At Twitter, Elon Musk Is Doing a Great Job of Disproving the Idea of Meritocracy

Elon Musk is definitive proof that our capitalist overlords have absolutely no idea what they’re doing.

Elon Musk leaves the Phillip Burton Federal Building on January 24, 2023 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

In the less than six months since its purchase by mercurial cringe merchant Elon Musk, Twitter has been beset by incessant dysfunction and breakdowns. In the past week alone, users have found themselves inundated with unlabeled retweets and experienced a glitch in the site’s interface that briefly made replies look like stand-alone posts — two very basic problems that make using the site and understanding what’s happening on it deeply confusing.

While the changes were quickly undone, it’s unclear whether the problems were bugs or yet another example of a bad idea put forward by the site’s new billionaire owner that was hastily withdrawn in the wake of mockery and backlash. Contributing further to the general feeling of chaos and stupidity, a stale meme from 2013 — a full decade ago — that is now synonymous with a quasi-ironic cryptocurrency has replaced Twitter’s bird logo on its main screen without official explanation.

These issues pale in comparison to the wider erosion of Twitter as a company. According to an internal memo that became public last month, its net value is down some 55 percent compared to what Musk paid for it last October. In large part thanks to Musk’s boneheaded conduct on the platform, Twitter has also hemorrhaged at least 40 percent of its advertising revenue and seen a precipitous drop in user enthusiasm. It’s no longer making rent on its offices, and keeping it afloat has required Musk to sell off billions of dollars’ worth of Tesla stock.

Many of his grand plans, meanwhile, have proven spectacular failures. Musk’s attempt to introduce a $1,000-per-month fee for “verified” institutional accounts has been pared significantly back in response to what was effectively a miniature digital capital strike, as a huge number of organizations simply refused to pay up for verification. The idea was already in tension with his plans for verification elsewhere on the site and, having supposedly dispensed with the whole plan, Musk was left to discover out loud why Twitter had established internal standards for verification in the first place.

Twitter Blue, perhaps his signature idea, has been even more unsuccessful. Billed as a subscription service that could give users an improved experience on the platform (and a pay-for-play blue check mark next to their name that seems somewhat similar to the badge that verified users get, but actually has nothing to do with verification), the real motivation was clearly money. Channeling the dim-witted Silicon Valley belief that commodification and innovation are somehow synonymous, Musk evidently believed that he could generate a new stream of profits by monetizing Twitter’s user base. In doing so, he fundamentally misunderstood both the platform and its business model, the upshot being a subscription service that almost no one likes and even fewer are willing to pay for.

At time of writing, only about .02 percent of users are reportedly paying for Twitter Blue, with half having less than one thousand followers. Not even half a percent of Musk’s own 132 million followers have signed up. According to one analysis, less than seven thousand of the site’s 420,000 legacy verified accounts have embraced it.

As Ryan Broderick observes, this has created other problems:

Twitter Blue is actually a service primarily used by people who do not have any real audience or community that they’re active participants in. And this effectively makes Twitter Blue more of an attempt at monetizing access and influence for people who don’t have any and are desperate enough to pay to get it. And now we’re seeing Musk really struggle to manage the subsequent cringe of giving people that access and influence.

In purely monetary terms, it’s been a disaster as well. Since it launched just over three months ago, Twitter Blue has picked up only $11 million from mobile subscriptions — an amount equivalent to roughly 1.1 percent of the annual interest payment on Twitter’s debt. Given how unpopular it’s already become, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which it ever becomes profitable.

It’s also difficult to know what to make of all this, beyond it being a tour de force of incompetence from one of the world’s richest people. For years, Musk has cultivated an aura of Promethean genius, only to see it collapse, alongside his net worth, in a matter of months. Even for critics and skeptics, the pace has been breathtaking to behold — there apparently being nothing behind the curtain save an obnoxious persona of Big Bang Theory–esque geekiness and an artificially bloated share price. The would-be God Emperor of Mars is suddenly standing naked in the village square, with even many longtime sycophants looking on in shock and horror. Soon enough, all but the most slathering Musk reply guys will have to conclude that they’ve been conned by a doge-brained court jester LARPing as a king.

The billionaire’s inept takeover of Twitter ultimately raises bigger questions about the structures that created him. Over the past several decades, the institutions of American society have been rewired around the premise that figures like Musk are the engines of growth, creativity, and progress. The Elon Musks of the world have been given a bonanza of tax cuts and other perks by a political class largely at peace with their outsized influence, power, and ownership of the economy. As countless millions were forced to subsist on threadbare social protections during a global pandemic, the uber-rich cheerily battened down on their resorts and private islands to trade fake money while central banks fattened their account balances. Like all economic inequality today, it was a divide traceable to the absurd idea that the wealthy are a specialized class that “earns” its station through superhuman competence and wields its many advantages to contribute social value.

If someone like Musk can rise to the top of such a class, it’s worth asking why we’ve structured our whole society in deference to it.