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Nov 1, 22

Will Corporate Social Media Collapse and Leave Room for Alternatives?

A look at the recent takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk and the continuing collapse of Facebook in the wake of the ‘Metaverse.’ If these trends continue, will this lead to the growth of non-corporate alternatives?

Last Thursday Facebook’s share price plunged more than 25 percent, drastically dropping the company’s market share by $650 billion, down from a peak of over a trillion a year ago. Investors, along with pretty much everyone else, have been highly skeptical of Facebook’s pivot to the “metaverse,” a virtual reality environment in which users wear large, clunky headsets to interact with each other’s blandly creepy cartoon “avatars.” It’s kind of like Google Glass, only ten times stupider looking, plus you can’t see your actual surroundings without enabling a blurry pass-through camera. Even Facebook’s own employees don’t want to use the thing.

The metaverse adventure is the least graceful transition from high flying tech unicorn to the most boring cash cow ever. If Facebook, facing it’s first ever decline in user numbers, wanted to branch out into hardware, why not just manufacture a line of mid-priced smartphones with a removable battery, headphone jack, and of course Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp preinstalled? Or try to break into the cloud storage business, leveraging the vast experience the company has gained over the years from running its own servers? After all, it worked for Amazon.

Because Frances Haugen, that’s why. Corporate media is now doing its level best to flush her down the memory hole, but for a brief stretch in late 2021 she was inescapable. Haugen’s revelation that Facebook was not only harming teenagers, but that company execs knew it, ignited a media firestorm and led to lawsuits, investigations, congressional hearings, and tighter regulations in Europe. Mark Zuckerberg had to do something, something flashy enough to distract the world from talking about how his company enabled human trafficking, pushed far-Right talking points and media, exacerbated the pandemic, and secretly bent its own moderation rules for celebrities. Changing the name to Meta and trying to turn a science fiction trope into a real-life tech project was the best he could come up with.

It worked in the short term. The media dutifully changed gears and began ignoring Haugen in favor of gushing over the bold step “Meta” was taking into a brave new future. In the medium term however, Zuckerberg’s gamble locked his company into spending tens of billions on a moonshot project that it probably can’t pull off, and that nobody would use anyway. Investors have finally noticed. Meta will probably continue to hemorrhage money until Zuckerberg is forced to resign in disgrace, and then continue its descent into Myspacian irrelevance. His only alternative is to say “Oops, nvm” and pull the plug on the metaverse before it sinks the whole company, but that would destroy whatever scraps of credibility as an executive he has left. Don’t hold your breath.

Zuckerberg might be running Facebook into the ground, but at least he’s doing it slowly. Elon Musk on the other hand, might have just killed Twitter in a day. Let’s recap. Musk launched a hostile takeover of Twitter, failed, agreed to pay more than the company was worth to take control, backed out after signing a purchase agreement, got sued, botched the legal response, and finally completed the purchase and installed himself as the new CEO. Along the way he managed to establish himself as the absolute last person in the world who should be running Twitter. For starters, Musk promised to virtually eliminate content moderation on the site and reverse lifetime bans for users who had been kicked off the platform for offenses such as hate speech or threats of violence, in essence turning Twitter into a bigger version of Parler. Well, temporarily bigger anyway. Corporate advertisers are not going to do business with a site where racist hate speech flourishes openly, and General Motors has already suspended advertising on the platform. Musk’s attempt to reassure his customers took the form of a tweet saying that Twitter “obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape.”

Pro tip, Elon: If you have to tell everybody that the major social media platform you just bought isn’t going to become a free-for-all hellscape (no, really, it won’t!), you have a problem. Especially when right-wing trolls flood the site with racist tweets the day you take over. Especially when one of them is yours.

It didn’t help matters when Musk told potential investors he planned to lay off 75 percent of Twitter’s workforce. There’s a reason corporations keep layoff plans a secret until they’re ready to pull the trigger – to prevent the people they want to keep from getting spooked and looking for new jobs. Granted, this wasn’t a public announcement, but he must have known it would leak to the press. He did try to walk back his pledge a few days later in an address to employees, but to whom would he be more likely to tell the truth, the employees or the investors? The answer is obvious. Musk’s reputation as a terrible boss isn’t helping his case, either. Look for a mass exodus of Twitter workers who don’t want to take a one-in-four chance of having to work for Elon Musk.

Losing three quarters of its workforce isn’t going to do anything for Twitter’s preexisting conditions, either. Speaking of whistleblowers, the company’s former security chief Mudge recently filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission and testified before Congress, accusing his former employer of security practices so lax as to threaten its viability. Problems include inadequate protection of users’ personal information, delayed software security updates, concealing the true number of bot accounts, and at least one Chinese spy on the payroll. The Chinese spies at least might get laid off, but Twitter’s other security problems are only going to be made worse by the loss of institutional memory and general upheaval surrounding Musk’s takeover. Hackers are urged to take note. Users are urged to delete their accounts and switch to Mastodon. Connoisseurs of quality entertainment are urged to stock up on popcorn.

Like Zuckerberg, Musk can only fix his company’s problems by going back on his commitments, and losing face in the process. If he leaves Twitter’s existing content moderation policies intact and doesn’t allow Trump back on the platform, he will look like a flake and a liar, and his conservative fans will turn on him. If he follows through on his promises, advertisers will flee the site, and much of the user base will be right behind them. Unlike Zuckerberg, changing course won’t help Musk much financially. Twitter has never generated a significant profit, only making money for its owners when it was sold to an even bigger sucker. Musk is the last sucker in line. If he skimps on content moderation (which is probably where the bulk of his planned layoffs are coming from), it’s free-for-all hellscape time, and any savings will be dwarfed by lost advertising revenue. If he skimps on engineering, Twitter’s technical and security debt will grow until something catastrophic happens. Since he has taken Twitter private, he doesn’t have to publicly reveal the company’s financial reports, allowing him to subsidize the operation while pretending everything is going fine, but that’s going to run into money, even for him. Musk does have a few investment partners, but they seem to have contributed only minor amounts, and right-wing magnates such as Peter Thiel have declined to get involved.

Both men illustrate the pitfalls of putting a single person in sole charge of any enterprise: especially a rich, entitled, white guy. Musk has paid to take Twitter private, giving him total control of the company. Facebook is publicly traded, but Zuckerberg retains a controlling number of shares, meaning he too can’t be fired. Both of them are set for life, regardless of what happens to their respective social media empires. Anoint anyone a superstar, give them the latitude to do whatever they feel like to an organization, with nobody who can provide any accountability or sanity checking, and it’s basically just a matter of time before they make a stupid decision and then feel like they can’t change their mind without looking bad. Zuckerberg has made a lot of stupid decisions during his years at Facebook, and they’re catching up to him. Musk only took control of Twitter a few days ago, but he’s making up for lost time. It’s not a bad idea for anarchists to keep an eye on these kinds of situations to see how they might be turned to advantage.

In that vein, what does all this mean for the future of social interactions on the internet? Just maybe something good. The aforementioned Mastodon is an open source, distributed alternative to Twitter that allows users and local server administrators to control their own content, instead of ceding agency to a centralized organization whose main incentive is increasing ad revenue. It hasn’t gotten much traction because Twitter enjoyed first mover advantage. Migrating to Mastodon for any individual user previously meant leaving most of their followers behind. But if Twitter is going down in flames, many users will be looking for a better option, and Mastodon is right there waiting for them.

If we get really lucky, other open source social media projects like Pixelfed and PeerTube will also benefit from the bonanza, and we’ll be on the way to breaking the corporate stranglehold on social media. Here’s hoping!

photo: dole777 via Unsplash

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