Elon Musk won't fix Twitter (but he won't kill it, either)
Twitter is a funny company. It owns what is probably the most influential social platform on the planet—a concentrated network of elite figures in media, politics, technology, and entertainment, all of whom look toward the site as a guide to what is important in their fields—and yet it grows slowly and can't seem to post a consistent profit. It has a core of extraordinarily dedicated users, who spend hours a day creating and sharing content for the site, and yet many of those users would agree that the product is broken and the experience of using Twitter sucks ass. It created the defining experience of social media platforms—"the Feed"—and yet everything else about the product (at-replies, retweets, hashtags, the mobile apps, the word "tweet") was created by users and third parties, and only later (often begrudgingly) implemented by the platform's developers. For many years the entire company was run as a part-time job by a man who was intentionally starving himself, and yet it somehow swallowed a number of industries to the point where it has become not just the meeting place but the entire professional context for most journalists, political strategists, venture investors and kpop fans.
One consequence of these many constitutive tensions is that everyone who uses Twitter agrees that the company is "broken" in one way or another—the product is defective; the moderation is unsatisfactory; the culture is abhorrent; the business is underperforming. That no two people agree precisely on what is wrong with Twitter doesn't seem to diminish the shared sense that the company is bad, even though, and maybe especially because, some people spend so much time on it.
Now Elon Musk seems likely to own Twitter, and the overwhelming feeling is that Twitter is about to become either less bad, or much worse, depending on who you are and what you care about. Some of Miami's most annoying venture capitalists seem to believe that Musk will fire purportedly cosseted employees, restore allegedly lost free-speech rights, and thereby (?) unlock the value of the supposedly underperforming company. Some alarmed Twitter liberals are worried that Musk will loosen moderation, and unleash the forces of chaos, misinformation, trolling, the dreaded desinformatsiya, etc., on our fragile political system. (30,000 people joined the decentralized, open-source social-media protocol Mastodon after news broke that Musk's deal was likely to go through.)
I want to propose a third possibility, which is that Musk will not implement any significant changes, and in fact will strive to keep Twitter the same level of bad, and in the same kinds of ways, as it always has been, because, to Musk, Twitter is not actually bad at all.
I think there's a sort of strange assumption that underlies much of the speculation around Musk's plans for Twitter, i.e., that Musk shares the widespread belief among Twitter power users that Twitter sucks and needs to be fixed. A lot of commentary buys into the idea that Musk is buying Twitter either because it displeases him in some way ("The world’s richest person didn’t like Twitter. So he’s buying it," reads the subhed on one New York Times article about the purchase) or because it's failing at some fundamental task (running a consistent profit, realizing its potential value, protecting free speech, etc.), and that his plan is to "fix" it.
Granted, one reason that many commentators believe Musk is buying Twitter to "fix" its commitment to "free speech" is that he has said more or less that. What I am proposing here is that he is full of shit. Why would Musk want to "fix" anything about Twitter? While the platform might seem like a "broken" "bad" "hellsite" to many people (all of whom spend a significant portion of their waking hours there), an unpleasant experience that does not do what we want it to do, the one person for whom it is definitively not broken, the one person for whom Twitter is patently obviously not poorly designed or run, is Elon Musk. The average person's experience with Twitter is, like, being ignored by celebrities they reply to and trying to figure out what the fuck "Loona" is. Elon Musk's experience with Twitter is that he tweets, and then, whatever he said, whatever the context, he becomes richer. Why would he do anything to change that?
No one has made more money from Twitter than Elon Musk over the last two years, not even Twitter's management or biggest shareholders. Jack Dorsey is walking away from this deal with $860 million; Musk's net worth has catapulted from $12 billion in 2018 to $270 billion in 2022. There are obviously many reasons Musk's assets have appreciated so steeply, but in the absence of Twitter it's hard to imagine that Musk would have accumulated the highest net worth on the planet. As Ranjan Roy put it at Margins yesterday:
It’s conventional wisdom that Musk’s Twitter account transforms the unit economics of Tesla by allowing zero expenses on conventional brand marketing and PR. But the power of his tweeting also lowers his cost of capital, drives corporate partnerships, muscles regulatory pressure, is a recruiting tool, and touches every other element of Tesla, the business (not to mention every other business interest he owns).
Elon understands his access to tweeting is existential to every element of his business. It’s the difference between him being Phil Knight or Michael Dell-rich, to becoming the richest person in the world in nine short months.
But I think the key thing to take away here is that it's not just "social media" in the abstract, but Twitter, this Twitter, the platform that has semi-accidentally emerged out of the company's strange and spasmodic culture, history, and management, that has become a core component of the Musk business arsenal. There's a reason he doesn't do the epic-bacon market-manipulation shtick on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok; Twitter is, in the Goldilocks sense, just right for Elon: large enough to be important but small enough to still feel intimate; elite enough to be influential but casual enough to be manipulable; freewheeling enough to tolerate trolling but moderated enough to be safe for (some) journalists and retail investors; and above all focused on engagement and attention. It's this size, this level of profit motivation, this revenue stream, this balance of "moderation" against "free speech" that has worked for Musk, and any "fixes" he makes run the risk of lessening or diminishing some of his power and influence.
In fact, it'd be a little tendentious, but you could construct an argument that the whole reason Musk decided to buy Twitter is that the company looked like it was, maybe, straightening itself out. After years of aimless misrule—the aimless misrule that cultivated the mutant platform on which Musk made his fortune—co-founder and two-time CEO Jack Dorsey was forced out last November, and CTO Parag Agrawal took over. Agrawal cleaned house and set ambitious goals for the company to rethink its product; looming over these moves were ambitious revenue targets that the company was under increasing pressure from investors to meet. By buying Twitter and taking it private, Musk can now control any changes to the product and deflect at least some of the pressure to grow1.
That's why, I think, the changes Musk has suggested he will make to "unlock" Twitter's "tremendous potential" are either obvious (he plans on "defeating the spam bots"!), impractical (good luck "authenticating all humans") or so vague as to be meaningless ("making the algorithms open source" means what, precisely?). It's also why I don't put too much stock in the idea that Musk is out to transform Twitter on some fundamental level. Why would he welcome Nazi trolls back on the website if it scared away the journalists he relies on to give him coverage? Why would he fix the product in ways that might mean he shows up in fewer timelines? Why work through the contradictions when the contradictions have been so very good to you, personally?
To be clear, I don’t think this is benevolent; I think Twitter is bad and transformation would be welcome, if only because it might open new horizons of possibility. But from this perspective, Elon Musk didn't buy Twitter to transform it; he bought it to make sure it stays the same. In some sense that might be the worst outcome of all.
The problem Elon faces now is that, because this deal is so highly leveraged, he will likely have to make Twitter a somewhat more efficient and profitable business—but without cutting into the product "features" and philosophies that allow him to run roughshod over securities law. Look, I’m not saying that he’s making a wise business decision, here.