Hard Day's Night

The water cooler

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This growing old is hard. Not for the timid, they say, although what choice do the timid have? But it’s not all obvious; some of the things I learn have much to recommend them. Things I used to swear by no longer have the same power to drive my perspective on the state of what’s important. The continuing fascination of Elon Musk and his Twitter takeover seems dominated by his demeanor and wealth, but the media storm belies that analysis. Which is it — he’s going to ruin the platform to his own advantage, or preserve the status quo?

I think that choice misses the point. Twitter is an unstable experiment that continues to control the media, not the agendas of its most famous celebrities. Today, a news story suggests Musk wants to charge for all reuse of tweet content by verified users, of which I’m not one. If that is true, then I’ve dodged a bullet due to my non-celebrity status. Does a retweet constitute reuse? I rarely retweet celebrities in any case, more focused on amplifying and validating ideas than marketing the tweeter. And if the verified status dilutes the count due to saving the reuse fee, it might create a signal focused on the middle of the tail rather than the superclass. As with many of Musk’s comments, the results of such changes might incentivize more user innovations such as retweets were initially.

This simple superpower has always been at the core of my interest in Twitter. Hidden or submerged within the text, @mentions formed the low code instructions to the notification engine of targeted implicit groups, in effect the cornerstone of the social graph that is Twitter’s superpower. Gossip is all well and good or bad, but smoke signals of potential power or danger are visible over the horizon, particularly if amplified by retweets. Concentric spread of these puffs of smoke is enhanced not just by the aggregate followers but also by the moat created by their relative rarity. Media repurposes them as longer form content, stripping off the authority of the implicit group that carries a great deal of the priority and timelessness of the underlying information. However, the repetition of these supernodes underlines the social graph’s value and impact.

That’s, of course, if the deal happens. What’s surprising is how little of the war on social media is being played out in the Twitter or for that matter Facebook universe. The free speech angle is the hobby horse the cable media has rode in on, but what’s going on with the Netflix collapse is taking most of the coverage. I wonder if the streaming chickens coming home to roost are part of the reason for the Twitter opening Musk jumped at. Along with the Amazon meltdown, the post-pandemic positioning of the market is the common denominator.

We understand that Twitter is in play due to the spin tropes of mismanagement, misinformation, and autocratic momentum. If, as Musk does, we ignore the dangers associated with his one-person rule, what’s left are the actual dynamics of social media and its potential recapitalization in the form of subscriptions. Certainly this is part of the equation in the Netflix results, the shuttering of CNN+, and the impact of media in general on the upcoming elections. I agree with newsletter commentary that sees the Twitter buyout as a case of sticking with the horse that brung you to the party. At some point dominance of social (free) media translates into global success and the territory of the world’s richest persons. How could Musk not play the hand he and Twitter dealt? Talk about due diligence and fiduciary responsibility.

Speaking of keeping your eye on the ball, what’s the deal with big tech’s ambling approach to working from everywhere? When the market gets nervous, some think that’s the time to bet on what will stick when that fear is factored in to the broader implications for the winners of that argument. Some close friends of ours have pivoted to an apartment in Florence to ride out not the end of the pandemic but the living through of the endemic phase. If that persists, Amazon will continue to take a healthy cut of delivery, online first party advertising, and the companies tech engine as a composable suite of services. Twitter may turn out to be even more valuable as the notification center of the robot taxi market, with its substrate of charging stations bolstering a hub-and-spoke lease (subscription) relationship for fleet and last mile car ownership.

What big tech is trying to figure out is the best mix of collaboration with distributed teams. The water cooler seems hard to virtualize, but is it really? Is social media a convenient scapegoat for the ills of democracy and the tendency toward blaming the messenger? Wall Street has been hell bent on trivializing Twitter for its lack of self-control, but the superelite class is ignoring the smoke in favor of the power of the mirror. The idea of Musk motivated by passion and high school party jokes does not resonate with the results of his exploration of the platform. When John Lennon died, the guy next to me took note of my tears and said, rhetorically, “he’s just a guitar player.”

Maybe, but he was a guitar player in the greatest show on earth, as he wrote a reunion song for Ringo. People can be elevated or reduced to stereotypes, but the results are real and seriously life-changing for all of us. The intensity of the Twitter moment is real, and as unknowable now as it was to begin with. But not knowing what the consequences are does not answer what the question is. Our generation was dinged for not having faced the trials of growing into the role of leaders. No world war, no challenge to freedom, no global climate crisis. Oh, wait…. Just a guitar player. Think again. As Apple marketing said, think different. It’s been a hard day’s night. I think Ringo said that.


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