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When Dominant Networks Go Bad
Even serious abuses of power do not always topple a powerful network
Over the past 48 hours, Elon Musk decided that he was not disrupting Twitter enough and needed to inject even more chaos into the system. This manifested itself in the form limiting the utility of tweets containing Substack links. According to TheVerge’s Mitchell Clark and Jay Peters:
Twitter has started marking links to Substack as unsafe. If you click on a link on Twitter with substack.com in the URL, Twitter will show a separate notice warning you that “the link you are trying to access has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially spammy or unsafe.”
Don’t be alarmed — the links we’ve checked appear to be perfectly safe. This notice seems instead to be Twitter’s latest hostile move toward Substack after the email newsletter platform announced its own Twitter-like “Notes” feature on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Twitter blocked people who use Substack from embedding tweets into their stories. Then, late Thursday or early Friday, Twitter started blocking engagement on tweets containing links to Substack; users weren’t able to like or retweet them, but could quote retweet them. Then, on Friday morning, Twitter applied those same restrictions to tweets from the official Substack account.
The most prominent reaction to this move came from Matt Taibbi, a Twitter Files reporter who received access to that company’s internal communications courtesy of Elon Musk. In the span of 24 hours, Taibbi went from telling MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan that he likes Elon Musk and did not want to criticize him to confirming Musk’s paranoia about Substack Notes and posting that he would be, “staying at Substack, and leaving Twitter, I guess.” In the perfect ending to Twitter Drama #628 since his takeover, Musk unfollowed Taibbi’s Twitter account.
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So, to sum up: after multiple moves that have shed payroll but also destabilized Twitter’s platform, Musk has now targeted the very independent writers who are most likely to provide content for Twitter, thereby ensuring even more people exiting the site.
At this point I am beginning to wonder if Musk is trying to memorialize himself into a Harvard Business School case study of what not to do when running a social media company.
As someone who was dubious about Musk’s ability to successfully change Twitter from the get go, I should be feeling pretty smug right now. But after reading Casey Newton’s recent Platformer post, one begins to appreciate just how difficult it has been and will be for some to leave the bird site:
In December, I predicted that 2023 would be the year that the media would begin its divorce from Twitter. “Elon Musk’s continued promotion of right-wing causes and personalities will push away more and more high-profile users, who find themselves increasingly put off by his shock-jock antics and whim-based approach to content moderation,” I wrote. “Alternative platforms like Mastodon, while smaller and less intuitive to use, offer a safe haven to more and more people — particularly journalists — looking for off-ramps. By the end of 2023, Twitter no longer sets the daily news agenda by default for the entire US press.”
Almost four months later, this prediction looks more and more wobbly. The first part has more or less come true: journalists are put off by Musk’s antics, and dunk on him daily. But those same journalists — along with a bunch of people Musk arbitrarily suspended, fired, or laid off — continue to tweet just the same, propping up the service with their quips and sports tweets and food photos just as they always have. And while some of the company’s competitors show intermittent signs on life, none has taken on the feeling of a daily must-visit in the way Twitter did and still does.
By some measures, Twitter usage is down from previous highs. But among the 900 or so tech and media professionals I follow, usage is basically steady. The timeline may scroll a little more slowly than it used to, but everyone is still showing up for their daily dose of sparring for retweets.
Newton’s explanation for this boils down to a factor familiar to those of us who study weaponized interdependence for a living: It’s really, really difficult to exit from the dominant network. Simple inertia is a powerful force. Furthermore, in the case of Twitter, Newton acknowledges that none of the proposed substitutes — Mastodon, Post, other sites I’ve never heard of — possess the qualities that even the current iteration of the birdsite possesses. In other words, don’t underestimate the power of path dependence and network externalities.
For a non-social media example of the enduring power of some networks, consider last month’s ignominious end to a structure that many believed represented the first serious challenge to the hegemony of the U.S. dollar.
When the Trump administration exited from the JCPOA agreement with Iran and forced SWIFT to cut off Iranian financial institutions, European countries were sufficiently agitated to try to find a work-around. The result was the January 2019 creation of INSTEX, a special purpose vehicle whose name was short for “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges.” The idea was that INSTEX would facilitate trade between Iran and the outside world without any reliance on SWIFT or the U.S. dollar.
When INSTEX was announced, there was a lot of analysis suggesting that this was the beginning of the end for U.S. financial hegemony. One Lawfare analysis postulated, “if it is successful, it will create a road map that other countries can use to bypass U.S. sanctions, which could dramatically reduce the effectiveness of U.S. international economic policy.” Some scholars concluded, “We consider the first INSTEX transaction to constitute a moment of fracturing of the infrastructural geopolitics of the post-War era.”
As it turned out, however, that first INSTEX transaction was also the last INSTEX transaction. In March of this year. INSTEX’s ten government shareholders announced that they were liquidating the special purpose vehicle due to “Iran’s persistent refusal to engage with the company.”
After that announcement, Bourse and Bazaar CEO Esfandyar Batmanghelidj offered his explanation for why INSTEX failed. There were geopolitical reasons: a lot of European technocrats were reluctant to overly blunt U.S. sanctioning power, and over time Iran’s government amped up its bellicosity.
The big problem, however, was that when European governments decided to use INSTEX only for humanitarian transactions rather than commercial transactions, its viability became open to doubt.
European officials promised a historic project to assert their economic sovereignty, but they never really committed to that undertaking. A mechanism intended to support billions of dollars in bilateral trade was provided paltry investment. European governments never figured out how to give INSTEX access to the euro liquidity needed to account for the fact that Europe runs a major trade surplus with Iran when oil sales are zeroed out.
Indeed, the problem runs deeper than that. Even if the Europeans had thrown themselves into making INSTEX work, a glance at its inner workings reveals how hard it would have been to maintain without a pretty strict balance of trade. The idea that INSTEX could have ever been globalized seems, in retrospect, pretty laughable.
The United States has displayed less and less restraint when it comes to exploiting its financial power. With each abuse, Washington has incentivized other actors to diversify away from the dollar. That is definitely happening, but it’s a very slow process and there remains no real viable alternative to the dollar. Which suggests that there is a long way to go before the United States pays the wages of its lack of restraint.
Elon Musk is abusing his control over Twitter in far more flagrant ways that the U.S. government has done with the dollar. This might accelerate the end of the birdsite’s hegemonic power over news mavens. But if the last six months have taught us anything, it is that it takes an awful lot of self-inflicted damage to weaken status quo networks.