On Elon Musk giving Twitter "The Ultimatum: Acquire or Move On."
Can we please just tax this man properly? All this genuflecting is exhausting.
Today the world’s richest man strode on stage at the TED conference, and was asked why he was attempting to purchase Twitter.
“Twitter has become the de facto town square” was his immediate reply.
It is an instructive example of the ridiculous times we are now living in. At what previous point in history would the world’s richest man so plainly state: “I see here before me to the de facto town square. It simply must be mine!”?
But this is also the first time in history when the world’s richest man was also a meme-stealing edgelord, a “top-tier chaos muppet” who makes juvenile “69” and “420” references, and calls the people he picks fights with “pedo guy” and “Senator Karen” at people he dislikes. (Oh that Elon Musk… he’s just like the rest of us. But in a bad way.)
It has been an odd twist in an already-odd ten-day saga. First Elon Musk announced that he had acquired 9.2% of Twitter, making him the company’s largest shareholder. Reporters noted that, based on his SEC filing, he had no intention of joining the company’s board. Then the company announced that he would be joining the board (turns out he saved a cool $156 million by filing a delayed form. Must be nice…). A week went by. Musk kept posting dumb edgelord content. He suggested the company get rid of ads and start charging users. He said they should lose the “W” and change the name to “Titter.” Employees did not seem thrilled. And then the company announced he wouldn’t be joining the board after all. Either the fiduciary responsibility or the background check made the whole thing seem less fun to him. Then this morning, he announced that the only way to save Twitter was to buy the whole thing and take it private.
It’s a little hard to tell what problem Musk is trying to solve here. Twitter is already working just fine for Elon Musk. When he wants attention, he gets attention. If he wants to inflate or deflate the price of dogecoin or Bitcoin, he can do that unencumbered. If he wants to swipe memes or distract attention from working conditions at his factories, Twitter is his sandbox.
This might just be a Musk’s version of a midlife crisis. Some men buy a Tesla; Elon own s the factory. So instead he’s buying his favorite platform for goofing off, until and unless it becomes too much of a headache.
Or it might be a pump and dump scheme. Elon bought almost 10% of the company on a whim. His $43 billion takeover offer states that he would have to “reconsider his position as a shareholder” if they don’t sell him the whole thing. Even Elon Musk doesn’t have $43 billion readily on hand. This could very well be Musk doing his run-of-the-mill market manipulation showmanship, driving up the price as he prepares to sell off his impulse-purchase.
But what if he actually does it? What happens to Twitter if Elon Musk buys it outright?
Watching Musk’s TED interview, the thing that really sticks out is just how mundane his suggestions actually are. Add a short-term edit feature! (They’re already working on it) Cut down on the bots and scams! (Great idea. Literally no one disagrees with you though.) Lean towards protecting freedom of expression, while also obeying local regulations (uh, yeah. Done and done, basically?)
The closest he comes to a bold idea is making Twitter’s algorithms more transparent and posting everything to GitHub. Transparency (or, at least, auditability) is a laudable idea. Posting everything to GitHub is a short-sighted, colossal mess. The immediate outcome of setting your algorithms in stone and making them public is that strategic actors will immediately figure out how to game your algorithm for fun, for power, and for profit. This is social media history 101.
But all of these suggestions (except the GitHub tomfoolery) could be enacted through the seat he was offered on the Twitter board. These are whiffle-ball ideas. The problem with tamping down on the bots and scams isn’t that Twitter leadership loves their bots and scams. It’s that these are hard technical problems to solve!
The main problems with Twitter aren’t “too-much-speech-regulation” types of problems. Twitter has a hate speech problem, and a death threat problem, and a misinformation problem, and a misogyny problem. (I’ve said this before, but it’s worth noting it again here: I received zero death threats during the whole Bedbug thing. Women and People of Color face more abuse on an average Thursday then I faced during my week as one of the site’s main characters.)
Twitter also has a rickety old business model that suffers from being too old-and-reliable. The company prints money from advertising, but it doesn’t reliable print more money this quarter than it did last quarter. And it has made bad product decisions, like the time it decided Vine had no future, a few years before TikTok turned “Vine+Solid AI” into a world-beater.
But, more to the point, none of these are problems that Elon Musk is interested in solving. They aren’t problems for people who experience Twitter the way Elon experiences Twitter.
If Elon Musk manages to buy Twitter, he will ruin it. He’ll ruin it in the way that Rupert Murdoch ruined MySpace. He’ll ruin it the way Yahoo ruined Tumblr. He’ll ruin it because he is completely out of touch with what the platform actually needs.
The problem Twitter needs to solve is how people strategically game the algorithms, and how people use the platform for campaigns of harassment and harm. You solve those problems with better rules, more transparency, better content moderation, and better enforcement. You don’t solve them by saying “we’re free speech absolutists! Anything goes!”
Watching Elon in his TED interview, what also stood out was just how little he had to offer the crowd. Chris Anderson tossed him a softball at the end, inviting the world’s richest man to talk about the world he was building for his children. The response was pure pablum. “You know… I like humanity and I think that we should fight for a good future for humanity and I think we should be optimistic about the future and fight to make that optimistic future happen.” Yes. Brilliant, Elon. Wise words indeed.
A cult of personality still revolves around Musk — Elon Musk as modern-day Iron Man, Elon Musk as Tesla’s “technoking,” Elon Musk as market-making crypto savant.
The cult of personality insists that Elon has some special genius, some depth of insight that the rest of us lack. To the cult of Elon, it can only be a good thing if he buys Twitter. Surely he can fix things for the rest of us. Elon has main-character energy.
But if you step back and really look at him, the only thing that matters here is his wealth. Musk offers no special insights or breakthrough ideas. He hasn’t thought hard about how to protect free speech while also warding off the waves of abuse that always follow when money and power are involved. He hasn’t glimpsed the future and developed an ambitious plan for how to get there.
The world’s richest man has decided he’d like to buy his favorite toy. It only costs $43 billion. If he ruins it for the rest of us, he’ll just find something else to amuse himself.
There are plenty of reasons why we ought to tax and regulate the tech billionaires. The reason we should focus on today is that, when wealth inequality gets this far out-of-control, the downstream effects get increasingly ridiculous.
Elon Musk doesn’t have special insights into how to improve Twitter. He hasn’t thought that hard about it, even. But he likes Twitter, and thinks it has effectively become the town square. So why not buy it?
If he was a multi-millionaire instead of a multi-billionaire, then we wouldn’t need to take these flights-of-fancy so seriously.
[Updated 6:17pm to remove a phrase-repetition that annoyed me when I noticed it]