Running Twitter Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder

Landing reusable rockets is ferociously difficult, but it’s got nothing on managing a social network

Clive Thompson


Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

So, Elon Musk owns Twitter now.

There’s plenty of speculation about what he’ll do, and whether — or how — he’ll wreck it. I have no unique insights above the stuff you’ve probably already read.

But when the deal finally went through, it put me in mind of a smart comment I read about this, months ago, by the fantastic writer and programmer Robin Sloan.

To wit: For the moment, let’s leave aside the question of Musk’s trollish behavior; his mangled grasp of the concept of free speech; the fact that he’s loaded Twitter with debt in a classically destructive private-equity move; his alarming advocacy of the Russian side in the Ukraine conflict, and what that seems to say about his influences. These are all important things to discuss, and thankfully many are doing so as we speak.

But let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that he actually wanted to run Twitter well and profitably — or at least, profitably enough to eventually unload on someone else. That means, realistically, that he has to find some way to keep influential users from fleeing; to keep advertisers engaged; to find some new forms of revenue (again, without chasing users or advertisers away); all while managing the absolute chaos that is a gargantuan global discussion-forum full of nearly 400 million people, any of whom can gatecrash the others’ public conversations.

Back when Robin pondered this in the spring, he made this spot-on observation:

An industrialist might soon purchase Twitter, Inc. His substantial success launching reusable spaceships does nothing to prepare him for the challenge of building social spaces. The latter calls on every liberal art at once, while the former is just rocket science.

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

I love this formulation!

Many people assume, when pondering the genuinely astonishing feats of SpaceX engineers — they land rockets back on



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.