When Jack Dorsey stepped down as CEO of Twitter in November 2021, the company seemed vaguely at peace for the first time in its tumultuous 15-year history. Granted, the stock wasn’t lighting any fires, but the company had weathered storm Trump with a world-changing ban. Trolls and bots were always a problem, but the numbers were downward trend. Facebook was an unstoppable trash fire of misinformation — but a better Twitter, where we could finally, really hear ourselves think, seemed possible.
No one could have predicted that the house built by Jack would fall in less than five months. But it fell — to a new owner who posted (and deleted) a Hitler memewho got it wrong about COVID online, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist” despite censor employees and retaliate against criticismand whose latest in a long line of sexist gags and terrible tweets was a suggestion (now deleted) that the company be renamed “Titter”.
This new owner, of course, is none other than Elon Musk. The Tesla and SpaceX owner has had, or claimed to have had, strong and outlandish opinions about and about the news platform that is about to become his sole property (barring regulatory hurdles). A recent account of his Tesla life presented him as an authorized control freak, but also distracted by multiple concerns in his ever-expanding portfolio.
Musk has a habit of buying or building companies and then relentlessly moving on to the next big thing. What happens next on Twitter is anyone’s guess, but the answer depends on how Musk answers some crucial questions before he loses interest.
It’s official: Elon Musk buys Twitter
Before we get to the questions, though, let’s make one thing clear: This is no ordinary media buyout. It’s a big problem. Some jaded Twitter users on Monday dismissed the $44 billion purchase of Twitter by the world’s richest man by comparing it to the $250 million purchase by Jeff Bezos, the world’s second richest human . Washington Post in 2013. The To post has around 1,000 journalists and a million readers. Twitter has over 200 million daily active users, all of whom can double as content creators.
Twitter is no ordinary medium. It sits at the center of events, with a reverse timeline that makes it the most immediate platform ever built. Its wittiest and most controversial content is distributed, in screenshot form, on its big, older brother Facebook. When Twitter thinks something is news, the media tends to agree. It has a particularly symbiotic relationship with TV, where presenters love to read tweets (mean or not).
And it has a vast network of communities in every human realm you can imagine, lovingly created and stitched together over years of fascinating threads. Which brings us to the first of three crucial questions:
Does Musk really care about current Twitter users?
In Twitter’s statement announcing the takeover, Musk was also measured that his last few weeks of tweets have been bizarre. He described Twitter in reverential terms: “Twitter is the digital public square where issues vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said. “Twitter has enormous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the user community to unlock it.”
And who in this community could argue with the list of features he suggested: defeating spambots, authenticating humans, making the algorithm open source? “Maximum reliable and broadly inclusive,” which Musk gave as the goal for the service, couldn’t have been better designed to appeal to all types of users.
The problem, however, may lie in Musk’s naivety about free speech. The new owner seems oblivious to the problem of hate speech and paradox of tolerance, not to mention how mobs can invade Twitter and carry out targeted harassment. Musk can happily tweet anything he wants hoping his “the worst reviews remain on Twitter“; Let’s see what he will do if those worst critics get doxxed by Elon Stans.
Human rights groups are already concerned about Musk’s ownership. “The last thing we need is a Twitter that deliberately turns a blind eye to violent and abusive speech against users, especially those who are disproportionately affected the most, including women, people non-binary and the like,” said Michael Kleinman, director of Amnesty International. told Reuters.
If Twitter returns to the cesspool of hate under Musk, however, it could have a chilling effect on the 217 million daily users who like it right now. Perhaps Musk is betting on the idea that he can somehow win back enough users who left Twitter (often due to unspecified cancellation) to compensate for those who would leave.
If Twitter returns to the cesspool of hate under Musk, however, it could have a chilling effect on the 217 million daily users who like it right now.
Turn Twitter into a Wild West environment, anything goes if it’s legal with no content moderation, however, and I wouldn’t bet on those creative, knowledge-rich, carefully threaded communities sticking around for long. Musk may find that “maximum trust” doesn’t work well with “widely inclusive,” not if the latter includes the worst kinds of trolls.
What kind of company does Musk want to run?
Credit where it’s due: By taking Twitter private, Musk has gained some breathing room in service of the market’s constant demand for profit. “Taking it back to Wall Street is the correct first step,” Jack Dorsey wrote in a thread Monday evening. “He belonged to Wall Street and the advertising model.”
Granted, Dorsey stands to benefit hugely from Musk’s $978 million offer. But he is right. Twitter is at a crossroads. In a sense, the same old business model of selling ads on the platform. On the other, a $3 per month subscription service called Twitter Blue.
Can Musk’s showmanship sell enough of these to help Twitter stop relying on its $4.5 billion in annual ad revenue? It’s a tough call, especially since the takeover arranged by Musk and the dozen banks he signed up is forcing Twitter into so much debt that interest payments alone will amount to $1 billion. dollars per year. That’s just slightly less than Twitter’s increase in ad revenue – $1.3 billion – in 2021.
It’s going to be hard to stop ad revenue, especially when so many of the company’s 7,500 employees depend on it. These employees were already wary of Musk’s style when he became Twitter’s largest shareholder earlier this month. They know they’re dealing with someone who has shows no signs he’s up to the task of running a media company.
So if Musk sweeps through the company’s moderation systems and advertisers fearful of content chaos head to the exits, employee resentment will pile up like firewood. And one question of moderation in particular could provide the spark.
Does Musk want to reinstate Trump?
Donald Trump says he wouldn’t return to Twitter even if invited. Longtime Trump watchers know how much that claim is worth. With his Truth Social tank and helpers still printing tweets for him to read, the former guy is more likely to miss his old online home like crazy.
“We are constantly evolving our policies”, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal told employees during an internal meeting when asked if Trump would be reinstated under Musk. “Once the deal is done, we don’t know which direction this company will go.” (Indeed, Agrawal doesn’t even know if he’ll get a job under Musk.)
The drumbeat of the right, calling for the return of Trump, will ring endlessly in Musk’s ears. Those of us who dislike lies, grandstanding and criminality will push hard in the opposite direction. And Musk will be exactly where he wants to be: at the center of a major controversy, with all eyes on him.
Constantly trolling and teasing the answer to Trump’s question can be great entertainment for Elon Musk and like-minded trolls. The answer could profoundly affect the midterm elections of 2022, let alone 2024. And if it results in employee walkouts, the house Jack built could start to look very flimsy.