Just as ancient civilizations around the world independently invented boats, separate sects of the internet are reaching a shared conclusion as they watch Twitter's multi-week tailspin: Elon Musk's self-inflicted meltdown is a lot like the petty forum implosions many of us lived through in the age before social media.
"Elon Musk goes down in history not for his wealth, or his companies, or his ambitions, but for throwing the biggest, loudest, and most public forum admin tantrum in all of internet history," wrote @DrakeBrass (opens in new tab).
"Musk spent $44bn on a shot-for-shot remake of a 2008 phpbb admin meltdown," observed @PenLlawen (opens in new tab).
"You haven't had the joy of watching a forum mod having a protracted meltdown and taking the forum with him because he feels unappreciated before, have you," wrote @funkyrallan (opens in new tab). Others have compared Musk to Richard "Lowtax" Kyanka, the Something Awful founder and "king of the internet goons (opens in new tab)." The corporatization of the internet seemed to be squeezing out spaces where a figure like Lowtax, who got his start writing about Quake 2, could exert so much cultural influence and become so reviled by so many. Musk seems bent on proving that capricious, egotistical, and petty admin behavior isn't dead, even on a forum used by the Pope.
Today's younger generation will find its own reference points: Discord admin rampages, subreddits that self-immolate, influencers who go to war with each other. Even the tiniest internet fiefdom can attract a Mad King, and Musk's playbook is the same one any given 2000s fansite owner could've possessed. Here's what those plays looks like when $44 billion is on the line:
1. Foisting petty, draconian rules on the community
On Sunday, Twitter announced a bizarre new policy that prohibited linking to its major and minor competitors on Twitter. Linking to your Instagram page? Banned. Using an image to let people know what your Mastodon account name was? Illegal. Twitter erupted in near-unanimous fury (all but, and I still can't believe this, Musk's actual mother (opens in new tab)); the ramifications for banning promotional links would have been massive for independent creators. The fact that it was announced during the World Cup Final suggested Twitter wasn't confident in the move to begin with.
2. Immediately reversing petty, draconian rules
Not 24 hours after the policy was trotted out, a dejected-sounding Musk, lurking in the replies of right-wing gaming account @TheQuartering (who later publicly pleaded to be named Twitter CEO), backpedaled. The policy vanished from Twitter's terms and conditions page.
3. Weirdly aggressive demands for money
'00 forum kids will recall the cries of: "Do you know how much it costs to host this Simpsons Fanfic Board on Angelfire?!"
In this case, it came from one of the richest people on the planet, who took on $13 billion in debt to buy a company that hasn't been profitable since 2019.
4. Blaming the forum's problems on made-up saboteurs
Clearly it was activists doing an old-fashioned letter writing campaign that caused advertisers to pause their Twitter campaigns, and not the immature, erratic behavior being flaunted by its new management.
5. Big promises that you never follow through with
In millenial forumese: "Every user ban will now be voted on by the entire mod team. My vote will count just the same as the votes of WookieeMama23, XSephirothX and NoScope_Lord_Zak."
6. Criminal misuse of Latin
In a further effort to shed responsibility to make the difficult decisions CEOs are usually asked to, Musk ran public Twitter polls, punctuating each decision with the Latin phrase "Vox populi, vox dei," which means roughly that "the voice of the people is the voice of God." As it turned out, Musk might've been missing some important context, which is that the first written record of the idiom in Latin tells the reader not to trust it.
full quote is "Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, vox populi, vox dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.” it translates to: "Do not listen to those who say the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the tumult of the crowd is always close to madness." pic.twitter.com/K77VU6eUrBNovember 20, 2022
7. Cryptic, passive-aggressive and/or song-lyric forum signatures
Self-inflated forum posters love to quote Voltaire or whoever they can steal a gram of authority from. Musk quotes "Dune" here, except he didn't quote Frank Herbert's Dune. He quoted one of the 20 sequels written by Herbert's son and Kevin J Anderson, author of a lot of middling Star Wars books.
8. Banning perceived enemies and ambushing conversations
After Musk abruptly banned a handful of journalists from CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post for reporting on @elonjet, a banned Twitter account that shared publicly-available information about the location of Musk's jet, some of the banned figures discovered they were able to, despite being banned, join a Twitter Spaces together (a live, moderated audio discussion among Twitter users).
A transcribed portion of that exchange:
Drew Harwell, reporter at The Washington Post: You’re suggesting that we’re sharing your address, which is not true. I never posted your address.
Musk: You posted a link to the address.
Harwell: In the course of reporting about ElonJet, we posted links to ElonJet, which are now banned on Twitter. Twitter also marks even the Instagram and Mastodon accounts of ElonJet as harmful. We have to acknowledge, using the exact same link-blocking technique that you have criticized as part of the Hunter Biden-New York Post story in 2020. So what is different here?
Musk: It’s not more acceptable for you than it is for me. It’s the same thing.
Harwell: So it’s unacceptable what you’re doing?
Musk: No. You doxx, you get suspended. End of story. That’s it.
Harkening back to point #2, Musk would run yet another poll asking the public square whether the journalists should be released from Twitter jail.
9. Threatening to leave/melodramatic self-sacrifice
I've gotta admit, framing your own departure as a democratic decision is certainly one way of abdicating responsibility for how the last two and a half months have unfolded: On Sunday, Musk asked Twitter users whether he should step down as the head of the company. The unscientific poll produced a 57.5% "Yes" response, across more than 17 million votes.
Appearing in the replies of the poll was Kim Doctom, the Finnish internet baron (also known as the best Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 player in the world at one time), who has racked up several convictions for internet fraud and other misdeeds, suggested that the Twitter poll was actually a trick to "catch all the deep state bots."
"Interesting," Musk replied. He has not yet acted or commented on the result of the poll.