The Elon Gambit

Well, that was . I was originally planning to clean up another of my long-standing drafts and post about one of my projects, but in between and the chaos at , I thought I’d hop on the bandwagon and write about that as well.

The Investment Slump

Elon’s… “emotionally challenged” approach at layoffs couldn’t have come at a worse time. Besides all the legal and personal drama that is just starting to play out, it capped off a week (or two) of similar announcements from Lyft, Stripe, OpenDoor and a few others, not to mention the teeth-grinding drop of tech stocks when Meta and others’ tried to tap dance through their earnings calls a little while back.

Being a regular reader of The Economist for a few decades now, I have been drip-fed enough skepticism and awareness that everything based on advertising (or in turning people into the product, one way or another) had been skating on thin ice, so most of my shock was due to the domino-like toppling (and my MSFT stock going along for the ride, even though both my employer and Apple have shown decent results–that’s just market stupidity at work).

Also, and the portions of the tech industry that, you know, do actual tech have finally woken up to the fact that TSMC and most of the world’s silicon and precision manufacturing aren’t evenly distributed, although China is relatively quiet–for now. And investors, even though they love playing roulette, only really do so when they know how the game is rigged, so they’re moving their funds to less risky things like security companies and lots of unobtrusive bits of the military manufacturing supply chain.

Tech Folk Are Fed Up

So localized collapses of social networking and upstart services that were trying to flip the table on payments and transportation are… well, somewhat predictable and pretty reasonable outcomes, although it sure as heck sucks for the actual people involved.

And most people in the tech industry (including myself) are completely and utterly exhausted from the weirdly off-center washing and rinsing cycle the thing’s apparently set to, what with the pandemic, the mad dash for growth that came both before and (surprisingly) during it, and, of course, all the political nonsense that simmered alongside.

Elon, the trickster of our age, is just providing a new trigger for a lot of pent-up frustration. One that quite a few people seem to be acting on–partially because moving to another social network is something they can actually control (which is a welcome change in their lives), and partially because of the “grass is greener” phenomenon.

And at least in this case, you might actually be able to see some grass instead of ads.

The Town Square Is Full Of Posters

I don’t know a lot about the internals of (technical or otherwise), but it doesn’t seem overly complex to grasp. Jack Dorsey went on at length about their goals even as annual reports painted a pretty factual picture of their risk factors, though:

Our business operations are subject to numerous risks and uncertainties, including those outside of our control, that could cause our business,
financial condition or operating results to be harmed, including risks regarding the following:

Business and Operational Factors

    * our ability to increase our mDAU (monthly Daily Active Users), ad engagement or other general engagement on our platform;
    * the loss of advertising revenue;
    * competition for people to use our platform and for content and data partners;
    * competition for advertising spend;
    * our prioritization of the long-term health of our service;
    * our prioritization of product innovation;
    * our ability to maintain and promote our brand;
    * our ability to hire, retain and motivate highly skilled personnel;
    * the interoperability of our products and services across third-party services and systems;
    * the impact of spam and fake accounts on our platform experience;
    * actual or perceived security breaches or incidents, as well as errors, vulnerabilities or defects in our software and in products of third-party
    * our international operations;
    * the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and responsive measures;
    * our significant past operating losses and any inability to maintain profitability or accurately predict fluctuations in the future;
    * our reliance on assumptions and estimates to calculate certain key metrics;
    * catastrophic events and interruptions by man-made problems

Maybe that last bullet is where Elon fits in. Not sure yet.

More to the point, I do have friends there, and yes, some got sacked. So I guess there goes one of their goals:

A company-wide three-year objective focused on diversity and decentralization

The Trust Trifecta

And then there’s the technology, the security, and the politics.

Like everyone else I watched as armchair critics dissected its policies, its internal security stance, the dramas around not banning very stable geniuses that would have been unthinkable in Europe, etc.

I acknowledge there is a certain amount of impedance mismatch between my viewpoint and many of the people pouring a river of pixels onto the topic, but considering that back in the early 2000s a few colleagues of mine were hacking SMS gateways to post to Twitter and it was mostly a nerd-and-burning-man kind of thing, it having become a 7000+ FTE company with global reach is just… insane.

That said, painting it as “the world’s town square” is disingenuous. There are many people who either can’t use it or just don’t care about it in the least, and who are perfectly happy on Meta estates or (increasingly) TikTok. But it did take off amazingly well in some countries (not so much in mine, apparently, although our politicians seem to have realized it exists during the pandemic), and thus has, well, a cross-sectional reach worldwide.

Growth Factors

But to techies (politically minded or not, inside or outside the US) it has been a pretty great place (if you’re lucky), and even if you discount all the crypto and web3 idiocy that still runs rampant there, it is a great place for people to connect, keep track of news (especially industry news) and hawk their wares (which is pretty essential for occupations like game development, where indie projects can garner significant following).

And yes, of course you have all the TV shows, media, and mainstream news, and whatnot. But those would always have the means to either pay for mainstream advertising (if it worked–that’s another point coming…)

The thing about Twitter isn’t just about major brands placing sponsored ads in your timeline–that’s the archaic way of thought (doubling down on a captive audience) that harks back to TV commercials and newspaper ads. And yes, of course their withdrawing explicit advertising will hurt Twitter’s bottom line.

The real pain is likely to come from loss of organic reach stemming from people being alienated by knee-jerk platform monetization strategies (yeah, I still can’t believe Elon was haggling with Stephen King about the $8 fee either), losing interest in it due to lack of moderation or political bias, or leaving it altogether.

That is going to hurt . And let’s face it, the US ambivalence about “free speech” is also going to be put to the test. As an European, the notion of having to share a timeline with extremist jerks who tossed out random passive-aggressive tweets while holding office (and who likely encouraged rebellion after) doesn’t appeal to me.

On That Purported Exodus

As to the exodus itself, I honestly don’t think it will amount to much. I’ve been on Mastodon for a while (comparatively not much, but enough to know the difference), and of course I’ve gone back to it again this week and am trying all the cool new apps (right now MetaText seems to be the nicest for me), but what I’m doing right now is looking for the same people I followed on to make sure I keep enjoying their posts, which just means I’m carrying over my bubble1.

But that isn’t something most users will bother with. And the Fediverse’s take on “following” and reach isn’t palatable to heavy users who thrive on reach and the flatness of its landscape, let alone the corporations who leveraged for marketing purposes. Content-wise, to anyone landing on Mastodon out of the blue the only thing that seems about the same is the amount of cat pictures, but that might not be enough unless, like many migrants, you’ve been driven there because you just wanted out due to principle, i.e., your current perception of and what you fear Elon will change.

So the exodus will continue until morale improves, but mostly as far as the exiles are concerned. Many will come back, or post on multiple networks, or just do what normal people do and use different forums for different things.

Corporate-wise, and although it is impossible to predict what kind of learning journey Elon is actually embarking upon (he might be perceived as ruthless and out of touch, but he gets things done, even if they’re what he wants and not what most people wish he did), I think is likely to carry on ploughing itself into the ground–following the asymptotic curve of the digital advertising market that no matter how many opinionated people continue to eschew, actually still works for social networks.

Until, of course, it doesn’t. But that’s yet to come.

  1. If you feel like expanding yours, I’m @[email protected], but be warned that I’m nowhere near as funny as the madcap party that seems to be raging through Irish Mastodon right now. Or maybe they’re like that all the time, too soon to tell. Sláinte! ↩︎

This page is referenced in: