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Elon Musk and the Fall of Twitter
Issue #288: "The Founders" by Jimmy Soni & "Hatching Twitter" by Nick Bilton
I was genuinely shocked when news dropped last weekend that Elon Musk would be rebranding Twitter as “X” and move towards making it an “everything” app. I knew that Musk had a fondness for the “X” brand — going back to his PayPal days — but to crush one of the internet’s most well-known and important brands in service of a narcissistic pipe dream is a level of capitalist inanity we rarely see in such a public manner.
Musk owns the company (which was formally renamed X Corp after he bought it), so it’s within his rights to do all this, but it reeks of entitlement and even delusion.
Beyond that initial WTF level of surprise, I’m just sad for the internet. Twitter was such an energetic, vibrant community — one that I enjoyed being an active member of for over a decade. (I deleted my account shortly before Musk bought it.) There’s no doubt that Threads’ early success — find me at jeremyanderberg — is simply because the Very Online are desperate to recover Twitter’s golden era. Between 2008 and 20201, there was no place like it for following breaking news, connecting with all strata of humans, or just wasting time and doomscrolling.
At a larger level, I think we’re all realizing that the internet as a whole is a lot less fun than it used to be. While there are certainly pockets of good, it’s largely turned into a mean-spirited place filled with garbage content that’s either designed to get on the first page of Google or to sell us something.
And as Musk has clearly shown us, it’s only going to get worse with the billionaires at the helm.
So today’s newsletter is right from this week’s headlines: I’m republishing an updated review of The Founders, which I first read about a year ago, as well as reviewing Nick Bilton’s 2013 telling of Twitter’s origin story, Hatching Twitter.
Let’s get to it. And if you have a Threads account, let me know your username so I can follow you!
Published: 2022 | Pages: 423 | Genre: Non-Fiction (Biz/Tech)
Of the numerous Silicon Valley stories I’ve read, PayPal initially seemed to be the least dramatic of the bunch. WeWork, Uber, Facebook, Twitter — those places were shitshows almost from the word go.
In Jimmy Soni’s book, I learned that PayPal was indeed a bit tamer, but no less interesting on a psychological and interpersonal level.
Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman (who went on to create LinkedIn), Max Levchin — the names are iconic within Silicon Valley and those first two are famous outside the valley, too.
It started with quite an ambitious dream: revolutionize the financial industry and create one internet destination for your banking, investments, retirement, etc. It was to be called X.com. (Rings a bell, doesn’t it?)
Everyone not named “Elon” realized that was an awful, porn-adjacent brand name and Musk was eventually pushed out. Instead, it was an afterthought feature — the ability to pay someone with just an email address — that shaped the company and brought easy payments online forever.
In light of Elon Musk’s takeover and re-branding of Twitter, Soni’s coverage of Musk’s obsession with “X” as a brand is even more enlightening.
Though this book is suited for more of a niche audience than other Silicon Valley bad-boy stories like Billion Dollar Loser and Super Pumped, The Founders is foundational reading for anyone interested in the history of the internet and Silicon Valley. As a relevant cherry on top, it also provides valuable insight into the increasingly disturbing psyche of Elon Musk.
Published: 2013 | Pages: 299 | Genre: Non-Fiction (Biz/Tech)
Though I’ve read most of the Silicon Valley origin stories that are available on bookshelves, this one had eluded me for an entire decade. I remedied that this week by grabbing the audiobook as soon as I heard that Elon was doing away with the Twitter brand.
With four co-founders, there was no way for the Twitter story to be uncomplicated. What’s amazing is how quickly those relationships soured. Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Ev Williams came from wildly different backgrounds, and yet came together to build the internet’s town square in a matter of weeks — almost by accident.
As with many successful apps, Twttr, as it was first called, came out of a 2006 “hackathon” at the podcasting company started by Glass and Williams. It was mostly a texting service at the time, but quickly grew into a messaging and micro-blogging powerhouse.
In cinematic fashion,2 Nick Bilton gives us the inside scoop on how those relationships fell apart, almost from the moment Twttr launched. The power struggles, the conflicting visions, the thirst for recognition — the dynamic prose made it feel like I was in the room to witness these scenes.
And although the service itself grew by leaps and bounds, leadership could never figure out how to make money from it — the very problem that Elon Musk encountered right away.
Bilton is as good a storyteller as they come and I was always eager to put my headphones back in to pick up the story. For a heavy dose of blue bird nostalgia, Hatching Twitter is a great read or listen.
Thanks for reading! I deeply appreciate your time and inbox space.
Most people would end this era earlier than I do here; I think it ended for good on January 6, 2021.
Seriously, this story would make for a great HBO drama.