on with kara swisher

Why Elon Musk’s Twitter Is Like Yahoo Mail

Kara Swisher and Nayeema Raza talk to Zoë Schiffer and Ryan Mac about Twitter’s growing irrelevance.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

Since buying Twitter for the inflated price of $44 billion, Elon Musk has slowly but surely made the place worse in just about every single way. Tech glitches abound after he laid off the vast majority of workers, newly verified Musk fanboy users swarm replies with trollish nonsense, and the CEO himself fans outrage almost daily with outlandish conspiracy theories. Is Twitter dying or just becoming less usable and relevant? In the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher, Kara and her producer Nayeema Raza try to answer this question with Platformer’s Zoë Schiffer and the New York Times’ Ryan Mac — who theorizes that in the future, Twitter will “still be around in the way that Yahoo Mail is still around.”

On With Kara Swisher

Journalist Kara Swisher brings the news and newsmakers to you twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

Nayeema Raza: Elon has said that he has certain principles: free speech, openness to debate, equity. But if you look at his actions from blocking content in India, blocking a BBC documentary in India, blocking content in Turkey, suppressing Substack links or suspending journalists like Ryan Mac back in December, there doesn’t seem to be any principle that explains the system, I don’t think. Though, Ryan, you’ve been in the front lines, do you see a principle?

Ryan Mac: Well, I mean there are policies that are made within minutes or hours after these things happen. Yeah, not speaking too much about my own incident, but yeah, it’s blocking Taylor Lorenz, for example, for supposedly sharing outside links to Facebook, Instagram, her other account, Substack, that kind of thing. These things seem to be made in posts very quickly and without rhyme or reason. Again, whatever he kind of thinks up that day is going to be a new policy and it is pretty telling. I don’t think there is any free-speech basis to this. He seems to just act on a whim whenever something is not going his way. Yeah, that was a weird experience.

Nayeema Raza: Does anyone else want to comment on Ryan’s because he doesn’t want to comment on his own situation?

Zoë Schiffer: I mean, I think that that was a moment where the hypocrisy was first really, really revealed. I specifically remember Ryan being blocked or banned in December as like, oh, okay. All of the other reasons we think that he has bought Twitter. I feel like a lot of what we see Musk saying publicly is an example of him operating with incomplete information. Sometimes he’ll come out and have these explanations for why Twitter’s slower in certain countries or a specific policy or something that happened in the past. You’ll see a whole bunch of Twitter employees immediately be like, “That’s not real. That’s not what actually happened. That’s not how it works.”

I think it’s not in my mind that Elon is coming out and purposefully lying necessarily. It’s that he is getting bad information from the people around him and he has created a situation internally where no one wants to tell him the truth. I’ve heard people say, again and again, when Elon asks you a question, what goes through your mind is not what is the right answer, but what is the least fireable answer? You see people giving him these answers and then he’s coming out in front saying like, “Oh, this is the situation.” I think from the outside you’re like, “Oh, wow, he doesn’t seemingly know what he’s talking about.”

Kara Swisher: See, I think he’s being disingenuous a lot of the time. You noticed that last night in the CNBC thing with the guy in Allen, Texas. David Faber from CNBC asked about the situation in Allen, Texas, these shootings, and he kept insisting this guy, with no proof whatsoever, was not a white supremacist when even the Texas government is saying that. You know what I mean? I feel like if you’re wearing a swastika tattoo, you’re pretty far along in the white-supremacist group.

He keeps saying things and part of me feels like, Is he just lying or does he actually believe it? I think he certainly has moved in the, he has sort of — I don’t want to use the term red pill because it’s so overused — but he definitely seemed to believe it, what he was saying and it reminds you of your druncle at Thanksgiving. You’re druncle from some place where you’re like, “That’s not true. That’s not true.”

Ryan Mac: Well, if you take a look at his Twitter diet, accounts he follows, the accounts he engages with, I mean it’s many of these accounts that are promoting this kind of conspiracy stuff. I mean it’s interesting to watch his brain kind of morph over time as he follows these accounts. I mean, going back to the idea of operating in complete information, I mean going back and looking at the Substack issue. He saw a tweet from Substack saying we’re going to launch this new product and he worked himself into a frenzy saying they’re a competitor now and we’re going to do everything to block them. It’s stuff he sees on Twitter.

Nayeema Raza: This is the thing. Just to wrap the Arab Spring of it all. Back then, in the Arab Spring, Twitter had two things. For a long time it has relevance and reliability. When Trump came in, it had maybe even more relevance because it became the president’s primary platform for communicating in a lot of ways. I’m curious right now what you guys think. Give it a grade on relevance and then on reliability. Zoe, why don’t you go first?

Zoë Schiffer: I mean, I think both of those, you would have to say have degraded. I know people like to talk about: Oh well, Twitter’s still operating. It’s still up even though it slashed three-quarters of the engineers. There’s no question that during moments of peak traffic, the site is glitchier and buggier than it used to be. I think people are tracking that and we have data now to kind of prove it.

I also think there are more prominent people and organizations that are defecting to other platforms and so to your point with relevance, it is important when you see organizations like NPR and Twitter power users going to Bluesky and not posting on Twitter at all.

Nayeema Raza: There’s like, there’s a kind of blue-tick jungle. The “For You” algorithm sucks. All you see is Elon. I mean there’s a lot of problems with the product overall. I don’t know, Kara, I know you’ll give it a grade. Give it a grade on relevance and reliability.

Kara Swisher: I don’t use it as much because I only use it to tease Elon really, pretty much. Now I’m not even marketing our stuff on it because what’s the point? What happens is I’ve had to turn off comments because if I don’t, the name-calling and the crazy people are just quantumly. You don’t want to deal with it. It’s like having a bunch of people who you don’t like screaming outside your house and it’s not necessary, that’s happened. There’s also a jump in porn. Friends of mine have sent me all kinds of porn, which is just grotesque. That never happened on Twitter.

Nayeema Raza: What kind of friend?

Kara Swisher: Lots of them. Lots of women. They want to say, “What is going on here?” They’re not even, but if you leave comments on, that’s what happens. Then of course—

Nayeema Raza: Give it a grade, Kara.

Kara Swisher: A D. It’s like when my son got a D in math, he goes, at least it’s not an F. I’m like, it is an F, Louie. It’s an F. It’s an F, but it’s a D. It’s working and it’s going but it’s certainly, really, and for relevance, Zoë is exactly right. People are moving. The whole social-media ecosystem is exploding in a weird and interesting way where people are going elsewhere.

Nayeema Raza: Ryan, you agree? Reliability, relevance.

Ryan Mac: I’d agree with that. I mean relevance, I mean I don’t want to extrapolate too much of my own use of it, but I’m spending less time on it. I’m using things like Bluesky more. Looking at the experience now, the recommended feed, especially for recommended follows, I was getting Andrew Tate the other day. I don’t know what I’m engaging with that is…

Kara Swisher: Musk, everybody gets Musk.

Ryan Mac: Yeah, I actually took a screenshot the other day where on his page where it says the people you should also follow is Andrew Tate and Roger Stone and it’s not the stuff I necessarily want to see.

Kara Swisher: Can I make one other point? The ads are really bad. The ads are, they feel like late-night cable at 2:00 a.m.

Zoë Schiffer: If you look at Twitter’s Slack, you see people continually … Elon will screenshot an ad that he sees and say, why am I seeing this? Then you see these whole conversations. This has been happening for months where people are like, “Why is Elon seeing this? We have to tweak the algorithm this way because the ads are showing up like this.” He says again and again, “Use me as the example. I’m the user telling you something is wrong,” but when you optimize for one person and one person who has an incredibly unique experience because he’s the most followed person on the site, you’re going to get a totally wacky experience for everyone else.

Nayeema Raza: This is the crazy thing about the Twitter Files reporting. The fact that, one, compliance is up under Elon, not down, but also that censorship isn’t just about government requests, it’s also about how you shape the feed, how you shape the content. This is hardly a neutral town square with Elon in charge.

Ryan Mac: I love screenshotting these horrible ads and just sharing them. I think it’s like this hobby—

Nayeema Raza: Yeah, what’s the best ad?

Ryan Mac: Yesterday, one of my friends sent me an ad for a duck door, which is a door for your pet duck. It just had, which is kind of a cute video. You had the duck walking in and out of the door and I was like, “Oh, why did you get this? What were you looking at? Who’s advertising this?”

Kara Swisher: It’s because there’s no advertising left.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Megan Burney, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Why Elon Musk’s Twitter Is Like Yahoo Mail