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Twitter, as seen by a grain of sand

November 8, 2022

I try hard to form an opinion on plenty of stuff, even if I don’t always share my views in public.

But I have to say that Twitter leaves me both fascinated and baffled. Elon Musk’s ownership hasn’t made much difference to my experience. It merely adds to the fascination, as affronted users chime in to give him advice – and abuse – on all manner of aspects of his stewardship.

I have no axe to grind, nor a blue tick to cherish. Nor do I feel qualified to criticise the management style of a guy who has made a significant difference to the world I live in. I may disagree with some of his opinions, but the same goes for many powerful people who use the platform for their own ends – be it ego, political gain or commercial advantage.

If Twitter were to disappear tomorrow, what would I miss? The views of hundreds of people who know far more about their subjects than I do. The former generals and military analysts who write about Ukraine, for example. The archaeologists who tell us of the latest discoveries from Pompeii. Historians, travellers, scientists, observers of society and yes, those who write about politics. I would miss them terribly. Life would be duller without them.

As for the bafflement, Twitter reminds me of a vast city. You might visit Paris to see the Louvre, or to stroll through Montmartre, without ever experiencing that city’s seething underbelly of poverty and discontent. With Twitter, perhaps because I’m an insignificant traveller, I rarely get to see the trolls, the deranged and all the other bitter voices unless their bile is highlighted by people I follow. Those glimpses are bad enough to persuade avoid the dark side whenever I can.

So my Twitter might be totally different from yours.

Of course, I’m fully aware of the hidden hand of the algorithm, which gives hints of itself in different ways. Why otherwise do I get new tweets doled out in batches of twenty-six, where a few months ago there were hundreds waiting for me after a few hours away? Why do some of the Russian tweets come with a translation link, but not others? But I have no skin in this game, so I can just watch and wonder.

Returning to Musk, I do find his communication style interesting. He seems to veer from the head teacher addressing school assembly to the impish provocateur on the sidelines, often contrary for the sake of it. Sometimes he becomes Delphic. I suspect he gets a kick out of people’s various interpretations of what he says.

One commentator suggested that he hire a professional communications company to do his tweeting for him. Maybe he should, but that would inevitably render his thoughts less enlightening. And in a way, even if he teeters on the brink of destroying the brand, it’s quite refreshing to see a CEO saying what he actually thinks rather than having a bunch of suits tell him what market wants him to think. I know Good To Great advocates anonymous leaders beavering quietly away, but for pure entertainment, give me Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary any day of the week.

CEOs, after all, are human, not gods. They have their stupid moments, their foibles, their blind spots. The bigger their organisations, the greater the chance that they work in a vacuum, devoid of people who tell them what they really think. But there are plenty of people willing to share their opinions with Musk. Most of them are not flattering. So perhaps he has a different problem. Bombarded with advice and abuse, he needs to retain a sense of purpose. That can be difficult, but he’s shown that he can stick to his bearings with Tesla and SpaceX.

If he ends up crashing and burning his new investment, it will no doubt fuel business school case studies for decades to come. The big question in my mind is whether he can be as adept in taking an established company and re-fashioning it as he has been in building new enterprises. Culture change is tough. In the case of Twitter, he must convince not only its remaining employees but its users and advertisers. It’s hard to see how he can do that effectively while keeping an eye on his other interests.

It promises to be a fascinating few months for the Twitter masses.

From → Media, Social, USA

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