Yesterday, Elon Musk left his avid followers confused after changing his personal Twitter account settings to “Private.”
Musk — who’s well-known for courting controversy on social media — allegedly locked his Twitter account to troubleshoot an algorithm issue and run a related engagement test.
But in reality, this is the latest example of Musk’s commitment to surface-level showmanship on the social media site he now owns. Considering the platform's political importance, this continues to be a real cause for concern.
Musk Locks Twitter Account to “Test” Algorithm Bug
Musk acquired Twitter back in October 2022, and he's been quite hands-on when it comes to solving technical problems with the site. This week, a significant number of Twitter users publicly complained about the sheer volume of seemingly “random” tweets on their feeds.
When Musk was first notified of this problem, he confirmed it was an algorithm-related issue. Shortly following this, he said that the problem had been fixed.
However, some “famous” Twitter users — many of whom are prominent commentators from right-wing circles — continued to report that the problem was affecting engagement with their accounts. Users that should be seeing their content, they said, were continuing to see more arbitrary, irrelevant posts.
Yahoo News reports that one prominent right-wing commentator found that making his account private — which restricts who can see and interact with your Tweets and should, therefore, negatively impact engagement — actually improved engagement.
So, Musk made his own account private to see if he experienced a similar issue — or so he claims.
Why Musk Locking His Account Was Completely Unnecessary
Musk returned his account to its original, public settings today, tweeting that making his account private “helped identify some issues with the system” that “should be addressed this week.”
This is odd for a number of reasons. First up, it doesn’t take a statistician to know that using a singular account to try and determine the effects an algorithmic bug is having on a platform with hundreds of millions of users is far from useful.
What would really help you identify and resolve the issue would be access to the platform’s algorithm, development environment, and engineering team — which Elon Musk has, but was seemingly hesitant to use, at least in the first instance.
Why Musk’s Experiment Is Concerning
The first concerning thing about this series of events is why Musk’s first port of call following a site-wide tech issue appears to be himself and the front-end of his Twitter account, rather than his own engineering team.
His relationship with Twitter’s engineering team being so poor that he’d rather run a largely pointless experiment than get to the heart of the issue as quickly as possible does not bode well for the site’s staff or users.
On the other hand, if he didn’t consult the engineering team because he’s fired everyone who actually understands the algorithm, as one user jokingly speculated on Twitter, that is arguably more worrying, from a security perspective in particular.
If we concede that he could have consulted his tech team for the quickest, most accurate answer to the problem, then it begs the question as to precisely why he ran this ineffectual experiment. The answer, unfortunately, is the man’s constant need for attention and perpetual showmanship.
Media Optics and Musk's Quest for Attention
First and foremost, Musk cares about the optics of stuff like this. “Investigating” this issue himself by making his account private looks good, especially in the eyes of the prominent right-wing commentators on Twitter. For this cohort of users, he wants to portray himself as the accessible, hands-on leader who's always available to troubleshoot issues.
In fact, his regular plays for attention may explain why he chose to buy the platform in the first place. Despite being one of the richest men in the world for some time, both his general notoriety and the public's perception of his global influence have trailed behind the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.
While the average big tech boss seems to resent being thrust into the spotlight in the name of accountability, Musk seems to relish the prospect of being at the epicenter of controversy and conversation.
The problem with being an attention-craving, self-proclaimed edge lord is you’re always playing to what the crowd wants. Your primary goal is entertainment. You pursue shock and awe until you get your fix, however it may manifest. But, as any level-headed business leader will tell you, the right decisions often don’t align with what is popular or desired by the masses.
The problem isn’t necessarily being that kind of person — anyone with such tendencies would surely be destined for a glittering acting career, for instance.
Rather, it’s being that kind of person while at the helm of a platform that has the outsized political influence that Twitter has. Ideally, the occupier of such a role should be sensible, accountable, and concerned first and foremost with trust and safety.
A showman like Musk heading up Twitter is, to put it bluntly, rather dangerous.
Yet, with every week at Twitter seemingly presenting new opportunities for Musk to feed an ego that runs entirely on self-made melodrama, it's unlikely we'll see him quietly fade into the background any time soon.