The price of Twitter, the price of hubris

I was skeptical when Elon Musk laid down $44 billion for Twitter, a business that has rarely, if ever, turned a profit. But, I thought, a man with Elon’s money must know more than a mere peasant like me.

Now the evidence is mounting that I was wrong…or, right. Elon Musk has committed a grave error of judgement. 

It all comes down the business model. Or, rather, the lack of one. 

Twitter has had a difficult time attracting advertisers for years. There are many reasons for that, including: a long-term hemorrhaging of users (since long before the Elon Musk deal, I should note), and a generally toxic environment. 

People go to YouTube to immerse themselves in their interests. They go to Facebook to catch up with friends. They go to Twitter to kvetch about the political party they don’t vote for, and to wallow in rage porn.

And to make matters worse, conservatives who do seek the self-torture of a Twitter-like platform mostly fled to Twitter knock-off sites like Parler in 2020. This happened after Jack Dorsey and his team banished anyone with political views to the right of Joe Biden’s. Since then, Donald Trump has entered the free speech social media fray with his Truth Social platform. This means lots of competition on the right for the “new” Elon Musk version of Twitter.

And to make matters even worse yet, many leftwing users of Twitter (they’re about the only people left on Twitter nowadays) are apoplectic about the Musk acquisition. They’re threatening to devalue the platform, either by leaving en masse, or by overwhelming the site with garbage content. (That last one might be tricky, as there is so much garbage content on Twitter already.)

Don’t laugh, though. It could happen. Once thriving social media sites have imploded in the past. Remember MySpace and Tumblr?

So what is Elon Musk’s plan? For starters, he’s decided to quadruple the $4.99 monthly fee that Twitter Blue users currently pay. Twitter Blue is a paid subscription that unlocks “premium features”, such as the ability to “undo” a tweet, instead of just deleting a tweet. 

That’s not worth $4.99, let alone $19.99. According to an article in The Verge, verified users (those with the blue check mark) will also be charged $19.99 per month.

You’re kidding me, right?

Author Stephen King (who definitely doesn’t lean anywhere to the right of Joe Biden) was quick to pounce:

“$20 a month to keep my blue check? Fuck that, they should pay me. If that gets instituted, I’m gone like Enron.”

Musk replied:

 “We need to pay the bills somehow! Twitter cannot rely entirely on advertisers. How about $8?”

This is perhaps the first time I’ve ever felt vicarious embarrassment for a billionaire. But Elon Musk’s reply does have a tragicomic aspect. 

Musk hopes to make subscriptions a full half of the new Twitter revenue model. Because—as he more or less admits—Twitter is not the greatest platform for advertisers. 

But that flies in the face of an online culture which has always insisted that everything on the Internet should be free. A few years ago Mark Zuckerberg floated the idea of charging a small monthly fee for Facebook use. Even Zuckerberg, greedy schemer though he is, quickly realized that that dog simply wasn’t going to hunt. 

The Wall Street Journal has recently lowered its online subscription fee to $52 per year, or $1 per week. That’s $4 per month for the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ has actual content worth reading. And Musk thinks that millions of people are going to plunk down $19.99 per month for Twitter?…And as the global economy lurches toward recession, to boot?

As I’ve watched the Musk-Twitter deal unfold, a particular word has kept returning to me: hubris. Hubris might just be Elon Musk’s undoing.

Musk has made clear that he never liked the old culture at Twitter. He’s repeatedly taunted the site’s social justice warriors and speech commissars. 

And I get it. As should be abundantly clear by now, I never liked Twitter, either. I always thought that Jack Dorsey was a dictatorial egomaniac, and that Twitter was filled with vile, ideologically skewed people who are simply not interested in listening to reason. Never mind that so many of them are celebrities. Plenty of celebrities are vile and ideologically skewed, and we knew that before Twitter came along. 

Ergo, I mostly stay away from Twitter. I go there if I need something specific; but Twitter is no place I’d ever want to hang out. 

Elon Musk, however, has chosen to sink $44 billion into a vanity project for the sole purpose of showing that he can. That’s a working definition of hubris. 

He also wants to own the libs, of course. But all the libs on Twitter simply aren’t worth $44 billion. Even if you throw in Stephen King.