Elon Musk wants to build digital town square. But debut for Ron DeSantis has tech failure
Elon Musk wants to turn Twitter into a "digital town square," but his much-publicized Twitter Spaces kickoff event, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announcing his run for president, struggled with technical glitches and a near half-hour delay Tuesday.
The billionaire Twitter owner said the problems were due to "straining" servers because so many people were trying to listen to the audio-only event. But even at their highest, the number of listeners listed topped out at around 420,000, far from the millions of viewers that televised presidential announcements attract.
"There’s so many people," said host David Sacks amid the disruptions. "We’ve got so many people here that we are kind of melting the servers, which is a good sign."
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After it concluded without further disruptions, Musk, DeSantis and Sacks played off the event as a success, with Sacks quipping "it's not how you start, it's how you finish — and we finished really strong."
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests at the Republican Party of Marathon County Lincoln Day Dinner annual fundraiser on May 06, 2023 in Rothschild, Wisconsin. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Musk a day earlier dubbed the event a historic first for Twitter, saying it would be "the first time something like this is happening on social media." The webcast was scheduled to start at 6 p.m. ET but nearly 30 minutes passed with users getting kicked off, hearing microphone feedback and enduring other technical problems before it finally began. The audience remained under 500,000.
DeSantis opponents had a field day with the delayed announcement.
"Glitchy. Tech issues. Uncomfortable silences. A complete failure to launch. And that’s just the candidate!" said Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for former President and current candidate Donald Trump.
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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, tweeted, "We had more people join when I played Among Us," referencing the popular video game.
Twitter has suffered a host of technical issues since Musk took over and fired or laid off roughly 80% of its staff — including engineers tasked with keeping the site running. A day before the DeSantis event, speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in London, Musk expressed confidence about Twitter's future and said he is "going to start adding people to the company" but gave no further details.
Musk bought Twitter last fall for $44 billion. Since then, he has upended the platform's verification system, loosened its content moderation policies in line with his views as a "free speech absolutist," spread misinformation and engaged with far-right figures, all the while working to attract jittery advertisers back to the platform to turn it profitable. His grand vision, he has said repeatedly, is to eventually turn Twitter into an " everything app " for everyone — a digital town square where people can hear from world leaders and politicians without the need for traditional media as a go-between.
But he seems to mainly be courting conservatives and Republicans lately, referring to Democrats and liberals as infected by the "woke mind virus" and reinstating extremist accounts that were banned by Twitter's previous administration.
Wednesday's campaign launch event with DeSantis continued the trend — though it remains to be seen whether the platform can become a go-to destination for mainstream politicians when it continues to show evidence of instability. For instance, the word "DeSaster" was trending on Twitter Wednesday evening as users mocked the botched campaign launch.
In the world of traditional media and politics, a glitchy half-hour delay and an audience in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions, Wednesday's Twitter Spaces event might look like a failure. But in Silicon Valley, failure is often spun as positive, even essential in developing new products and improving existing ones. Twitter Spaces — which Twitter launched in 2020 to compete with the then-popular audio chat site Clubhouse — is generally not used for audiences in the hundreds of thousands, so in some ways it was not a surprise that the event was marred with technical problems.
"It's much worse for DeSantis than it is for Musk," said Jo-Ellen Pozner, a business professor at Santa Clara University, noting that just a month ago Musk's SpaceX launched a rocket that exploded minutes after its launch from Texas. After the explosion, Musk called it "an exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months" in a tweet.
"It is clearly a difficult situation for DeSantis, who wants to project competence, who wants to forestall criticism," she said. "Musk has an easier out by just saying that ‘this was the first time we tried it, it didn’t work out perfectly, but next time we’ll do much better,’ in the classic Silicon Valley approach to failing fast and learning more."
Pozner said it remains an "open question" how Twitter is going to be valued as a broad digital platform down the line.
"I think will depend on, you know, how he and the top management react to this and how they spin it," she said.
After DeSantis logged off, Musk and Sacks extended an open invitation to any other presidential candidate who wants to do a Twitter Spaces event. Whether or not they get any takers could signal what the future holds for Twitter as a "public square."