from the super-geniuses dept
I know that Elon claims he’s decided he might actually live up to what he promised to do in the binding contract he signed to buy Twitter, but I still wanted to discuss some of the text messages that became public last week as part of the case, showing text messages between Musk and various famous people about his plans for Twitter.
As a side note, I saw some in the media calling it a “leak” but there was no leak. I’m actually a bit surprised they were released as such, as most of the time materials handed over in discovery usually remain secret, and only come out when bits and pieces are used as actual evidence in the case. I originally thought these texts were released as part of Twitter’s attempt to highlight how Musk had been holding back messages he should have handed over in discovery, but, as the excellent Chancery Daily notes, it was actually team Musk that asked the court to make these public, somewhat oddly challenging their own redactions (read that thread for some speculation as to why).
And, look, let’s face it: for most of us, if most of our texts were all made public, without the context that communications between two people who know each other and have some kind of personal relationship and history have… I’d bet a lot of them would be kinda cringey too. So, I get that aspect of it, and think that the many, many articles talking about the “cringiest” texts from the pages and pages of texts are a bit unfair. Let he who is without cringey texts cast the first stone, etc. etc.
But, there is something more serious here, highlighted quite well by Charlie Warzel over at the Atlantic, noting that these texts go a long way towards “shattering the myth” that a lot of the leaders in Silicon Valley are particularly insightful (or “geniuses”) when, really, it seems like they lucked into some level of success and now think it’s because of their own intelligence.
The texts are juicy, but not because they are lurid, particularly offensive, or offer up some scandalous Muskian master plan—quite the opposite. What is so illuminating about the Musk messages is just how unimpressive, unimaginative, and sycophantic the powerful men in Musk’s contacts appear to be. Whoever said there are no bad ideas in brainstorming never had access to Elon Musk’s phone.
The sycophantic stuff is, perhaps, not that surprising either. I imagine that most billionaires have to put up with a lot of that kinda thing from all sorts of people eager to be in their good graces.
But, there is a real point here that highlights how chaotic the decision-making is and just how little these “geniuses” actually bother to understand things or think through what they’re saying.
First, there’s the ease with which some folks just throw money at Elon. For example there’s famed VC Marc Andreessen saying a fund he managed was “in for $250M with no additional work required.”
(As an aside: the reason this message shows up here in the filings is because Andreessen took a screenshot of the Signal chat — with disappearing messages enabled (the red boxes) — and emailed it to Musk’s righthand man, Jared Birchall. This email was handed over during discovery, but Twitter highlighted it because Musk had told the court that he did not use Signal to discuss the merger, and this screenshot… shows otherwise. Also, this message came out a few days earlier, and not as part of this latest dump, but still fits here…).
And then, of course, there’s Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who had no problem tossing over however many billions Elon seemed to want to support his friend’s whimsy. You can see the actual texts in the filing on page 104, but I’ll borrow another idea from The Chancery Daily, and recreate them in text messaging form, to make them feel a bit more realistic.
If you can’t see the images, here’s the exchange in text:
Elon: Any interest in participating in the Twitter deal?
Larry: Yes… of course 👍
Elon: Roughly what dollar size? Not holding you to anything, but the deal is oversubscribed, so I have to reduce or kick out some participants.
Larry: A billion…or whatever you recommend
Elon: Whatever works for you. I’d recommend maybe $2B or more. This has very high potential and I’d rather have you than anyone else.
Larry: I agree that it has huge potential… and it would be lots of fun.
Elon: Absolutely 🙂
Also of note, in the seconds between Elon’s “Cool” and “How much” texts, he also texts Jared Birchall to tell him that Ellison is in.
I’ve gone through way, way, way more rigorous processes to get a $500 grant. Next time, I should just ask for $500 million, I guess. Of course, when I noted something like that on Twitter I had a shocking number of Silicon Valley execs and VCs note in some form or another that this is more or less how business gets done for the super successful and super wealthy, which is perhaps not surprising, but is kind of infuriating for the tons of people (entrepreneurs, civil society, journalists, think tanks etc.) who could put such money to good use, but can’t even get anything.
But, even more annoying (and much more revealing) is that all these Silicon Valley “geniuses” send Musk their ideas, and the ideas are silly, half-baked, or simplistic ones that lots of people have thought through and explained why they won’t work (and I’ll note that it’s often those same civil society folks who are desperate for donations who have put in the hard work on these issues, only to see these “geniuses” tossing around a bunch of foolish ideas that anyone at these underfunded organizations could explain to you instantly why they’re bad ideas.)
While lots of articles have focused on some of the sillier suggestions, I wanted to call out Mathias Dopfner’s. In the last month, we’ve had two separate stories on Dopfner, the newish billionaire CEO of Axel Springer (which owns a bunch of media orgs, including Politico and Insider), suggesting the guy has oddly simplistic views on how things work. After lying about sending a text in support of what Dopfner falsely believed were positive results of the Trump presidency, he made it clear that he thinks what the world needs is more useless he said/she said journalism. He also called for an outright ban on TikTok.
Dopfner comes across as more desperate than many of the others (and most of them do seem pretty desperate). After the initial investment became public, Dopfner texted Elon:
Why don’t you buy Twitter? We run it for you. And establish a true platform for free speech. Would be a real contribution to democracy.
I’m still trying to puzzle out who is the “we” in this sentence. Also, it’s hilarious to think that the guy who was praising Trump and pushing for nonsense journalism knows anything about being “a real contribution to democracy.” Throughout the process he reaches out to Musk again asking if he can “join that project” and saying he “was serious with my suggestion.”
Anyway, he also had so, so many ideas for Musk. He wrote them all out in a giant text message:
Status Quo: it is the de facto public town square, but is a problem that it does not adhere to free speech principles. => so the core product is pretty good, but (i) it does not serve democracy, and (ii) the current business model is a dead end as reflected by flat share price. # Goal: Make Twitter the global backbone of free speech, an open market place of ideas that truly complies with the spirit of the first amendment and shift the business model to a combination of ad-supported and paid to support quality. #Game Plan: 1.) ,,Solve Free Speech” 1a) Step 1: Make it censorship-FREE by radically reducing Terms of Service (now hundreds of pages) to the following: Twitter users agree to (1) Use our service to send spam or scam users, (2) Promote violence, (3) Post illegal pornography 🙃 1b) Step 2: Make Twitter censorship-RESISTANT • Ensure censorship resistance by implementing measures that warrant that Twitter can’t be censored long term, regardless of which government and management. • How? Keep pushing projects at Twitter that have been working on developing a decentralized social network protocol (e.g., BlueSky). It’s not easy, but the backend must run on decentralized infrastructure, APIs should become open (back to the roots! Twitter started and became big with open APIs). • Twitter would be one of many clients to post and consume content. • Then create a marketplace of algorithms, e.g., if you’re a snowflake and don’t want content that offends you pick another algorithm. 2.) ,,Solve Share Price” Current state of the business: • Twitter’s ad revenues grow steadily and for the time being, are sufficient to fund operations. • MAUs are flat, no structural growth • Share price is flat, no confidence in existing business model and/or
That’s all one giant lump o’ text. And it looks like it even goes on longer, but got cut off because even the texting app was like “dude, chill.” And, there are some interesting ideas in there. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Bluesky (which was, in part, based on my paper), and we’ve had a couple of posts on why Musk should support Bluesky. But… Bluesky is not a part of Twitter, even if it’s initial funding came from Twitter.
But what’s really silly is the whole terms of service stuff. Leaving aside the fact that Dopfner seems to have left out a “not” (it should be “agree not to” rather than “agree to”), his simplified terms of service is laughable to anyone who has ever worked in trust and safety, and has any experience with crafting a set of terms for a website. That list is… not workable.
And that’s the part that’s frustrating about this. There are hundreds of trust and safety experts who could walk someone like Dopfner through the different trade offs and challenges here. Hell, the same day that these texts came out, there was a whole conference of trust and safety professionals talking about creating better site policies. But, here we have a billionaire tossing off a simplistic (and confused) idea to another billionaire in a stream of consciousness text that shows he hasn’t put in any of the work.
And, yes, of course, he’s a billionaire, so he figures he can give big picture concepts and let the little people figure out the details. But this is an area where the details really, really matter, and it’s clear that Dopfner hasn’t done the homework (neither has Musk).
There are also messages between Jack Dorsey and Musk, and while some people have been making fun of them, they actually seem to be some of the more reasonable and level headed texts in the batch. It’s pretty clear that Dorsey is trying to explain to Musk why Bluesky is important and should be the future of Twitter (something I very much agree with, though that’s still a long way off). Jack talks about open-source protocols. But… this is right around the same time that Musk is pushing for “open source the algorithm,” which is… not the same thing.
To be honest, during that period of time, I kept waiting to see if Musk would say anything about Bluesky or the protocol concept, and he never seemed to mention it at all, even with Jack pushing the idea, and Dopfner (in his own confused way) pushing it as well.
The other funny thing in these text messages is how random people pop up suggesting new executives who can be put in place at Twitter. There’s a person who’s name is redacted who pushed for “a Blake Masters type” to lead Twitter enforcement (Blake Masters is the Peter Thiel protégé who is running for the Senate in Arizona and seems to have all the charisma of a stone toad). Then there’s the (partially disgraced) venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson suggesting (the even more disgraced) Emil Michael as a potential senior exec for the company.
Warzel spoke to another social media exec who calls out how silly all this is:
“I’m on 20 threads with people,” the former social-media executive told me. “And it’s literally like, Damn, they were just throwing shit at the wall. The ideas people were writing in, in terms of who would be CEO—it’s some real fantasy-baseball bullshit.” Despite all the self-mythologizing and talk of building, the men in these text messages appear mercurial, disorganized, and incapable of solving the kind of societal problems they think they can
And that’s the bit that stands out to me the most about all of this. It becomes clear that almost all of these messages involve dudes who got extremely lucky in the past, and now think that they can solve the world’s problems, and they toss money and ideas around at each other as if they’re doing something important.
It was truly a contrast that, at the same time those messages came out, I was at this conference of trust and safety professionals, many of them not making nearly enough money for the work that they do, but who were actually working through the hard problems of how to make a social media site actually function for democracy, recognizing the many hard challenges and impossible trade-offs, and recognizing that there are no easy answers. There’s no multi-point plan that “fixes” social media, and any plan to make better social media requires more than a text message.
They’re not having billionaires throw their billions around to help them actually make the very real improvements that can be made. They’re struggling every day to make these websites actually work. And the lucky dudes are mostly tossing around extremely simplistic ideas that half the people at the conference last week could lay out the many issues they’d need to actually think through to understand those challenges.
It just made me realize how many more people in Silicon Valley really should have imposter syndrome, but clearly do not.