Elon Musk, Neil Gaiman and the burden of unintended consequences of a large follower base on Twitter

So Elon Musk and Neil Gaiman had a twete-a-twete earlier today.

Specifically, Elon was trying to make his point on a damaging article by a journalist who has been anti-Musk and has been deleting tweets where she was abrasive anti-Musk (leaving only those where she was sensibly anti-Musk). During the time when he was trying to defend himself and actively responding to a lot of people on Twitter, Neil Gaiman joined the fray, to support The Daily Beast editor, Noah Shachtman who has a pointed request to Elon:

Then Neil had his say.


The broader point is this: Twitter, or social media in general, is *N-E-V-E-R* one-on-one. Social media, by nature, is many-to-many. It’s like standing in the middle of a busy street and talking. Many people will ignore you, many may react to you, some may abuse you, some may disagree with you and some may even troll you for whatever reason that you simply cannot fathom. Social media is a busy street. Twitter, in particular.

And, Neil and Noah asking Elon to tweet categorically saying that he is against online harassment and also requesting his followers to not harass his detractors will actually have the unintended consequences that Neil is warning Elon in the first place.

Twitter and social media is an uncontrollable self-forming entity. Just because Elon has millions of followers, those followers are not bound by any contract, implied or otherwise, to listen to Elon. They have decided to follow him to hear him say things, not to follow his instructions.

There is no formal call to join Muskbros (and a counterpoint to Erin’s article), there never was and there never will be. It’s literally random people coming together (very loosely) to support one cause – in this case, verbally harm and harass the journalist who is disagreeing with Elon Musk publicly (I’m not going into the nuances of what she did that may be right or wrong; that’s a different topic altogether).

And Neil telling Elon (indirectly) while responding to someone else with Elon included in the mentions, “If you set people on other people it’s bullying, even if you think you have right on your side”, seems unfair because Elon was not doing that. He was defending himself, but that action may *seem* like *setting people on the journalist* to Neil, even though it clearly isn’t. The unintended consequence here is clearly not just the eventual online harassment multiple people faced as a result of this imbroglio, but the fact that many tweets by Elon, Noah and Neil were misunderstood and misconstrued depending on the individual prism through which each person sees them. Result? All round chaos.

Given the fact Elon has been actively trying to respond to quite a few people, he probably is open to hearing at least some of the perspectives being shared. Within that spectrum, one critical point is that his words carry weight, and his audience is HUGE. Given that, anything he says will be understood or implied in many, many ways.

From a corporate communications perspectives, this is why there are in-house and PR agency communication teams. They look at the perspectives that a CEO’s words may evoke and offer clear, specific sentences and words to ensure that they are misunderstood the least. This comes from experience and having multiple people on the team.

But this is Elon Musk, unfiltered by corporate teams, on Twitter… direct! However well-meaning Elon may be, however articulate he may be, in the heat of things he may say things that could be construed in a couple of ways. That is the more nuanced unintended consequence that Neil is highlighting. The unintended consequence is that after understanding Elon’s tweet in their own way, they will do something as a result – abuse, harass, intimidate, support, help the person Elon was speaking to.

Are they doing all this because Elon asked them to? No. They are doing it because they, those individuals, personally believe that to be something they should do, on their own. It’s the exact behavior you would notice in a busy road when a mob gathers around 2 people arguing openly – take sides by hearing the few of the last spoken sentences.

The responsibility that Neil is referring to, then, is to take any and every kind of disagreement offline, particularly if your follower base is massive. That does seem unfair to Elon because the journalist, with a tiny follower base, has gone bazooka on him (right, wrong, unfair… is a different, deeper topic), and when Elon takes it offline, what people online see is only the allegations and no response from Elon. He is trying to be completely transparent on the whole issue but that transparency comes with a price that would haunt Elon again. So, with great numbers, comes great responsibility. It’s both a boon and a burden. Musk used the boon so far and now, with the kind of transparency he thinks he needs to operate with, he is facing the burden too!

As a result, Elon finally tweets the obvious. Neil responds too.

This is hardly likely to have any impact whatsoever beyond the fact that Elon has covered his rear side with a placeholder that Noah and Neil were clamoring about. Elon did not instigate the mob (the allegation that he may have instigated it by being open and transparent in public is more because of his massive follower base and not his words/sentences in specific). And Elon cannot curb that mob by offering such obvious, politically correct statements either. I’m sure Noah and the concerned journalist under fire, Erin, would find that soon enough.