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Maybe Elon Musk Isn’t a Universal Super-Genius?

(Credit: René Ramos; Getty Images/Taylor Hill)

Being good at a few things doesn’t mean you’re the best at everything, even if you’re one of the richest men on Earth and the new owner of Twitter.

By Will Greenwald

Hi, I’m Will Greenwald. You may know me as @AggroWill on Twitter. It’s largely my own sounding board for gaming jokes and politics, but I have a blue checkmark because I’m a tech journalist for the widely recognized publication you’re reading right now. But I’ll have that checkmark only until Twitter rolls out its revamped Twitter Blue subscription service, when it will cost at least $8 per month to retain a verified blue checkmark.

That’s because, unlike Elon Musk, I understand the intended purpose of Twitter verification. It’s not a symbol of social or economic cachet, though it’s developed that reputation. It’s proof that Twitter has confirmed that you are who you say you are, which is particularly important for anyone who widely interacts with the public in some way, like a famous person or a journalist.

Verification is for people who are recognized enough that it would be especially bad if someone started impersonating them on social media. It’s nothing more than proof that @AggroWill is Will Greenwald, consumer electronics analyst and home entertainment editor at iandroid.eu.com.

The Checks and the Dunks

The latest ridiculous chapter in the saga of Elon Musk wanting to buy, then not wanting to buy, then possibly being forced to buy, then buying Twitter is his complete refusal to understand the purpose of blue checkmarks in the first place. After national treasure Stephen King dunked on him for a proposed $20-per-month subscription fee, Musk said the fee would help Twitter “pay the bills”—before suggesting a lower, $8-per-month rate.

Then, when the dunks continued, Musk said he got the idea from Monty Python.

So either Musk didn’t know the reason behind the blue checks, or he pushed ahead with a random idea without thinking it through. He’s basically saying that he’s basing management decisions for a company that cost him $44 billion around comedy sketches and mockery from literary legends.

Why His Idea Is Bad

The user verification aspect of the check is the entire point of it. Turning it into a subscription dilutes that purpose. Even if it still requires user verification, the impression that anyone with a blue check got it by paying up cheapens the authenticity angle.

What makes it even stupider is someone who paid $44 billion for something needing to shake down long-time, active users to “pay the bills.” I’ve seen varying numbers on this, but the number of verified users on Twitter seems to be somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000. At the $20 rate, that’s between $6 million and $10 million per month or up to $120 million per year ($3 million monthly and $38 million annually at $8).

For most of us, that’s nothing to sneeze at. For Musk and Twitter as a whole, though, it’s a pittance. The highball annual revenue, $120 million, is about 0.3% of what Musk paid for the company. More important, the $8 monthly number ($38 million) is 0.8% of Twitter’s advertising revenue alone in 2022 ($4.5 billion), according to its 2022 annual report ( PDF).

You don’t “pay the bills” by squeezing top users for less than 1% of what you’re making in ads, while diluting the actual value of a notable feature in the process.

This is what we’re working with right now. (Credit: Elon Musk Twitter)

Either Musk doesn’t actually have any ideas about what to do with Twitter now that he owns it, or he does, and they just happen to be terrible ideas (beyond any issues with content moderation, which is a completely different argument). He chased Twitter for a while, he was almost scared away once he started looking at numbers, then he bought it—and now he doesn’t actually know what to do with it. The dog caught the car.

Let’s Brainstorm Blue Checks

If he’s really interested in improving Twitter, and I’m going to steer clear of the moderation debate for now, I have a few suggestions.

Keep the blue checkmarks as they are, as confirmation that users have been verified by Twitter as being who they say they are. Then open up verification to any user willing to put their name or brand (band/musician name, game studio, media outlet) out in the open. No need to put your legal name on that brand, just have Twitter confirm that name and your relation to it.

For large companies and major media outlets, establish contact with them and confirm that any verified user that claims to represent that company or outlet is on staff and is authorized to do so. Maybe spin off the checks into a few colors to denote individual user, indie-level (small company) brand, major corporate brand, major media outlet, government representative, and so on.

If you really, really want to wring some money out of the stone of verification, forget about the actual “verification” angle and come up with some highlight or border verified users can subscribe to. Have different price tiers so individuals can do it as a whim, celebrities can pay five digits for something that flashes or something dumb like that, and large brands can purchase entire packages for their employees.

I don’t know how good these ideas are, but it’s a more coherent plan with more details than Musk has tweeted out.

Why Do You Like This Guy?

For Musk fans who have actually read to this point, it’s nice to talk to you outside of Twitter replies. You probably view him and his management style as one of two things. He’s either a galaxy-brain super-genius who’s working so many moves ahead as one of the richest and therefore smartest men on Earth that this will eventually be shown as a stroke of mastery in shaping Twitter into something better. Or you might say, “lol, based.”

If you’re the former, you should be aware of the fallacy of appeal to authority. Just because someone has accomplished a lot in one or two fields doesn’t mean they are an expert in every field. Also, wealth and status don’t mean intelligence. If you don’t believe me, step back for a second and think about your boss, or your boss’s boss, or the heads of the company you work for.

If you’re the latter, all I can really tell you is that nihilism isn’t a replacement for a personality. Saying someone is “based” about anything that remotely affects other people besides you is a dull justification for approving of behavior you know is bad or stupid.

Either way, you should be terrified that one person can unilaterally make sweeping changes to a service that hundreds of millions of people use every day, on a whim. Go ahead, admit you’re envious of his power to do so, but you shouldn’t be okay with it.

Remember the Submarine?

This isn’t the first time Musk has made himself look like an arrogant, jokey ass on Twitter. (And I’m not talking about his retweeting a conspiracy theory about the attack on Paul Pelosi.)

In 2022, a group of children in Thailand got trapped in a flooded cave. While rescuers worked to get them out, Musk got gung-ho on building a mini submarine to help with the rescue. When he delivered it to Thailand, eight of the 12 kids had already been rescued and the government said, “Thanks, but we’re good. We have this covered.” He was at least given honors for trying.

The trouble started when one of the divers who was advising the rescue effort, Vernon Unsworth, said Musk’s plan wouldn’t have worked, the cave wasn’t suited for a miniature sub, and that ultimately the effort was a PR move. Musk responded by calling him a pedophile.

Musk apologized, then called him a pedophile again, then Unsworth sued him for defamation. Musk apologized in court, and then Unsworth lost the suit (defamation standards are pretty specific and difficult to clear in the United States). But it all boils down to this: Elon Musk responded to admittedly harsh criticism by calling his critic a pedophile. And he couldn’t let it go.

This isn’t the behavior of a super-genius who makes the wisest spot decisions, or who can turn back from poor decisions when he realizes he’s making them.

Respect Over Worship

Incidentally, about the super-genius, master-of-technology-and-business thing, could we clear up a few details? Elon Musk did not found Tesla or PayPal. He joined those companies after mergers and investments. He also did not invent electric cars or rockets, but that should be obvious.

This doesn’t mean Musk isn’t capable. He’s become one of the richest men on Earth through intelligent investing and networking, and figuring out when and where to put his focus and money. He has founded and co-founded companies, and they’ve become very valuable. He also helped guide Tesla into what it is today. For that matter, he’s technically capable, particularly in the fields of aerospace and battery technology, and knows how to get a lot out of the scientists and engineers who work under him.

None of that means Elon Musk is a particularly mature or wise person. He’s just very, very rich, and very smart in a few specific ways. It doesn’t mean he had any plan on what to do with Twitter besides thinking it would be great “for the lulz,” or based on some very reductive, surface impressions on the nature of free speech. That follows in everything he has done since he first started saying he was going to buy Twitter.

What we’re seeing happen with Elon Musk as the head of Twitter isn’t any kind of genius, and it doesn’t look like any kind of plan. It looks like a series of half-formed brainfarts from a man who has succeeded to historical extremes in a few very specific ways and now thinks everything he touches will turn to gold, and that as long as he doesn’t seem to take it very seriously, he can’t be called out on any possible mistakes he makes.

Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.