board of Directors sends him a nastygram saying “Come back to work or you’re fired.” Elon realizes he’s not having fun, finds someone plausible to run the Twitter shop, and mostly leaves them alone while he goes back to his other jobs.
Alternatively, he doesn’t, but the banks run out of patience. This would be a little surprising, because they’d like to postpone recognizing their losses as long as possible. But, maybe not. If zombie irrelevancy looms large enough, they might foreclose.
They have options. One popular way to deal with a distressed debtor is to find a buyer, who’ll snap up the company for a derisory price but (crucially) assume the debt, and give the banks a chance of getting more of their money back.
Who might pick up Twitter on the cheap? Bezos, maybe via the Washington Post? Meta, in yet another effort to compensate for Facebook’s declining appeal? One of the big progressive foundations, seeing a need for a somewhat-sane public square? Larry Ellison, looking for another pool to piss in? A PE firm with more imagination than most? Some outfit out of Cyprus with opaque ownership who want Twitter to be nicer to Russia?
This path implies wiping out Elon’s equity and he’d probably fight it down to the last ditch, which could lead to the lenders forcing bankruptcy, which presumably lets them kick Elon to the curb and sell it to whoever.
And after that… · One way or another, after Elon’s gone, let’s suppose his replacement is sane and somewhat competent (otherwise we’re on the zombie road). This person is relentlessly focused on advertising and sales, so they deputize someone else to rebuild Engineering; maybe do-able in today’s tech labor market.
Thus the new boss can pour 100% of their energy into figuring out what it would take to lure the advertisers back and puts that right at the top of everyone’s priority list.
Who knows, it might work. Maybe Twitter’s Community Notes feature will be a breath of fresh air, because Truth, after all, is powerful medicine.
With luck, and good execution, Twitter might find its way back, might become again the place where the conversations that matter happen.
My bet · They’re not gonna make it. Big tech success relies on being able to recruit talented employees, and the landscape is always competitive for those people. In how many of these scenarios will people want to work at Twitter? I just can’t see it.
It makes me partly unhappy, because Twitter has been one of history’s lucky accidents. It’s improved my life.
Still, I believe that there’s a decent chance we can build something better, based on the Fediverse. Not a sure thing at all, but let’s try.