Elon Musk Bought Twitter: So What?
Practical reflections, a "free speech" caution, and an encouragement to not care so much.
After a morning full of chatter about Twitter’s board entertaining Elon Musk’s latest, last, and best offer to buy the social media giant, the news broke around midday yesterday that Twitter’s board of directors accepted Elon Musk’s buyout offer of $54.20 per share, valuing the company at about $44 billion (about $6-7 billion more than its market cap). This action takes the company private, pulling it off of the stock exchange (once the deal is final in a few months).
Here’s a quote from Twitter’s press release:
"Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," said Mr. Musk. "I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it."
You can read the whole press release here if you want.
So, in summary:
Twitter's board approves deal of $54.20 per share, $44B total
Twitter will become private company
Elon Musk: “Free speech is bedrock of democracy.”
Elon Musk: “Adding new features, open source algorithm,” vows to defeat spam bots and “authenticate all humans”
So much to think about with this! I am genuinely shocked it happened, frankly. I thought Elon Musk was more trying to make a point than anything with his offer to buy Twitter, and I didn’t think he would pay such a premium to do it.
Also! Lest we forget, it seems that Elon Musk got it in his head—at least in part—to purchase Twitter when Twitter gave a temporary suspension to the Babylon Bee.
Alas here we are. Elon Musk is the Owner of Twitter. Lots of people have lots of feelings about this, and we’ll get to those momentarily. But first, let’s talk practical about how it affects Twitter.
Charting Twitter’s Future
It’s going to be interesting to see how this affects Twitter in a practical way both in the near and long term. First, we have to talk about Elon Musk.
I understand that Elon Musk is a pretty divisive figure. People seem to either loathe him or love him. I don’t really feel much when it comes to Elon Musk, but I do find him to be a pretty compelling individual and an obviously smart person. What he has led Tesla and SpaceX to do is pretty remarkable. Tesla gets most of the press, but I have long been fascinated by the way SpaceX is using commercial space flight to drive innovation for the future.
Regarding Musk, I have said before that it’s pretty cool that one of the richest and most powerful people in the world is actively trying to make the world a better place with his time and money, rather than just chillin on some mega-yacht in the Mediterranean, which is what I would be doing.
Set aside whatever you feel about Elon Musk for a moment. Let’s look at the claims he’s made about what he wants to do with Twitter:
Make it a “free speech” platform
“Add new features”
“Make the algorithms open source to increase trust”
“Defeat the spam bots”
“Authenticate all humans”
That’s just a short list of what he has formally explained, though he has made plenty of other comments in passing as well.
Honestly, that is a pretty awesome list of possible changes. New features (like editing) could be great. Making the algorithms open source is a wonderful idea and unprecedented in the social media space—it could also be a way for Twitter to generate a lot of revenue. Defeating spam bots is a lofty, but admirable, goal. Authenticating all humans also sounds like it could be a good idea, but it could come with some negative ramifications depending on how it’s handled. Anonymous Twitter accounts, for instance, could be negatively affected by such a policy. And such Twitter accounts are actually quite good for the platform.
The only one of the above points that gives me the heebie-jeebies is the “free speech” platform aspect. Now, to be clear, I have no problem with free speech as a right. Obviously such a right is foundational to American values and a flourishing society.
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But promising a “free speech” social media platform makes me nervous because I’m not exactly sure what this could mean. Some of the places on the internet that tout “free speech” today are overrun with gore, images of death and violence, sexual content (legal and illegal), and all other kinds of horrendous forms of speech I don’t want to come across on my Twitter feed even accidentally. So while a commitment to Twitter being a “free speech” platform sounds nice in theory, you have to recognize what that could mean. It could mean accidentally coming across some pretty vile content with a wrong tap or two.
Ben Collins covers the seedy underbelly of the internet for NBC News and called the January 6 insurrection before it happened because he hangs out in the groups where it was organized. He tweeted yesterday afternoon:
I don’t necessarily agree that Twitter will go that way, but it’s what I fear may happen if the “free speech” platform bit of Elon Musk’s plan isn’t executed carefully. Twitter is my favorite social media platform. I don’t want it to become overrun by the worst forms of free speech.
The biggest question on all of these changes though is, “Can Elon Musk get Twitter’s employees on his team?” Musk probably has tons of fans and haters within Twitter just like he does out in the wider world, and it’s going to be interesting to see how much shaking up needs to happen to actually make progress on his goals.
I, for one, am hopeful. Yes, I have concerns about the practicality of a “free speech” social media platform and how it could lead to a cesspool of nastiness. But that concern aside, I really like some of the ideas Elon Musk has proposed, and I think that it could turn out well for the common Twitter user like me. Regardless, it’s going to be a sight to behold.
Now, to the bigger picture.
Big Picture: Calm Down
Riffing on an old Chris Rock bit about the O. J. Simpson trial verdict, a friend texted me about the Musk/Twitter news, “Conservatives are too happy and liberals are too mad,” and yeah, that seems about right.
I follow many conservatives and many liberals on Twitter, and I can verify what my friend texted. A handful conservative people I follow are shouting for joy at the prospect of Twitter being a “free speech” platform, wondering how quickly former President Trump will return to the platform (he’s said he won’t, but he has been known to lie on occasion!). Likewise, many of the liberals I follow on Twitter—most of them social media journalists and authors who write about such things—have donned sackcloth and ashes and are wailing at the thought of the world’s richest man, their arch-capitalist nemesis, the real life Tony Stark, running their favorite social media platform. Many liberals, perhaps the same who moved to Canada after President Trump won in 2016, are vowing to leave Twitter altogether now that Elon Musk owns it.
I think we all just need to calm down.
If you ask anyone bemoaning Musk’s purchase of Twitter who owns the majority of other social media platforms, or who owned the majority of Twitter before Musk, they probably couldn’t tell you. It’s just that Musk is such a lightning rod that people have suddenly begun to care about social media platform ownership.
Over on my Twitter timeline today, people were going wild with the most definitive, histrionic takes on Musk’s acquisition will mean for the user experience. Twitter is about to be overtaken by trolls and harassers; Twitter is about to re-learn 10 years’ worth of lessons about content moderation the hard way; Twitter is about to see an employee exodus like none we have ever seen. And so on.
Maybe all of that is true, or maybe none of it is. At least some of the worries would seem to be justified, based on Musk’s pasts statements. But the cart feels way ahead of the horse here, and in any case predicting Elon Musk’s behavior is a mug’s game. For all its cultural importance, Twitter had a notably undistinguished life as a public company. For better and for worse, it’s now up to Musk to see whether it can fare any better as a private one.
I don’t think Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is worth our joy or our lament. Maybe I’m just out of touch with my emotions (I am—another matter), but I don’t think a social media platform’s change of ownership should make or ruin my day.
It’s amazing to me how much we can care about who owns a social media platform and totally miss that social media platforms own us. But, perhaps that’s part of why we care.
Maybe, deep down, we feel that if our favorite social media platform gets a new boss, then we get a new boss. In part, this is true. The social media content we create for Twitter or Facebook or Instagram isn’t ours. It’s owned by the platforms. And in expressing ourselves for free, we are paid attention, ever enchanted by shadows of intimacy, which float away into the virtual ether as quickly as they came.
Perhaps we care so much about who owns social media platforms because they play too central a role in our lives.
If you find yourself jumping for joy or drowning in tears amid Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, maybe you should be a bit more concerned about what this says about you than what Musk could mean for Twitter.
We don’t know a lot about what will happen. But we do know it won’t be boring.
If you’d like to read more about how social media is shaping us in ways we may not realize, you can check out my book, Terms of Service. Thanks for reading!