It hasn’t even been two weeks since Elon Musk officially took over Twitter, and things look like they’re going about as well as a Cybertruck demonstration.
After Musk gained control of the network on Oct. 27, it didn’t take long for the Tesla and SpaceX CEO to propose and implement some drastic changes: firing Twitter executives, restricting content-moderation capacity (although the company says it hasn’t changed any policies yet), laying off about half the company’s staff, and planning to overhaul the verification system so that anyone who wants the platform’s coveted blue check has to pony up $8 a month. Predictably, Musk has already had to backtrack on some of these moves. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Twitter was delaying the rollout of monetized verification, originally set for Monday, until after Tuesday’s midterm elections, following concerns from staff that the new system could lead to mass confusion—and instances of impersonation—on the platform. That same day, Bloomberg reported that Twitter was reaching back out to several employees it had just fired days before; apparently, some of them were “laid off by mistake” while “others were let go before management realized that their work and experience may be necessary to build the new features Musk envisions.” Understandably, several brands have since pulled their advertising from Twitter, leading Musk to threaten a “thermonuclear name & shame” of the offenders. In general, the head honcho has tweeted through it all, telling his critics to “pay $8.” The response from users in turn has been merciless and very, very funny, a weeklong roast of the new guy in charge that is about as Twitter as Twitter gets.
But one response to Musk’s tenure has seemed to really get under his skin: the verified impersonators. Some prominent Twitter accounts have utilized their verification privileges to pretend as if they’re Musk himself—changing their display names and profile photos to playact as their new overlord, with tongue plainly in cheek, tweeting remarks he’d clearly never say. Among them: actor Richard Sommer, former pro footballer Chris Kluwe, cartoonist Jeph Jacques, journalist Christopher Hooks, comedian Kathy Griffin, author Manu Saadia, and more.
On Sunday evening, presumably in response to these stunts, Musk tweeted that “going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying ‘parody’ will be permanently suspended. Previously, we issued a warning before suspension, but now that we are rolling out widespread verification, there will be no warning.” Not long after, he widened the scope of punishment: “Any name change at all will cause temporary loss of verified checkmark.” (A policy that would seem to threaten the beloved Twitter tradition of creating spooky Halloween display names!) By nighttime, all the aforementioned accounts had either been suspended or “restricted”—i.e., locked to public view with no avatar or posting privileges, and sporting a warning screen when you attempt to access the relevant account. Digital activist Parker Higgins tweeted out screenshots displaying what will happen should you now attempt to ape Musk’s name or visage (or try to bring back “Italian Elon Musk”).
Amid all this, I received a message from Manu Saadia, informing me of what had occurred when his original @trekonomics account (named for his acclaimed book on Star Trek and modern economics) was restricted after his impersonation of Musk. Funnily enough, Saadia, a French American economist and sci-fi scholar, already has a history when it comes to Musk: In May 2020, he tagged the tech titan with the nickname “Space Karen,” which blew up and became its own meme after another scientist called Musk that nickname later in the year. Saadia and I chatted over email about why he joined the brigade of Musk dupes, what it’s like to be forced off Twitter, and what may be in store for the website. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nitish Pahwa: When did you first start posting tweets dunking on Elon post-acquisition, and how long did it take from then for your account to get suspended/restricted?
Manu Saadia: I realized the blue checkmark was going to be even more meaningless, since under the new ownership anybody would be able to purchase one. I had deleted the app from my phone a couple months prior to see if it would help with writing. It did wonders; I finished a big manuscript I had been laboring on for months and months. So for me the spell was broken. I went cold turkey and I realized I did not care that much about Twitter anyway—in fact, it had become an impediment.
So, lighting my verified Twitter account on fire was, uh, the funniest thing to do. Kind of a last contribution to my weird friends on here—a potlatch, if you will. I impersonated Elon, with the handle and the profile pic, and I started tweeting things like “SUPPORT UNIONS,” “SUPPORT TRANS RIGHTS,” “THE ACQUISITION OF THINGS IS NO LONGER THE DRIVING FORCE IN OUR LIVES,” and “An open society cannot tolerate intolerance.” Lots of jokes. It took off and quite a few people fell for it—some blue checkmarks too, but not gonna name names. It took about a couple hours for my account to be locked and suspended.
How did you notice something had happened to your account?
I landed on a page that told me I had been suspended for breaking Twitter rules and that I could appeal. You could say I moved fast and broke things. But I’m not that keen on appealing because Twitter has become a hassle in my life, and that’s irrespective of the fact that the new owners are about to turn it into a safe space for Nazi speech. That’s just me. I’m a nobody; I’m not Kathy Griffin. I don’t care about influence and such. I’m not one of these pundits or scammers who treat their Twitter accounts as a reservoir of marks. To me, this was always about a collection of long-distance, very witty friends.
Did you have a backup account established from long back, or did you just set one up recently?
I just set one up, but I’m not excited about spending too much time on it. I just
want to keep up with a few people, really. There are other ways to do that, but Twitter makes it very easy and simple. I’m currently using [my new account] to set up Signal group chats and share emails. People I care about know where to find me.
What have your perceptions of Elon Musk been over the years, and what were your interactions with Musk like before he announced his Twitter bid?
Ahhhh, it’s a long story. As it turns out, I am currently writing a book on all the reasons why “space colonization” is a terrible, terrible idea. So I am unfortunately quite well acquainted with Elon Musk’s oeuvre: “the light of consciousness” and all that crap about pizza joints on Mars. All these eschatological fantasies have a long and tortuous history, from the crazy Russian cosmists to Wernher von Braun and his crew, who built the U.S. space program. So there’s more than a whiff of goose-stepping toward the final frontier.
Back at the height of COVID, maybe a couple months after Elon’s infamous tweet predicting “zero cases by April”—genius—he tweeted that he was going to break the rules and put people back on the assembly line at Tesla, and was like, “arrest me.” I thought, Oh god, what a self-serving megalomaniac. He thinks breaking the COVID lockdown rules is like civil rights. He was grooming his millions of followers, the petit blancs business owners and hustlers, into spreading the virus. So I quote-tweeted, or rather dunked on his tweet: “He thinks he’s Rosa Parks when he’s just Space Karen.” It took off and went viral. I know it’s a bit misogynistic, but it works in the context of the tweet, and also at the time there were a lot of Karens yelling to reopen this or that small business.
Space Karen has become a meme. It’s out of my hands. People use it as a shorthand for Musk. I had to block Elon’s account because of the torrent of space bros and antivaxxers—you know, Twitter. So I’ve had no interactions (thank god), only people tweeting screenshots of his latest freakouts.
What are the things you’ve valued most about Twitter over the years? Do you think there is any hope or future for it under Musk?
I’ve made real-life friends on Twitter. Quite a few. They’ve all been just exactly as they are online: wonderful, eccentric, sweet, generous. I hope they like me as much as I like them. It was a wonderful small community of weirdos—that was my Twitter. I know it’s a very different experience, or it fulfills a very different need or function, for many other people. Some of my freelance writer friends depend on it for their livelihood. I don’t know what the future holds. I’m very worried for a few people I know who used to get harassed all the time on there. Now, Twitter is like a Tesla on autopilot going after pedestrians at random.
Are you seeking out other social networks?
I have set up a Mastodon account. It’s fun, it’s a bit like 2008 Tumblr. But I don’t see myself spending significant time there or on any other social networks. The spell was broken for me since I got rid of the Twitter phone app. That’s been wonderful for family life, emotional balance, and most of all writing. I understand this might be a hindrance, since I won’t be able to tout my next book for lack of a “platform.” Anyway, I was never good at self-promotion. I just can’t do it the way some of my Twitter friends do it.
Do you think Musk has otherwise been aware of you or your work or existence?
I would certainly hope not, because I do not need the headaches. But I guess I’m screwing myself by doing this Q&A.
If you had the opportunity to say something personally to Elon Musk right now, what would that be?
Tough one. The guy is my age. It’s probably too late to change. Barring therapy, I’d humbly suggest for him to delete the Twitter app from his phone and, uh, as the saying goes, “delete your account.” I mean, the phone app is so powerful that it fooled him into buying the whole joint. And look at the mess now.