18 Years Later, Twitter — Now X — Has Yet to Grow Up

BATTLE FOR THE BIRD: Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, and the $44 Billion Fight for Twitter’s Soul, by Kurt Wagner

EXTREMELY HARDCORE: Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter, by Zoë Schiffer

This March, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter will turn 18 — a grown-up in human years, even as the site seems to be stuck in a crude adolescence. In the opening pages of “Battle for the Bird,” the Bloomberg journalist Kurt Wagner recounts how Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s founders and its two-time chief executive., liked to issue high-flown pronouncements about fostering a “global consciousness.” Barely more than 200 pages later, Wagner describes how the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who acquired the platform in October 2022 and has since changed its name to X, insisted on personally addressing the complaints of a prolific poster known as @catturd2.

The arc from gauzy ideals to the litter box of reality has certainly been a weird one. “It didn’t have to be this way,” Wagner writes, in a book that traces the history of the platform through the first nine months of Musk’s tenure. Another new book, Zoë Schiffer’s “Extremely Hardcore,” peers more closely inside the company under Musk. Both authors convey how the platform has struggled to reconcile two imperatives: the techno-libertarian promotion of free speech and the techno-libertarian urge to make lots of money.

Wagner approaches Twitter as a business story, paying particular attention to Dorsey’s discomfort with the pressures of running a publicly traded company. Dorsey, who never responded to Wagner’s requests for interviews, comes across as someone who had grand (if vague) hopes for the platform but increasingly held himself at a remove — going on a 10-day silent retreat in Myanmar; sequestering himself on a resort in French Polynesia; suddenly announcing on Twitter, without first telling his staff, that he was planning to live half the year in Africa (an idea that was shelved by the pandemic).

Among a number of fateful decisions Dorsey made as chief executive was to lean into news, even rebranding Twitter in Apple’s app store, casting it as a destination for live coverage of breaking events. Yet he was also skittish about accepting the costs and responsibilities of a real news organization, insisting that Twitter’s role was merely to serve as a platform for a cacophony of voices. Until Donald Trump was banned in January 2021 for fueling an insurrection, Dorsey seemed unbothered by the fact that Twitter was amplifying Trump’s incendiary rhetoric: “I think we need to hear every extreme to find the balance,” he said in 2016.

But finding the balance with advertisers was another matter. Wagner shows Dorsey becoming more preoccupied with newer obsessions like Bitcoin (“My hope is that it creates world peace”) and less enchanted with Twitter, where advertisers exerted constant pressure to clean up the service. By the time he started encouraging Musk to buy the company, “running Twitter had become unfun for Dorsey,” who declared that he trusted Musk “to extend the light of consciousness.”

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