Today’s episode is a wide-ranging one, from breaking news in tech to the philosophy of social media. The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel joins to discuss Elon Musk’s bizarre and crude comments at the New York Times DealBook Summit, the corporate meltdown of X, whether its demise would make the world better off, the fragmentation of the social media landscape, and its implications for audiences and news-makers everywhere.
If you have questions, observations, or ideas for future episodes, email us at PlainEnglish@Spotify.com.
In the following excerpt, Charlie Warzel talks to Derek about what led him to (correctly) predict that Twitter would not succeed under Elon Musk.
Derek Thompson: So I wanted to talk to you about Elon Musk and X. I hope we do spend the bulk of this conversation talking about the moment in social media beyond Musk and X. But let me first start by acknowledging your wisdom and my stupidity, because when Elon Musk first bought Twitter, you came on the show, and we talked about the future of Twitter under a Musk regime. And I said, “Look, hey, no one knows how this is going to turn out. I think it could turn out fine. At least we have a user of the platform running the platform: a user who, by the way, has very successfully led several world-historic businesses. He could add features and value that could make my experience on Twitter better.”
And you said, “Eh, no. No, I don’t think this is going to work out. I think it’s going to be a disaster.” And at least, I should say for all the Musk fans out there, from a business standpoint, a disaster is exactly what it has been. I think it’s pretty interesting that I tried to analyze Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter from a business perspective, but by analyzing it from a personal perspective, you actually correctly predicted the business outcome. Let me give you the stage here to gloat if you wish, but also to answer my specific question, which is: Why do you think you got this right?
Charlie Warzel: Well, thank you. That’s very, very ... always nice to have the ego fluffed a little there. So there’s a very specific reason why I went with what I went with back in ... I don’t even remember when that was, but 18 months ago. And it was specifically right at this moment when Elon was flirting with joining the board of Twitter. He had just purchased an ownership stake but not the full purchasing [of] the company. ... We were all on pins and needles about what was going to happen. And he went to the TED conference in Vancouver, and he talked with—I think his name’s Chris Anderson—the head of TED. And [Anderson] was just putting these kind of softball questions to him, like, “Why do you want to buy Twitter? Why are you interested in this?” And he was giving these answers about content moderation and the way that a platform should work that were just an immediate red flag to me of, “Wow, this guy’s never thought about this once in his life. He’s never thought about content moderation.”
He was just like, “Twitter needs to abide by the rules, the law. All speech has to immediately follow the law, and that means free speech.” And it was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. No. There are books of scholarship and classes that you can take on First Amendment law that all speak to the fact that these are super complicated issues. It is not, “I’m going to put my stamp down and fix this problem.” And it seemed like he had (a) not thought about it at all but (b) had thought about it from this almost engineering or factory process similar to, “Well, you build the rocket part this way. You do this. This component is built that way. Stamp it. Ship it. This is how the car’s going to run.” And that’s not how these things work. These are messy, human systems.
You have to take in the idea of the law. You have to build in the messiness of human relationships, bad actors, whatever. … The main rule of running a social network is you are not going to please everyone all the time, and you’re really never going to get it “right.” There is no “right.” It’s just what side you come down on on difficult questions. And when I heard those things, just sort of the ignorance confidently stated about it, I was like, “This man doesn’t know what he’s doing. He may be really good at getting rockets to land on the launchpad or bringing electric vehicles into the world in a really interesting and meaningful way. He is not going to be capable of doing this just simply because he thinks he has an easy solve.”
So that really is kind of it. I just saw the temperament. I just saw sort of the arrogance and the confidence with which he stated that. And I was like, “I think he’s going to probably speedrun the history of Twitter executives falling flat on their face.” And that’s kind of what’s happened, except way worse.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Charlie Warzel
Producer: Devon Manze