Wednesday, 29 Nov 2023

Could Elon Musks era spell the end of social media billionaires? | Richard Seymour

Could Elon Musks era spell the end of social media billionaires? | Richard Seymour

Could Elon Musks era spell the end of social media billionaires? | Richard Seymour

Twitter has been taken over by its least interesting troll for $44bn. When Elon Musk took a stake in the platform, he claimed it was to ensure the "future of civilisation" and preserve a "common digital town square". Roughly translated, that means the world's richest man has bought his favourite megaphone.

Musk, with 112.1 million followers, is an obsessive Twitter tryhard: the attention economy's biggest attention-seeker. From baselessly calling a British diver a "pedo", to his baffling stunt at Twitter HQ - turning up with a kitchen sink and uttering the punchline, "let that sink in" - he clearly thinks comedy is his metier. He reminds me of Christopher Hitchens' barb about an enemy: he "thinks he's a wit and is half right".

Musk says that buying Twitter is "not a way to make money". That's certainly true. The company struggled for years to make a profit. It makes 90% of its current revenues from advertising to just 217 million "monetisable" users (and illegally using their private data to target ads at them). But this is just a fraction of monthly active users on sites like Facebook (2.8 billion), TikTok (1.2 billion), YouTube (2 billion) and Instagram (1.4 billion).

However, Twitter has been great publicity: not just for Musk's zeppelin-sized ego, but also for his businesses. Tesla spends next to nothing on advertising, but Musk's actions generate acres of free coverage.

Like Donald Trump, Musk has a grasp of the potential of Twitter. Its salience has never been due to business success, still less to technology. As editor Nilay Patel points out in an article on The Verge, its success is political. Twitter attracts a disproportionate share of addicted opinion-formers like journalists, politicians, writers and celebrities, the sort of people Musk wants thinking about him.

Yet, in buying his platform, Musk has also bought$13bn of debt. Twitter was previously repaying over $50m a year to its creditors. It will now, according to some analyses, have to find more than $1bn a year to merely pay back the interest. Even if Musk isn't out to make a profit, he can't ignore such losses. Stemming the haemorrhage will now be a top priority for him, either by charging users a subscription fee for verified accounts or, more likely since charges might drive away users, cuts.

The notoriously capricious boss had already indicated that before backtracking, he would sack 75% of the workforce to help balance Twitter's books. But now, having already sacked four of Twitter's top executives - he allegedly claims to have done so "for cause", apparently in a bid to avoid tens of millions of dollars in compensation - he is also looking for job cuts across Twitter.

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