In April 2022, Elon Musk acquired a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, making him the company’s largest shareholder, and was offered a seat on the board. Luke Simon, a senior engineering director at Twitter, was ecstatic. “Elon Musk is a brilliant engineer and scientist, and he has a track record of having a Midas touch, when it comes to growing the companies he’s helped lead,” he wrote in Slack.
Twitter had been defined by the catatonic leadership of Jack Dorsey, a co-founder who simultaneously served as CEO of the payments business Block (formerly Square). Dorsey, who was known for going on long meditation retreats, fasting 22 hours a day, and walking five miles to the office, acted as an absentee landlord, leaving Twitter’s strategy and daily operations to a handful of trusted deputies. When he spoke about Twitter, it was often as if someone else were running the company. To Simon and those like him, it was hard to see Twitter as anything other than wasted potential.
In its early days, when Twitter was at its most Twittery, circa 2012, executives called the company “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” That was the era when the platform was credited for amplifying the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring, when it seemed like giving everyone a microphone might actually bring down dictatorships and right the wrongs of neoliberal capitalism. That moment, which coincided with the rise of Facebook and YouTube, inspired utopian visions of how social networks could promote democracy and human rights around the world.
Twitter rode this momentum to become one of the most important companies in tech: an all-consuming obsession for those working or merely interested in politics, sports, and journalism around the world. Frequently, the platform set the news agenda and transformed nobodies into Main Characters. What it lacked in profits it more than made up for in influence. [Continue reading…]