Opinion Elon Musk is many things. The richest man in the world with over $200 billion in his back pocket. An instigator of PayPal. CEO and chief engineer of SpaceX, the biz that restored the US’s manned space capabilities. Owner of the most valuable car company on the planet. And as of April 14, he says he wants to be the owner of Twitter.
As with all things Musk, there are multiple ways to look at his latest move. It could be exactly what he says it is: a $43 billion bid for a $37 billion company which he feels is woefully underperforming. It could be a power move after he bought nine per cent of Twitter and first did – then didn’t – get a seat on the board, under circumstances not entirely transparent and which may have breached US financial trading laws.
Or it could be a move to inflate Twitter’s stock prior to divesting. Musk is no stranger to using Twitter as part of his fiscal engineering, and the Feds are no strangers to slapping him down as a result.
Let’s take Musk at his word, and assume he can see ways of making Twitter a money machine. It’s certainly not one at the moment. Launched fifteen years ago, it only made its first profit in 2019. So can it become one, and is he the right person for the job?
Twitter preps poison pill to preclude Elon Musk’s purchase plan
Twitter suffers from the basic contradiction of social media: the better it is at capturing attention, the harder it is to commercialize.
The headline number of more than 200 million monthly users across the globe means very little. There is no one Twitter community – there are hundreds and thousands. If you are a lawyer, you will be in legal Twitter. An anthropologist, in anthropology Twitter. Journalists and politicians love it, of course, so news Twitter and politics Twitter give the platform genuine importance.
All active Twitter users have their own unique, self-curated experience – a mix of their professional and personal interests, of supportive and provocative views, of trusted news sources and entertaining blabbermouths. Ideas, memes, gossip – synthesized, filtered and digested – are the common currency.
Twitter is a rainforest ecosystem of creatures interacting and feeding off each other. Like complex ecosystems, it is highly sensitive to pollution and change. One of Twitter’s most cherished features is not the platform’s ability to insert promoted commercial tweets into user’s timelines, it’s the ability to block them if they’re annoying. Good advertising – lively, well thought out commercial Twitter accounts – are welcome. But the bad, crass and inappropriate can be screened. Great for users, terrible for revenue.
As for evolution, the users do that at their own rate. The hashtag wasn’t Twitter’s idea. Twitter’s constant attempts to innovate for profit – Fleets, Spaces, Periscope, Vine – are routinely ignored to death. Useful innovations – polls, embedded photos, link shortening – are accepted if they’re not compulsory. Annoyances are rejected.
It would be a bold move indeed to put Elon Musk in charge of such a rainforest. Delicately balanced complex systems are not a good match for someone who sells flamethrowers for fun and reacts with profane fury to criticism of his sometimes daft ideas. Being the world’s richest person insulates one from consequence and emboldens self-promotion. He has Big Ideas – for Mars, underground transport and brain implants – that often turn out to be Bad Ideas.
Musk is more complex than hardened detractors or rabid fanboys admit. He has the mix of rancid and progessive views with which techbros are comfortable. Here is a man who would sing the praises of the rainforest’s amazing variety of exotic creatures and then maybe set about clearing all those dull trees blocking the view, replacing them with transparent robo-trees for Jungle 2.0.
The purpose of a rainforest, and the purpose of Twitter, is not to make a tonne of money. It is to exist, to survive, to evolve – to behave in ways that may or may not be useful. Shareholders may disagree.
Burning down the forest to farm cattle makes money in the short term, but is catastrophic in the long. Treating the forest with respect, learning how its interactions and biochemistry work in the hope of improving our own lives – and yes, perhaps making money that way – is both sustainable and enriching. It is not compatible with the idea that technology and capitalism are the answer to everything, and Musk with his degrees in engineering and finance is that creature more than any other.
Twitter’s job is to be Twitter – not to make people rich. Again, shareholders may disagree. Musk is capable of understanding such things, as his Open AI initiative shows, but that’s not how he sees things here.
He would be a very bad match for the job of owning the service. At best, he’d see it as a giant toy box to try out grandiose ideas until he got bored. At worst, he would exploit it as an advertising platform to burn to the ground.
Elon, you have enough toys. Go and play among the stars, and let 200 million people get on with their lives online. ®