The Three Internets of Elon Musk
AND: I have a new podcast out!
November is upon us. The nights are long, and arriving early. Drizzling rain is turned to driving rain. The World Cup is just a few weeks away. And Elon Musk has bought Twitter.
I’m assuming that most people who have subscribed to this newsletter have been following the trials and tribulations of the Musk acquisition, but, in case you haven’t, here’s a potted history (and given that the FT dedicated a full page yesterday to doing this, maybe not everyone is on it):
Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla and SpaceX, likes Twitter. He becomes one of its biggest users and then a minority shareholder, which gets him a seat on the board. He then proceeds to run a poll on whether Twitter is dying, which, given his new position, gets him a reprimand from its CEO Parag Agrawal. In response, he offers to buy the company, at a very good price. His bid is accepted. As the process develops, he appears to get cold feet over the site’s bot management and tries to renege on the deal. I’m not an elite businessman but this is apparently not the done thing – or legal. Twitter prepare to fight him in the courts and force him into the takeover. At a mysterious point in proceedings, when it coincidentally becomes clear that Musk is going to have to buy Twitter, he pivots again. He wants to buy the company, but both sides have plenty of misgivings. Until October 27th when, ahead of a court imposed deadline, he inked the deal. Done, Twitter bought for a cool $44bn ($54.20 a share).
Obviously, Musk is a divisive figure, and the deal has produced much pearl clutching. He immediately fired a host of executives and there has been lots of talk of streamlining Twitter’s workforce. There is also a lot of talk about changing Twitter’s revenue system, and pushing for 50% of income via subscription and other direct payment channels, rather than advertising.
But all of this is just tinkering with a huge, influential but unprofitable business. Changes in hierarchy, lay-offs and refashioning of revenue channels are exactly what you would expect in any takeover. Musk’s habit of leaking and pre-briefing, communicating via Tweet and meme, makes them feel weirder, but none of these measures feel surprising. Twitter is a company in need of a revamp. It has business issues, and it has system issues. Anyone who’s spent $44bn to acquire is would be crazy not to try and do something.
What’s harder to measure, but more important, is the sense that this deal marks a cultural shift at Twitter. There have been a few reported practical measures that wag this dog’s tale. Blue ticks, for example, are rumoured to be moving to a $20-a-month subscription model, a story that has resulted in an avalanche of bad publicity from, um, blue tick journalists. I don’t think the idea as Musk envisages it is currently workable (and he’s already been negotiated down to $8 by Stephen King) but it is telegraphing a particular position. It is a troll, a bait; a confirmation that Musk doesn’t want Twitter to be a hangout for smug hacks. It’s also a provocation intended by Musk to scream one thing: I don’t need good PR.
Trickier will be the attempt to reinstate users banned under the previous regime, most notably @RealDonaldTrump. Already, Musk has ridden back from his earlier, pugnacious recklessness and is convening an ethics committee of differing viewpoints to make these sorts of decisions. While the blue tick stuff feels, to me, like a gimmicky FUCK YOU to journalists who haven’t exactly been supportive of the deal, the Trump stuff is more complicated.
Musk has always struck a difficult balance. Libertarian but cosmopolitan. He’s been married to actresses and pop stars, lived in California, supported various liberal causes. And his big business – selling fancy electric cars – is targeted at a demographic of rich, climate change conscious consumers. A Tesla is not a GMC Jimmy.
But, equally, Musk’s rise has seen him become a symbol of a streak of rebellious individualism that the internet has incubated over the past two decades. He is an icon of sites like Reddit and 4Chan (telling, perhaps, that his joke on purchasing Twitter – carrying an actual sink into the building, to help them “let that sink in” – is a joke from the bowels of Reddit, rather than the social network he was actually buying), where there is a trend towards lawlessness. His rise as a publisher worries content moderation nerds, who are concerned that his preoccupation with “free speech” (a growing preoccupation with otherwise liberal-minded public figures) is about to unleash a wave of hatred and insurrection into Twitter.
All of this strikes me as a confusing culture war front in the battle for the internet. The internet is a lot like high school, where one group has to be perceived as “on top”, even though, in reality, there is a state of necessary equilibrium. Just as the jocks and the nerds, ultimately, get the same teaching, the same grading, the same cafeteria food, the same opportunities to join the cheer squad and the AV club, so too do all the cliques of the internet get the same chances to use the internet, in the end. But that doesn’t stop perpetual jostling to feel like your group is running the show.
As far as I can see, there are essentially Three Internets right now, which perhaps cannot be reconciled.
The Internet of Utility: This is the internet as used by, say, my parents. It is a version of the internet where it becomes a social aid, rather than a society. You can buy stuff online now – great! You can make WhatsApp calls when you don’t have signal – marvelous! You can have a boarding pass downloaded into your Apple wallet – superb! These are all basically ways that the internet increases the efficiencies of long-standing, non-digital, structures. Commerce and communication are the two big uses here. It is, I suspect, quite a healthy way to use the internet – and means you are probably not even aware of the debates raging in its roiling waters.
The Internet of the Aware: Then there are those who are aware of the internet, its sub-cultures, its dangers and controversies. These are probably people who spend a lot of time on “safe” parts of the internet, like Twitter or Instagram, TikTok or BeReal. They read the New York Times or the Washington Post or WIRED and have a sense of what the Internet has become. They use it in an holistic way, but always at arm’s length. Often they are the most obsessed with the internet, using that degree of abstraction to cast an anthropologists eye over the web. By and large, these people have non-internet jobs, therefore allowing them to broadly control the capitalist system and therefore, for now, control the internet.
The Internet of the Damned: Welcome to the bowels of hell. This is an internet for people who communicate only in the language of the internet, through meme, obscure reference and the arcana of bygone media. These are people who communicate predominantly anonymously or through private channels, who use the internet more as a communications system than a broadcast one. Don’t get me wrong: these are not people on the Dark Web, buying hand grenades, heroin and illegal pornography. These are just normal people, using acceptable (enough) parts of the internet, in a way that soaks them in its malevolent gloop until they are like Kurtz, bathing in the dark waters of the Mekong.
I’m being glib, obviously. But what’s clear to me is that there is an increasing mainstream shift from the Internet of the Aware to the Internet of the Damned. This is perhaps just the logical conclusion of more and more digital natives being in positions of power and influence. But perhaps it’s also a cultural change expedited by the covid-19 virus: more people shut away from reality, forging their own society in the back waters of the internet.
For now, my feeling is that much of the discourse surrounding Musk’s acquisition of Twitter amounts to little more than scare-mongering. He is a curious figure, slippery. Even after decades in the glare of public scrutiny, many writers about politics, technology, finance, cars, space travel, whatever, don’t know how to pin him down. And spending $44bn on buying Twitter feels like a joke. A very expensive joke. A joke played against society.
But what if it’s not a joke? What if it’s just a rich dude, who’s had his finger in many of the major pies of modern technological development, wanting to buy a massive (and massively influential) platform? He is, after all, not spending $44bn on GameStop shares. What if it’s just a gamble on being able to turn Twitter into a site that can arrest the momentum of TikTok? When Zuckerberg bought Instagram, a lot of people felt that was a wild purchases – it looks like pocket change now. Maybe Musk is just diversifying his business, or buying a PR arm for his eventual conquest of space’s frontiers?
The jury’s out – or it should be. To keep going with the metaphors: the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. One CEO firing does not a crisis make. Etc. Let’s check back in on this in a few months…
Full transparency: I have a podcast to promote.
It’s called Other Edens and it’s a journey through the dark, mysterious and strange corners of Britain. From hauntings to ancient rituals, religious movements to military interventions, it will cover this ground with a sense of historical wonder. I hope you enjoy it. You can listen to the first episode, on Pluckley, England’s most haunted village, below.
Now, to the podcasting nitty-gritty.
This show, Other Edens, is re-using a feed on which I’ve previously published two limited-series documentaries: The Town That Didn’t Stare and The Town That Knew Too Much. I published them in the summers of 2020 and 2021 respectively, and collectively they have acquired multiple hundreds of thousands of listens (which I think puts them in the “good, not great” category of podcast listenership; perhaps “great” by indie standards).
All the same, in spite of a strong audience and a very positive critical reception (reviewed in the FT, The Times, Observer, Guardian, Esquire, Mail on Sunday…etc), I was never able to make any money from them. The problem was simple: by the time that I had the data that advertisers would be interested in, the show was over. By the time my episodes were hitting 10,000 listeners, I was no longer publishing new content.
Podcasting has a real problem with knowing how to value back catalogues and archive material. It’s especially frustrating for documentary shows which are not bound to the present moment — everything that I’ve made over the past few years could be listened to today or it could be listened to in five years time. It would make no difference. But the reality is that, after the week of publication, advertiser interest nose-dives. Programmatic ads and dynamic insertion have mitigated this — but the value of those ads is pitiful. For lucrative host-read adverts, I simply wasn’t producing enough content.
When I thought about doing a new documentary show, my instinct was to replicate the format that I had previously used. Six or seven episodes looking at a single story. It is, after all, a format that works for big companies like Wondery or Serial. But it doesn’t work for independents or small publishers. In conversations with major platforms and advertising agents, I was told, over and over, the simple truth: it’s too hard for us to sell your product.
They wanted data from six episodes before they could start pitching the show directly to advertisers. By that point, I’d be done. And the idea of fronting any cash wasn’t entertained: I would’ve gladly signed away all advertising rights for the first 20 episodes in exchange for £10,000 up-front to help make the show. But that’s not the business model.
And, unfortunately, the business model right now is massively in favour of the “always-on” podcast. It’s why so many notionally “documentary” podcasts aren’t really that. Just look at American Scandal or its UK counterpart, British Scandal. These are shows that position themselves as documentaries, but are really just playing a cynical quantities game. British Scandal launched in May 2021: it is now on its 19th season, having published 80 episodes. There is just no way you can make a serious documentary podcast at that level of output. Which is why many people who want to make detailed, researched, multi-layered podcasts, start following back on simpler techniques: interspersing their documentary episodes with simpler interviews or monologues.
I am going to employ all these tactics with Other Edens. The heart of the show will be documentary episodes, of course. But there will also be interviews and essays. I’ll try and be playful with the format, whatever I do, but it’s clear to me that in order for the product to be financially viable, I need to increase my output significantly. More episodes = more income.
And if the product is not financially viable, it either cannot be good or it cannot be made. The shows I’ve made before have been loss-leaders; shop-window offerings for my production company, Podot. But I do not have infinite pools of cash, nor infinite creative bandwidth. I would love to make fun, interesting documentary podcasts as a key part of my business, but in order for that to one day be the case, I have to make certain creative sacrifices. And the first sacrifice is the autonomy of the “season”.
I hope that in the future there might be a way of funding editorially independent documentary podcasts, and finding them a home with advertisers. I still have documentary projects on my slate, that I’m exec producing rather than hosting, that will need to find a financial home in the coming months. Right now the market feels unfriendly towards this format. The rawness of the numbers game (if I’m told again that I “need to be getting 40,000 listens before we can talk about advertising” I’ll scream) is not the fault of those providers. In a world where digital advertising has been tanking for a decade, it’s no surprise that they want to sell at bulk. But there is still a place for bespoke deals, for a more tailored experience. Here in the UK, the boutique agencies seem to offer the same CPMs as the big tech firms. How can that be right?
The real loser in all this is the listener, who is probably best served by a sleek 6-episode series telling a story in depth and detail, rather than dragging it out indefinitely, or hopping all over the place. The move towards a subscription model — just look at Elon Musk’s directives on Day 1 at Twitter — will become ever fiercer. But subscription models penalise short-form creators even more aggressively than advertising! In order to get someone to pay £5 a month to access my podcast, I first have to get them hooked. With a limited series, by the time they’re on the line, the show is done. They wriggle free.
So, two cool things you can do right now: listen to my show and share it with your friends. And secondly, if you’re working in this space, start thinking up creative ideas to save the documentary podcast! The documentary podcast is the reason why the industry has matured as aggressively as it has to date. To let it wither on the vine would be an insult to our podcasting forebears…
I’m moving house at the end of this week, and all my stuff is in boxes, and my study area in total disarray. So I’m writing this from a local cafe – CAYA on Coldharbour Lane – where I’m trying to cram a few hours of work in, before getting back to the nostalgia-inducing destruction of 5-years worth of Brixton memories.
As such: no Italian phrasebook this week. Mi dispiace.