Elon Breaks More Things
Should I slip across the border into Tenn. and violate "decorum?"
From the air over Little Rock, Arkansas
This is a bit embarrassing, but last week, I forgot to send this newsletter to you. I have a decently-worked-out workflow in terms of my longer Puck version and the emails I send to you, and last week I just got bowled over with schedule madness, health stuff, and a desire to travel to Tennessee and show the GOP supermajority there what violating decorum really looks like. Seriously, they just expelled the Black dudes. I’m offended by the lack of attempt to cover up the racism. Try, harder folks.
I’ve been in the South a lot lately. This week, Arkansas where we’re filming America Outdoors (and where you can help with tornado relief efforts). A month ago, North Florida for a different episode. In between, I rolled through the Carolinas where I did some public speaking. First stop was the Men of Color Summit hosted by Clemson University. The participants were primarily Black and Latino men and boys from middle school up through college age. I felt a different kind of relief being able to share some of my story with these men and boys. We talked about concepts of masculinity, Black liberation, and what it means to belong in a society constantly reminding us that we don’t.
After that, I drove over to Charlotte, where I did a solo show helping kick off the Charlotte Shout festival, but the highlight of my visit happened off-stage when I got to spend some time with Mayor Pro Tem Braxton Winston. When Charlotte-Meklenberg police shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in 2016, Winston went viral with a dramatic photo of him peacefully but forcefully standing up to police during a protest. Since then he’s joined the city government and brought the fight for justice and equity to the inside. In our brief time together, I got to see some of the excitement and challenges that come with Charlotte’s rapid growth, from school segregation to housing displacement to new business investments. Thanks to both Carolinas for hosting me. I have ancestry in South Carolina and am pretty sure I met a cousin in the audience.
In the world beyond my direct experience, I tried to make sense of the proposed legislation that might ban TikTok, aka the RESTRICT Act. At first, I had ChatGPT process the 55-page bill, but to be honest, it was trash. The bot got several easily-discoverable facts wrong, such as claiming the bill does not directly reference China or any other countries (it does). So I read the thing myself (old school!), then relied on human experts at Lawfare to make more sense of it in the form of internet writing that generative A.I. models will eventually absorb and regurgitate without compensation or citation. My brief take is that this bill does include overbroad measures (like a maximum $250,000 fine for people circumventing restrictions placed on software like TikTok), and innate hypocrisy since it’s exclusively focused on foreign-born tech while saying nothing about similarly troubling domestic technologies, but that it’s also still too early to judge because it’s nowhere near final.
You might say I’m taking a “pause” on my assessment of the U.S. government’s response to TikTok much in the way that some tech industry veterans have called for a moratorium on further development of large language models in generative A.I. systems. It was big news recently when tens of thousands of people signed on to a letter asking for a six-month hold on building models more advanced than GPT-4, but that letter has some complications worth noting beyond the handful of forged signatories. Most importantly, the research cited doesn’t align with the way the campaign organizers have characterized matters, and there’s multiple schools of A.I. concern that got rolled into one letter.
Back to Tennessee. I don’t have much to say about the Nashville, Tennessee school shooting that I haven’t said before. It bears repeating, however: when we ban books in school before we ban guns in the wider society, we show that we’re more afraid of our children learning than we are of them dying. Knowledge of American history isn’t leaving our children riddled with bullets or traumatized by active shooter drills. Easy access to guns is. I’ll just direct anyway with a continued sense of rage toward Moms Demand Action and Everytown.
Finally, I heard that the most indictable president in U.S. history got himself indicted. Surprise, surprise. Make sure you subscribe to my Puck colleague Eriq Gardner for all the quality legal takes on this, the Fox News defamation lawsuit, and other legal matters shaking our republic.
Elon’s Blue Period
Note: since I published this in Puck, Elon has done more dumb shit. It’s a safe bet that in the time that’s passed since any moment ago, Elon has done more dumb shit.
It’s been five long months since Elon Musk completed his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter, and in that time a handful of moments have seemed to capture the demise of the service. The cruel and unusual firings. The API shutdown. The advertiser exodus. The service’s technical instability. The algorithmic gerrymandering, implemented to assuage the new owner’s ego by ensuring we all see his tweets. This weekend, the next phase of Twitter’s never-ending ending began: the removal of verified badges that were doled out during the pre-Elon era. (In another Elon-esque hallmark of dysfunction, the promised revocation hadn’t taken hold as of publication.)
The old system required proof of identity, notability determined by the prominence of your organization and activity on the platform. The new system swaps out the identity requirement for a financial one: $8 per month for individuals, and $1,000 per month for businesses. Payment entitles users access to writing longer tweets, utilizing higher-quality video uploads, an undo button, and the privilege of being featured in the “For You” default feed, along with some other minor features. But as Twitter shuts down the old badge system, I’ve decided that it just doesn’t make sense for me, either ethically or financially, to participate in this next one.
Yes, I had the old check mark. I earned it the old-fashioned way: by having lunch at Twitter’s San Francisco office during my time at The Onion, between 2007 and 2012. As I recently wrote in an R.I.P. Twitter thread, I’m not fundamentally opposed to paying for social media (I paid for Twitter Blue under Jack Dorsey’s Twitter), and I believe in the promise of a sustainable and healthy social media ecosystem. I’m also excited by the idea of a cleaner economic relationship between users and platforms, particularly one in which I’m not the product. But I refuse to endorse Twitter’s current management with my money. I won’t help a chaos-spawning egomaniac, who inflicts his psychological wounds on the world, dig himself out of a hole that his ego created. Especially when the new badge doesn’t involve any “verification” process at all.
In defending his new pay-for-verification scheme, Elon offered some absurd First Amendment-baiting pablum about how “widespread verification will democratize journalism and empower the voice of the people.” And yet it sounds like the decision is motivated entirely by finding a new revenue stream to help soften the ruinous financial decision to buy Twitter in the first place. Various tactics during his stewardship, from limiting amplification inside the For You recommendation engine to this maneuver, Musk is simply squeezing dollars out of people willing to give him money. He is not “democratizing journalism,” or solving the platform’s notorious bot challenges, or empowering the voice of the people. He’s turning Twitter into his own private SoHo House, or worse.
It’s a shame, because Twitter has been a valuable directory of human knowledge and a useful way to find and sort through different types of voices. As my friend Jules Terpak, a Gen Z video-first content creator who covers tech and digital culture, posted recently, “If you curate your following list for learning / exploring curiosities and unfollow all the low vibrational shit—Twitter is an untouchable social media platform.” Sadly for all of us, Elon has very much torched the platform and this pay-to-play transformation risks further distancing Twitter from its potential role as a virtual town square.
The thing that bugs me about this live Twitter experiment is that Elon has made some great observations about Twitter’s failures: it needs to engender trust, people need to know who is real and who is a bot, the company needs to be financially sustainable, and it can’t operate based on mysterious and unfair algorithms. But then, as with so many other things he criticizes, he offers a solution wide of the mark. Limiting the promoted “For You” feed to those willing to pay for it just turns Twitter into a Home Shopping Network or grocery store circular, not a place for diverse, interesting, and high quality content. It’s payola as a business plan. The fact that it’s out in the open doesn’t make it any less of a problem.
Keep reading more of my thoughts and analysis about the failure of Meta’s metaverse including this observation:
The only technological bet that seems to have survived lockdown-era exuberance is QR codes. They not only made it to the other side, but appear to be growing in usage and popularity at restaurants, on television, even on business cards. My 70-something in-laws know how to use them. Meta’s metaverse, on the other hand, has fallen into digital purgatory.