“Can Elon Musk break Twitter? I hope so.
I’m not accusing Musk of being a sleeper agent. The man loves Twitter. He tweets as if he was raised by the blue bird and the fail whale. Three days before locking in his purchase of the platform, Musk blasted out an unflattering photograph of Bill Gates, and next to it, an illustration of a pregnant man. “in case u need to lose a boner fast,” Time’s 2021 Person of the Year told his more than 80 million followers. Musk believed Gates was shorting Tesla’s stock, and this was his response. It got over 165,000 retweets and 1.3 million likes. That’s a man who understands what Twitter truly is.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and former chief executive, always wanted it to be something else. Something it wasn’t, and couldn’t be. “The purpose of Twitter is to serve the public conversation,” he said in 2018. Twitter began “measuring conversational health” and trying to tweak the platform to burnish it. Sincere as the effort was, it was like those liquor ads advising moderation. You don’t get people to drink less by selling them whiskey. Similarly, if your intention was to foster healthy conversation, you’d never limit thoughts to 280 characters or add like and retweet buttons or quote-tweet features. Twitter can’t be a home to hold healthy conversation because that’s not what it’s built to do.
So what is Twitter built to do? It’s built to gamify conversation. As C. Thi Nguyen, a philosopher at the University of Utah, has written, it does that “by offering immediate, vivid and quantified evaluations of one’s conversational success. Twitter offers us points for discourse; it scores our communication. And these gamelike features are responsible for much of Twitter’s psychological wallop. Twitter is addictive, in part, because it feels so good to watch those numbers go up and up.” “