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Elon Musk and the Sad Mod Theory of Social-Media CEOs

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What does it mean to run a big social-media company? Obviously, lots of your concerns are typical major-corporation stuff. You’ve got decisions to make about staffing. You’ve got lots of meetings with lawyers. You’ve got investors or shareholders or debtors to think about. You’ve got financial obligations and goals. You’re trying to make some numbers go up or at least stop going down.

Some of what you do, however, is specific to your situation. Founding a social-media firm is one thing. That’s the part people make movies about — when the idea comes to fruition, when the insight about the market or human nature is borne out, when the magic happens, etc. Once it’s established, though, your company, which is now an entrenched “platform,” probably makes most of its money in a strange and indirect way by selling the attention of users, of which there are hundreds of millions, to advertisers. Or maybe you try to charge some of your users for access to extra features or to promote their content. In any case, your company’s value is tied fairly directly to the whims of a bunch of diverse slices of the general public, whose interest in your platform derives less from anything you do than from things they do for one another.

Overall, this is a pretty good deal as far as social-media companies are concerned. You provide a venue, your users provide free labor and attention, and advertisers pay you to get a piece of the action. Charitably, from the outside, they’re providing something like communications infrastructure. Squint and it looks a little bit like landlordism. Consume enough hustle-culture content on TikTok and it looks like the most spectacular passive-income scheme of all time.

From the top, things look different. Around you is an office full of employees keeping things running, courting advertisers, and dealing with various immediate problems. Below you, though, and keeping you aloft, are the inscrutable behaviors, desires, and needs of hundreds of millions of users who are primarily concerned not with your company or its products but with one another. They do not want to be led. For the most part, they don’t want anything from you at all. They want to be left alone! They want you, the human embodiment of a set of tools they’re using to interact with one another, to get out of the way. They are intensely set in their ways, in part because that’s how people are but also because your platform has spent years cultivating, encouraging, and capturing their habits and routines. They notice when they’re being nudged. They’re aware that they’re being monetized. And they can tell when platform operators adjust the dials to inject more advertising or recommend more content. Whether or not your users embrace new features in practice, by using them — a content format ripped off from another social network, for example — their initial feedback is almost always negative. Among other things, your product is a system for collecting feedback at scale for free. Of course your users have complaints.

A mature social-media platform is, in other words, pretty hostile to its leaders, in particular to any CEO who wants to make big bold changes. You may technically run the place, but most of your users just see you as a glorified mod, and nobody likes mods. You’re not running an insurgent start-up. You’re not even running a conventional company. You’re overseeing a system and administering a marketplace. It’s a position suited for optimizers, rent seekers, and peacemakers. It’s not a launchpad because the firm has already achieved escape velocity and your magical network effect has been thrown into reverse, trapping people on your platform rather than enticing them to join. Social-media turnaround stories are rare, but they’re also boring and fleeting.

This is, again, an obviously desirable and lucrative state of affairs for the people in charge. It’s also brutally incompatible with the notion that any one leader can matter very much, at least in a good way. In the corporate theology of Silicon Valley, the social-media founder is a blessed figure, while the social-media executive — who might have been a founder to start with — is cursed.

The question of what it actually means to take charge of a social platform has haunted Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter from the start. New York Magazine’s report this week from inside Musk’s “hardcore” Twitter, published in collaboration with The Verge, emphasizes the problem. Musk has near-complete control over Twitter’s staff, and he has been exercising it through mass firings, micromanaging, and chaotic directives that must be followed. Musk’s changes to and plans for the platform itself are a different story:

He was building Twitter 2.0, he said, and workers would need to be “extremely hardcore,” logging “long hours at high intensity.” The old way of doing business was out. Now, “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.” He asked employees to sign a pledge through Google Forms committing to the new standard by the end of the next workday.

But who wanted that? Employees were still waiting to be given a coherent vision for what Twitter 2.0 could be. They lacked basic information about the new company, like how they would be compensated now that Twitter was no longer a public company with easily sellable stock. Employees knew what Musk didn’t want — content moderation, free gourmet lunches, people working from home — but had few clues as to what he did want.

The tales of internal chaos combined with Musk’s own hypervisible and constantly trollish behavior on Twitter itself have helped to create a sense that the service itself is changing rapidly. A look back at Musk’s first few months in charge, however, suggests a leader struggling with a strange and confusing sort of impotence and taking it out on the people over which he has actual control.

Musk is boldly and brashly leading Twitter … where, exactly? His supposedly radical changes have so far amounted to fiddling at the margins. Twitter Blue, heralded as a fundamental change to the platform’s business model, can be understood as a price increase on a previous feature with a free blue badge thrown in; thus far, in any case, it has been a bust. Musk’s “free speech” crusade, which has welcomed some vile figures back to Twitter, will have consequences, but these are ad hoc and largely rear-looking moderation decisions. The Twitter Files, a broadly frustrating but frequently interesting experiment in giving access to internal Twitter documents to a selection of journalists, activists, and people who have tweeted nice things about Musk, is a passive, arm’s-length exercise — less a formal commission to understand Twitter’s past than a series of chances for Musk to reply “seems bad” to packaged disclosures without committing to any particular course of action. Meanwhile, by far the most visible day-to-day change to the platform for most users has been an increase in algorithmically recommended content mixed into their feeds — the Meta playbook from a decade ago. As a member of Musk’s new right-wing reply-guy army might put it, he’s acting a little cucked.

Musk’s hyperconfident performance at Twitter, as outlined in the report, is increasingly at odds with his statements on Twitter, where he has recently resorted to suggesting that the service is so technically complicated it nearly defies comprehension.

He’s talking about technology here but may as well be talking about the overgrown, barely contained social experiment on which the value of his purchase depends. As a giant mass of overlapping social dynamics, yes, Twitter is a Rube Goldberg machine, specifically both in the sense that if you mess with it much, it will obviously not work, and in the sense that the idea of revolutionizing it or making it more efficient in obvious ways — simply replacing advertisers with subscriptions, simply squeezing the orange into a cup with your hand — misunderstands the bit and what makes the spectacle compelling in the first place.

Musk isn’t the only victim of the social-media-executive curse, just the latest and most surprised. It afflicts former founders like Mark Zuckerberg, who, after years of refining and growth hacking his core product in all-but-inevitable ways while publishing an occasional lofty blog post about connecting the world, recently attempted a jailbreak into the metaverse. It afflicts Adam Mosseri, who, while technically in charge of Instagram, has clearly been tasked with managing its similarly all-but-inevitable decline in the most profitable way possible. It afflicts Susan Wojcicki, whose job at the top of the world’s dominant longform-video platform is to maintain the delicate but profitable détente between YouTube’s advertisers and paid creators as well as between the creators and YouTube itself. The curse hasn’t been broken by Shou Zi Chew, whose job at this point is to make sure TikTok doesn’t get banned before it can properly monetize its U.S. customers. And it basically paralyzed Jack Dorsey.

These are not sympathetic figures tasked with thankless jobs. They’re extremely well compensated founders and mercenaries dealing with the particular challenges of running companies that can at times resemble bureaucratic administrations struggling to serve constituents without alienating their donors. The point is there’s no glory here, which for a certain type of executive plainly matters. Running an established social-media company isn’t energizing; it precludes you from being inspiring. It’s how reputations are destroyed, not made. If you run a car company, maybe you aim to be the next Henry Ford or at least the next Lee Iacocca. You make decisions, your company achieves goals, and then customers respond. If you run an e-commerce company, maybe you get to be the next Sam Walton. The social-media executive, however, has missed the party — the upside potential has been realized, and it’s a long, slow ride down.

Elon Musk and the Sad Mod Theory of Social-Media CEOs