This week, I’ve been having the Elon Musk experience on Twitter.
OK, we’ve all been having the Elon Musk experience since the world’s richest man took control of the social network last month. Musk’s pronouncements, jokes, and experiments with the site’s rules have made him Twitter’s main character ever since, an inescapable news story unto himself in a manner reminiscent only of @RealDonaldTrump.
The change has been even more acute for me, though, because I made a burner account on Twitter that’s designed to let me see the site the way Musk does. I follow the same accounts he follows. Also, like he does, I check it constantly. The site is as familiar as ever, but my usual content has been replaced by Musk’s, my friends by his, my interests by his. It’s an unsettling experience, like waking up to find all your walls painted different colors.
This was easy because Musk, like many celebrities, follows very few people on Twitter—just 131. Unlike many celebrities, however, Musk really uses Twitter. I can’t say how much of his time on the site is spent perusing his “Home” feed, composed of those 131 accounts and their interactions, as opposed to his “Notifications” tab, which must receive a million pings a day, or if an assistant prints out the day’s greatest tweets and delivers them to him in a dossier during breakfast. But I think Musk does start in his “Home” feed, because a lot of his recent Twitter activity can be linked to one of the accounts he follows.
In response to this tweet from one of his follows, Musk responded, “I believe in vice-signaling.”
What does the world look like with Musk Glasses on? To some extent, things look the same as they do on much of the rest of Twitter these days, with discussion focused on the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, the challenge of getting Taylor Swift tickets, and Elon Musk. Still, for someone who seems to spend as much time on the app as he does, his selection of accounts is eclectic and uncalculated. It’s a mix of Silicon Valley power players, popular figures in science and tech, comedy accounts, and his own family. I didn’t expect Musk to be reading five newspapers at breakfast like Warren Buffett, but I’m surprised how much influence just a few people have on the brainwaves of the world’s richest man. On a platform he described as “All the News,” there is nothing deliberate or obvious about the 131 voices he has chosen.
Not that Musk doesn’t follow the news: He follows BBC Future, BBC Science Club, BBC Breaking News, Popular Mechanics, Phys.org, Science Magazine, GeekWire, Slashdot, and GiGadgets, as well as a half-dozen reporters and the tech discussion forum Hacker News. But when I log on, I don’t see any of those accounts’ tweets—I see mostly a smattering of individual Twitter influencers. That is also who Musk chooses to interact with.
In response to this tweet from one of his follows, Musk responded, “Actual Silicon Valley is way crazier!”
In two days this week, for example, Musk replied a couple times to venture capitalist Mike Solana (about Signal including a new feature and Twitter laying off workers critical of Musk) and twice to the writer and illustrator Tim Urban (about Sam Bankman-Fried and the global population passing 8 billion). He also replied to a tweet about SBF from the podcaster Trung Phan, one about the show Silicon Valley from Dogecoin creator Billy Markus, another about the Artemis rocket launch, another from Jack Dorsey about epistemology, and another from his mom*. Those were all people on Musk’s list of 131.
In response to this tweet, retweeted by his follow Mike Solana, Musk responded, “Much appreciated”
Musk also got into a long conversation with the account Niche Gamer, whom he follows, which began with Musk announcing a delay in the Twitter Blue Verified program, and concluded with Musk announcing to his 100 million followers—they know, so now you must know, too—that the diabetes drug he takes to lose weight causes “next-level” burps that taste like egg.
Caveats abound: Twitter’s sorting algorithm has a hair-trigger response to your clicks, and so we don’t know what Musk’s feed really looks like. Politically, my Musk feed was a mixed bag. Right-wing VCs like David Sacks (reportedly a member of Musk’s inner circle at Twitter now) sent right-wing content from the likes of Jack Posobiec and Dave Rubin my way, and at least some of that seems to wind up in his Musk’s own feed. Two weeks ago, the Twitter owner shared a conspiracy theory about Nancy Pelosi’s husband being hit in the head with a hammer. I also saw a cartoon of the climate change activists who throw soup at paintings, only one of them had his brains blown out onto the art museum wall in the style of spilled soup. Ha!
But I also saw a tweet from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about Ticketmaster (via a fave from @SwiftOnSecurity), one from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about abortion (via Elon’s sister Tosca Musk), and one about differential death rates between Democrats and Republicans from Neil deGrasse Tyson, whom Musk follows.
I can see how Musk comes away from it all thinking he’s right in the middle, politically—aren’t we all, in a stream of voices chosen to buttress our own view of the world? When it comes to understanding Twitter, we’re all blind men touching the elephant, sensible only to the slice of the public sphere we’ve selected for ourselves. Musk is no different, though the section of elephant he’s chosen for himself is smaller than most.
Claustrophobic, even. On Wednesday, speaking at a trial over his Tesla compensation package, Musk said, “I expect to reduce my time at Twitter and find somebody else to run Twitter over time.” Tired of Twitter already? Maybe he just needs to branch out a little.
Correction, Nov. 17, 2022: Due to an editing error, this article originally described the Artemis launch as involving SpaceX. In fact, the rocket was built by different contractors.