Twitter enters hand-over-mouth era as Musk becomes its biggest fish

‘Distractions’ loom as billionaire opts to stay off board and asks if app is ‘dying’

Elon Musk, the world's wealthiest man on paper, has chosen not to take a seat on the board of Twitter to the delight of those fans convinced the offer was a trap.

Like a parent figure contending with an all-powerful toddler, Twitter chief executive Parag Agrawal said this was "for the best", before valiantly insisting that the decisions Twitter makes remain "in our hands, and no one else's".

Insert your own “sure, Jan” meme here.

Musk posted a hand-over-mouth emoji that he subsequently deleted. Despite initially notifying the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of his stock purchases using the form reserved for “passive” investors, Twitter’s largest shareholder seems unlikely to stay quiet for long.


Whether this was the reason for reversing course or not, by staying off the Twitter board, Musk is no longer bound by a condition limiting his maximum holding to 14.9 per cent.

But even his existing 9.2 per cent stake is enough to signal trouble ahead – or, as Agrawal phrased it in a classic piece of corporate understatement, “distractions”.

This is, in effect, the third era of the 18-year-old social network’s life. The first was its “fail whale” era, that more innocent time when Twitter would regularly show users over-capacity messages illustrated by a cheery beluga.

The fail whale was discontinued in 2013, a few months before Twitter's initial public offering (IPO), by which point the rants, raves and conspiracies of the Donald Trump era were already in train.

Accused of enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship with Trump when he was in the White House, Twitter permanently banned him in January 2021 "due to the risk of further incitement of violence". Let's not relive what "further" refers to here.

Nuclear button

Indeed, it is tough to pick a single lowlight from Trump’s tweets while in power, but I’m going to nominate his January 2018 tirade about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which culminated with the boast “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Whatever “distractions” Twitter faces in its Musk era, they cannot hope to be more grimly absurd than the flippant, exclamation-marked threat of nuclear war.

Musk has another button in mind. So far, he has wanged on about an edit button (Twitter then announced one was in the works), declared there should be no advertising on subscription service Twitter Blue (in a since deleted tweet) and proposed that the company convert its San Francisco headquarters to a homeless shelter “since no-one shows up anyway” (also now deleted).

Quite how these thoughts are being viewed by the SEC, which scrutinises Musk’s tweets for potential market-moving information, is unclear. But his running laments on the platform he hates to love won’t seem completely off-the-wall to other users.

Because, after all, Twitter could be better. That is very much the vibe of the place. Perhaps more than any other social app, it is notable for being populated by people who despair at the experience of being on it. The best way to express this feeling is, naturally, in a tweet.

Quite apart from the well-documented problems of abuse and harassment, it can seem as if many of the long-term addicted have simply lost patience with the entire concept of consuming so much social media at once. When a certain kind of news breaks – the Will Smith slap being the obvious example – they tweet their anticipatory jadedness of the tweets that are to come.

This can also reflect unwillingness to curate their own timelines or a lack of knowledge about how to do this, with some users unaware of their ability to choose Latest (a reverse-chronological timeline of tweets from accounts they follow) instead of Home, Twitter’s “recommended” feed.

Home is where Twitter’s algorithm will deliver out-of-sync tweets from accounts you don’t follow but have garnered high engagement. It’s a bit like a bar manager giving a megaphone to a half-dozen loudmouths, so that everyone in the pub is forced to listen at the expense of their own conversations.

Twitter last month tried to push its algorithmic feed on users by making it impossible to unpin. This meant that users who pinned Latest to their tabs kept being reverted to the chaos of Home – an especially dismal frustration if, say, you were trying to follow the most up-to-date developments in a war.

Twitter undid the change after a user backlash but made an ominous remark about this being “for now”.

So more algorithmic pain of this nature may be imminent. This is because Twitter knows it is dependent on the tweets and retweets of a small number of users and always has been.

The most active quarter of US adults by tweet volume produced 97 per cent of all tweets from this group, Pew Research Center found in 2021, while half of this group's tweets were retweets.

The platform – used by 25 per cent of Irish people, according to a January 2022 survey by Ipsos – has been of "outsized" importance to journalists, as New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet put it last week. But there are signs that this enthusiasm is maturing too.

Baquet has ordered a Twitter “reset”, stressing that a Twitter presence is “now purely optional” and suggesting it isn’t healthy for journalists to look to Twitter “for validation of their coverage”.

Top accounts

During his prolific weekend of tweeting, Musk quote-tweeted a list of the 10 most-followed Twitter accounts, where he is nestled in eighth in between Lady Gaga and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.

“Most of these ‘top’ accounts tweet rarely and post very little content. Is Twitter dying?” Musk trolled, citing Taylor Swift’s three-month silence and Justin Bieber’s solitary tweet for 2022.

That “influential users, such as world leaders, government officials, celebrities, athletes, journalists, sports teams, media outlets and brands” might migrate somewhere more relevant was a “risk factor” listed by Twitter ahead of its stock market debut in 2013. It is a vulnerability shared by all social media companies.

Under Agrawal, Twitter will attempt to meet ambitious user and revenue growth targets and stave off decline. Keeping the active interest of celebrities – and journalists desperately seeking validation – is part of that process.

Still, it could do without the unfiltered impulses and nightmarish interventions of one celebrity: the multibillionaire cult figure who happens to be its largest shareholder.