Book review: Musk finds “extremely hardcore” ways to destroy Twitter

Zoë Schiffer’s new book is the story of how Elon Musk has done the near-impossible and took the mantle of most hated tech personality from Mark Zuckerberg – in less than two years.

Working in a tech and cybersecurity news publication, I feel lucky that there’s plenty for us to write about – hacks, cyberattacks, AI innovation and regulation, and the tech business in general.

That’s because surely I would have gone mad if I had to constantly cover Elon Musk and his first months at Twitter, now renamed X.

Then again, Schiffer, the managing editor of Platformer, reported on the whole tumultuous takeover, and she’s now written a book about it. Not bad.

Reading “Extremely Hardcore” is definitely not a pleasant experience. On the contrary, it’s actually painful to relive all these Elonesque shenanigans neatly packaged into a book.

When you’re reporting on Musk all year long, all those details reaching the world from downtown San Francisco can be hilarious.

In the office, we were laughing. But it looks quite tragic when the events – obviously painful to thousands of laid-off workers and Twitter aficionados who now have to live with a joke of a platform – are summarized, and you read through them in a couple of days.

High hopes, grim reality

With Musk, unanimous impressions are impossible. He’s either a visionary genius or the son of a white Apartheid-era South African who supported young Elon during his college years with money from an emerald mine.

He’s either an incredibly intuitive entrepreneur who can be an example to others and save Earth or move us to Mars or a mad and paranoid control freak who’s obsessed with himself and likes to play God with the livelihoods of people and companies.

Before the fall of 2022, when Musk was finally forced to buy Twitter, it was probably fifty-fifty. Now, even though Elon is still adored by millions of fanboys, many have had their eyes opened.

As Schiffer writes, in the beginning, there was hope. Jessica Lessin, the founder of The Information, indeed tweeted: “Watching @elonmusk + Co take over Twitter is like watching a business school case study on how to make money on the internet.”

Except, of course, that’s not what happened. Schiffer, who commendably manages to avoid judging Musk – unlike me, sorry, not sorry – and maintains a matter-of-fact style throughout her chronicle-like book, is very right when she sums up the current state of play at X.

“The attributes that made Musk good at tweeting – a combination of recklessness and shamelessness – made him exceedingly bad at running Twitter. His impulsiveness did not play well with advertisers. His thirst for speed alarmed regulators. And his opposition to content moderation alienated regular users,” writes Schiffer.

Elon Musk and his social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. Image by Shutterstock.

“Six months after the deal closed, Twitter had lost two-thirds of its value and found itself in hot water with lawmakers in the United States and Europe.”

Musk, of course, renamed Twitter to X (he’s obsessed with the letter) but that’s not the only reason the bird app is now a piece of history – the company lost most of its people and culture, too. Schiffer’s story revolves around them as well – for once, it’s not all about Elon.

A hero’s journey to hell

For instance, we meet a “machine-learning savant” who liked Musk and his way of managing companies and who went all in on Twitter 2.0 only to be shocked when he was fired after being accused of leaking to the book’s author – which he did not do, by the way.

Another guy – also fired because, by the end of the book, it might look like the only one still working at the firm is Elon – had never considered joining a union before but is now adamant that collective action is important.

“Though the public sentiment toward unions has changed over the last decade, in tech, there’s still a strong belief that collective organizing can slow progress,” writes Schiffer, who previously worked at The Verge, reporting on labor and workplace organizing.

The book tells us about dozens of employees – among thousands because Musk laid off about 80% or 6,500 of them – and their emotions during this wild ride.

There’s also a father trapped in his job at Twitter because his kids, both autists, needed his health insurance, and a trust and safety advocate who was pushed to resign from the company by Musk’s decisions and had to move house when he received death threats after “Chief Twit” allowed someone to publicly accuse him of supporting child exploitation.

In short, the book tells us about dozens of employees – among thousands because Musk laid off about 80% or 6,500 of them – and their emotions during this wild ride.

What did the engineers feel like? How about content moderators? Communications department? Well, no need to worry about that one, as those tweeps were escorted out first thing – a turd emoji is in charge now.

It’s not only about emotions, though. Working at Platformer, a newsletter that reports on social networks, Schiffer is very good at describing the culture of the Twitter company.

Needless to say, morale collapsed after Musk walked into the lobby of Twitter headquarters holding a kitchen sink and fired the majority of the workforce. The ripple effect is felt even in politics and wider culture.

Remember the massacre in Israel back in October? X was horrible. Musk, the free speech absolutist, the billionaire provocateur, doesn’t seem to realize that nobody, absolutely nobody except the bigots, wins when online content is not moderated.

But hey, extremely hardcore it is, indeed. To Musk, it doesn’t matter how his behavior affects the workers around him. As Schiffer writes, “In his mind, the company’s success had nothing to do with people’s work ethic or ability to think creatively.”

“Instead, it was about placating the person at the top. Musk, after all, was the man with the vision. He was the one on the hero’s journey,” says the author of the book.

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