Commentary: The midlife crises of Twitter and Elon Musk finally meet

A man in a multi-colored tie-dye shirt with a shaved head and six-inch beard speaks into a microphone.
Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, speaks on stage at the Bitcoin 2021 Convention on June 4, 2021, in Miami.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Twitter has gotten old, in most senses of that word, and even its new owner Elon Musk can’t invent a way to turn back the clock.

Founder Jack Dorsey sent his first tweet — “just setting up my twttr” — in March 2006. Since then, the noisy, baffling, reviled, addictive, occasionally government-destabilizing social media service hasn’t really changed all that much. Type a (very) short thought and send it to the world, and people will talk back. A revolutionary concept at the time.

Sixteen years into the experiment, Twitter is a graybeard by internet years and by corporate standards. TikTok is currently the world’s fastest-growing platform. Twitter’s idealistic and oft-criticized founders, including Dorsey, have long exited the premises. The board of directors who replaced them were so eager to offload Twitter at an attractive price that they sued erratic billionaire and super-poster Musk to stop him from backing out of a promise to buy it.

Midlife crises aren’t fun, and lately Twitter has felt unwanted, tortured and introspective, like the narrator in Taylor Swift’s song “Anti-Hero”: “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby / and I’m a monster on the hill / too big to hang out / slowly lurching toward your favorite city.”

The question now is whether Musk, a 51-year-old master of suspended juvenescence, can make Twitter seem fun, essential and welcoming again, especially when much of the platform’s liberal-leaning user base views him with contempt.


At $44 billion, Twitter is extremely expensive as far as vanity projects go — other tech billionaires try to cement their civic legacies by buying newspapers or magazines, which tend to be much cheaper. Early reports say that Musk, now the sole controller of one of the most important pieces of communications infrastructure on Earth, has already started cleaning house and firing top executives after the deal closed Thursday.

Maybe fresh blood in management can change the direction of the service and make it a destination again. But many people who have loved Twitter think that the problem with Twitter has always been Twitter. The trolls. The noise. The dogpiling. The service’s general will-to-combat. As a user, Musk, who was once sued for maligning a critic as a “pedo guy” in a tweet, often embodies the service’s tendency toward the impulsively unpleasant.

One of the initial major questions Musk faces is whether he will carry out a pledge to restore the account of the nation’s former troll-in-chief, Donald Trump, who was banned after electoral violence in January 2021. A mission to Mars, this is not.

Silicon Valley’s declining social media giants have a lot in common with post-Brexit Britain these days — declining global powers with dwindling horizons, racked by leadership turbulence and ever-worsening economic fundamentals. Onetime Harvard dorm wonder Mark Zuckerberg (only 38, but already trying to revive his empire’s glory days) has changed his company’s name from Facebook to Meta and ploughed billions into what looks like an increasingly risky bet on the metaverse.

At least Meta picked a path. At Twitter, before Musk’s acquisition, power users have been drifting away, and dreams of a world of free and borderless communication had been replaced by pleas for fair severance policies amid reports that Musk might terminate as many as 75% of the company’s employees, undoubtedly affecting the company’s services.

For his part, Musk, despite having to be dragged through the chancery court in Delaware to buy the company, issued reassurances that his motivation is to maintain a digital public square for the common good. Or at least, that’s what he’s telling the company’s advertisers. “Twitter aspires to be the most respected advertising platform in the world that strengthens your brand and grows your enterprise,” Musk wrote this week.

But nobody goes to Twitter to look at ads. A lot of people are there because it’s where news happens.


When Trump tweeted himself into the White House in 2016, immune to fact-checking and various pleas for decency, the type of people who have college degrees and tend to run social-media companies found this direction of events troubling. (Along with the unmistakable rise of stuff like a hyper-online fascist movement that was getting more visible by the day.) Democracy advocates were troubled by growing evidence that authoritarian governments had found the porousness of social media a handy way to meddle with other countries’ sovereignty. A lot of people have stopped talking about how “information wants to be free” and started talking about the importance of sensible content moderation policies, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe in 2020, bringing deadly conspiracy theories with it.

Despite the troubles, what was indisputable is that Twitter set the agenda in the Trump years, because news actually broke there. Various underlings and bureaucrats would appear on television to prevaricate or lie about what was actually happening, only to get undercut (or fired) by the big boss in a late-night tweet. One time Trump posted a highly classified satellite image of a disaster at an Iranian rocket launch site, prompting many to ask if he could actually do something like that. Of course he could! He just did. “i feel bad for our country,” Darren Rovell tweeted in the weeks before Trump was elected in 2016. “But this is tremendous content.”

A lot of Twitter users were there because they had to be, and a lot of them weren’t especially happy about it. The company had tried to strike a more civically friendly course in recent years with more interventionist moderation policies, only to upset many conservatives who felt their heroes were being unfairly censored.

If Musk can make all these factions happy, it will be an accomplishment greater than electrifying America’s gas-powered automobiles. But for many users, the party ended a while ago, and one of the benefits of experience is to know when to quit.