Why would Elon Musk buy 9.2% of Twitter?
The logic of social media
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Monday morning greeted us with two important stories about Elon Musk. The first, and obviously more important, is that the billionaire Tesla founder was (maybe?) turned away from the legendary Berlin club Berghain:
While Musk’s ambiguously worded tweet suggests that he refused to enter the club because the word “PEACE” was on the wall, gossip on social media and some subsequent reporting has suggested that in fact Musk was himself denied entry. (Rumors that Sven Marquadt, Berghain’s legendary bouncer, had been hired to work at the Tesla Gigafactory outside Berlin seem to have been based on an April Fool’s joke article.)
A source who was at Berghain on Saturday night tells Read Max that “word had spread” inside that Musk had been bounced, and that, consequently, “the party had a very good energy.” Musk did apparently obtain entry to the Kitkat Club, an infamous sex club, on Friday night.
The other bit of Elon Musk-related news, of course, is that he now owns 9.2 percent of Twitter, making him the social network’s largest shareholder:
The purchase, made public on Monday in a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, is worth about $2.89 billion based on the closing price of Twitter’s stock on Friday. News of Mr. Musk’s buy-in sent Twitter share prices soaring. […]
The purchase, equal to 9.2 percent of the company, appears to make Mr. Musk Twitter’s largest shareholder. His holding is slightly larger than Vanguard’s 8.8 percent at the end of last year, and it dwarfs the 2.3 percent stake of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s former chief executive. The shares represent a fraction of Mr. Musk’s reported $270 billion-plus net worth.
The news was met with surprise, if not shock. Why would a multibillionaire like Elon Musk go and buy nearly a tenth of Twitter? Not, surely, as an investment in the business of Twitter. As Matt Levine writes, “Elon Musk did not buy 9.2% of Twitter to make money. He already has all the money, and Twitter has kind of a mixed record of making money for its public shareholders.”
The Times suggests that the purchase is likely rooted in his recent criticism of Twitter “for failing in his view to adhere to free speech principles.” Last week, Musk tweeted out a poll asking his followers if they felt Twiter “rigorously adheres” to the principle of free speech, warning them that “the consequences of this poll will be important.”
That explanation, of course, requires you to take Musk’s tweets at face value. At Bloomberg, Levine takes the view — supported more by Musk’s actions than by his words — that Musk probably bought 10 percent of Twitter because he’s addicted to being annoying on the platform:
If you are the richest person in the world, and annoying, and you constantly play a computer game, and you get a lot of enjoyment and a sense of identity from that game and are maybe a little addicted, then at some point you might have some suggestions for improvements in the game. So you might leave comments and email the company that makes the game saying “hey you should try my ideas.” And the company might ignore you (or respond politely but not move fast enough for your liking). It might occur to you: “Look, I am the richest person in the world; how much could this game company possibly cost? I should just buy it and change the game however I want.” Even if your complaints are quite minor, why shouldn’t you get to play exactly the game you want? Even if you have no complaints, why not own the game you love, just to make sure it continues to be exactly what you want? [… Musk] bought 9.2% of Twitter because he has money, and wants to spend some of it on being more annoying on Twitter.
I would propose a third explanation for Musk’s investment, which is that Twitter, and its ability to generate attention and hype, is an essential component of the business strategy for Tesla, SpaceX, and the Boring Company, and some level of internal power within the most important platform from which he promotes his ventures is surely worth $2.89 billion to Musk. (The money represents only about one percent of Musk’s total estimated net worth, after all.)
In fact, I think it’s not simply that Twitter is where Musk is able to draw the necessary attention to himself and his companies, or that Twitter is where his most devoted fans and customers gather to police criticism of their beloved whenever an epic Tesla firmware update accidentally launches drivers through the sunroof, or whatever. It’s also about the broad power that Twitter has offered Musk: As Levine has written about extensively, thanks to his loyal ultras and outsized reputation, Musk is able to move stock prices precipitously simply by tweeting; he doesn’t even really need to be tweeting about a given company for his speech to move markets. If I had that kind of power, I would very much want to consolidate it! And owning a tenth of Twitter is a good way to start doing that.
You could create a schema of these three explanations for Musk’s surprising investment, basically something like:
Elon Musk bought into Twitter to protect free speech.
Elon Musk bought into Twitter to protect shitposting.
Elon Musk bought into Twitter to protect self-promotion.
When you put it like this it seems unlikely that any of the three rationales are really mutually exclusive. Musk, like Donald Trump and Logan Paul and a handful of other black holes of energy and attention, grasps in an instinctive way the logic of social media: power and money are a product of attention, attention is accumulated by being annoying, being annoying is enabled by speech protections. In the hands of a particularly cynical poster, “free speech” is nothing more than the right to shitpost, which itself is merely a species of self-promotion. To protect free speech is to protect shitposting is to protect self-promotion.
It would be nice to think that there are ways to break this logic. “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square,” Musk tweeted last week, “failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.”
I have some objections to this idea, which I’ll put in a footnote here1, but I think a lot of people would generally agree with the thrust of his argument. The thing is, if you believe that Twitter is a de facto public sphere with an insincere or limited commitment to its status as such, surely the way to fix that problem is to support the creation of more and different “public town squares,” perhaps “town squares” that are actually designed from the bottom up to be spaces of inquiry and discussion instead of websites designed to sell advertising to captive audiences that sort of accidentally became major communications platforms despite their best efforts. Or perhaps if Twitter is the “de facto” public sphere maybe we should make it the “de jure” public sphere, by establishing an enforceable legal regime, instead of an arbitrary and patchwork TOS, governing speech rights on the platform. I don’t know that either of those solutions is particularly politically feasible, nor am I sure they would fix all of our ills. But “a billionaire bought 10 percent of the de facto public town square” is not a sentence that usually ends “and it turned out really great.”
I am not at all convinced that Twitter is a “public town square.” For starters, I don’t know that it’s “public” in the way an ideal “town square” should be; relatively few people use Twitter at all and even fewer of them actually tweet. If my back-of-the-envelope math is right, about five percent of Americans produce 97 percent of (American) tweets, and I don’t think it’d be going out on a limb if I said that that five percent is probably not broadly representative of Americans. Indeed, what makes Twitter influential, important, and powerful isn’t that it’s a “public” space but that it’s an incredibly elite space: nowhere else are you going to find quite so heavy a concentration of people working in tech, media, entertainment, and politics. And that’s all setting aside the question of whether or not “town square” is actually the right kind of metaphor for a technology whose main political quality is not that it provides an open forum for political debate or discussion but its usefulness as a tool for mobilization. None of which is to say that “free speech” is not an “issue” on the platform, I just think we want to start thinking pretty hard about “public sphere”-type arguments about social media.