Elon Musk is the Basil Fawlty of social media

The Twitter owner’s latest public debacle over a sacked worker can only do more damage to the company’s future prosperity

By Editorial Board
March 12, 2023, 5:09 p.m.

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As someone who wishes Twitter didn’t exist, I am obviously an enormous fan of Elon Musk. He seems to be running it like one of those central London pubs that get bought by property developers who then have to prove the business is unviable in order to win planning permission to turn it into flats. I apologise for the length of that simile, but it’s an interesting comparison. Those stealth-saboteur landlords have to keep it plausible. The business must fail by doing the sort of thing an idiot might sincerely believe would succeed. Live music, an open mic night, potato wedges instead of chips, that sort of thing.

Musk’s Twitter approach is very plausible. He tried to back out of taking over the firm, but then there was a court case and he was forced to buy it and it was both intergalactically expensive and losing money at a dazzling rate. Hence he seems desperate to cut costs and ramp up revenue. On the face of it, that’s a solid business strategy. Well, almost – it would be, but for the word “seems”. All businesses, whether they’re losing money or making it, want to cut costs and increase revenue, but they have to be wary of seeming too much that they do – especially if they’re in the leisure sector. Even the property developer’s pub must stop short of advertising that they’re now selling worse beer at a higher cost or that they’ve got rid of most of the kitchen staff so you should expect long waits if you order food.

The key difference between Musk and the property developer is that he doesn’t have anything to gain from his business being driven into the ground. Unless Twitter’s headquarters are built on an undiscovered diamond mine or portal into the afterlife, its only significant asset is its share of online activity – its access to the attention of hundreds of millions of people. That is its equivalent of real estate and, with his every action, Musk puts it in jeopardy.

A good example of this happened on Monday. A man called Haraldur Thorleifsson tweeted Musk saying: “9 days ago the access to my work computer was cut, along with about 200 other Twitter employees. However your head of HR is not able to confirm if I am an employee or not… Maybe if enough people retweet you’ll answer me here?” Well, he did. He asked what work Thorleifsson had been doing and they had a brief exchange on the subject that ended with Musk tweeting two laughing-face emojis. Not in a nice way. Shortly afterwards, Twitter’s HR confirmed to Thorleifsson that he had been fired and Musk went on to slag him off on the platform, saying he “did no actual work”, used a disability as a bogus excuse and was “independently wealthy”. Then he got such hell from the internet he ended up making a garbled backtrack 15 hours later.

What was Musk thinking? He’s hellbent on projecting bitterness and turmoil. He must be very bright and capable – he has done exceptionally well – but he seems unable to shake off his bad mood about how expensive Twitter is proving. He’s like a man who’s gone on holiday and realised he left the heating on at home. Despite being the second richest man in the world, he’s bitterly reflecting that the disabled employee he’s just sacked might have a bit of cash put by. He’s the hotel proprietor lurking by the breakfast buffet and groaning every time a guest helps themselves to another sausage.

Musk’s consternation is, ironically, hugely damaging to Twitter’s chances of future prosperity. He’s running the company like Ryanair instead of Amazon. Some years ago, someone at Ryanair twigged that people didn’t have to feel positively about the airline they were using as long as they knew the prices were low – and in fact a sense of penny-pinching bad-temperedness from the company subliminally made the prices seem lower to potential customers. From then on, every comedian taking the piss out of the comfort of the planes and every news story about threats to charge to go to the loo have contributed to the elision in people’s minds of Ryanair and cheap flights.

But that won’t work with Twitter. There’s no holiday at the end of it, so people have to like it for itself and not feel that it’s the small and struggling concern of the tech billionaire equivalent of Basil Fawlty. It needs to be run with an understanding of where its worth lies, as has always been the case with Amazon. From the start, that terrifying online juggernaut has operated with the clear vision that market share was more important than profit. Sew up the market share and the profit will come. Musk’s approach with Twitter has been to cut both costs and, as last week’s Panorama made clear, standards – and to do so in such a public way as to haemorrhage both market share and customers’ fondness for the company.

The mistake is not so much what he’s doing as the fact that he’s doing it all on the internet, in front of everyone. Why on earth would he opt in to a Twitter conversation with a sacked Twitter employee unless he was immediately going to welcome the guy back into the fold? And why, for that matter, were Matt Hancock and his various colleagues accustomed to discussing key government policy and strategy in such a casual way over WhatsApp? They must have known it wasn’t really private – that their glib interactions would be preserved and made available, at some point, to posterity.

I don’t mind the cynicism, self-interest or petty deviousness of the messages nearly as much as I object to the naivety required to send them. How unlucky for the UK that the emergence of this communication technology should coincide with a generation of politicians too stupid to understand its ramifications. Had social media existed during their ministerial careers, can you actually imagine Margaret Beckett doing that? Or Ken Clarke? Or Geoffrey Howe? Or Barbara Castle? Or Benjamin Disraeli? Or William Pitt? Or Francis Walsingham?

Britain is a far more valuable and important entity than Twitter. How depressing that it’s being run with equivalent incompetence.

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