September 22, 2023


Delighting finance buffs

Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter feels like a rich man’s tantrum

The thing about being a billionaire is that when you are faced with a problem, you can just throw money at it.

So when Elon Musk this week made a bid for the ownership of Twitter, it felt a bit like a rich man’s tantrum. Not content to be on the board of the company, he instead played the role of a cartoonish rich man from cinema: “Well I’ll just buy the damn thing then!”

As of writing this column, Musk’s bid is still up in the air, and Twitter’s board plans to fight it — assuming, of course, that the bid itself isn’t just another publicity stunt or outburst from a notoriously unpredictable person.

Ostensibly, however, Musk’s desire to buy Twitter stems from a desire to transform the company and, in his words, “unlock its potential” by focusing on some vague, undefined idea of “free speech” and to innovate by taking the company private.

Musk’s understanding of free speech, however, particularly as it relates to online networks, is quite plainly childish; on the web, unmoderated spaces are profoundly unfree because they fill up with hate and harassment, silencing all but the loudest and most powerful — among whom Musk is clearly both.

But even if Musk’s bid fails or is more simply disingenuous, the fact that someone could offer to buy Twitter is itself remarkable. No company that is as vital to the functioning of modern societies should even be in a position to be snapped up by a billionaire — yes, even if he is in fact the richest man in the world.

It betrays a deep problem both at and with Twitter. Recently, professor Scott Galloway put it succinctly in a blog post on Musk’s machinations: “Twitter is among the most important products in history (real-time news source, global communications platform), yet it remains a lackluster investment.”

For the sake of argument, let us put aside the question of whether a global communications platform should in fact be run by a single private company — and that, too, one clustered with all the other big tech companies on America’s west coast.

Instead, Twitter’s failure to capitalize on its enormous potential stems from a management that seems to misunderstand its own product, while also taking far too long to implement new features to make the service better.

Galloway’s comment that Twitter is among the most important products in history requires some context, however. At around 200 million users, Twitter falls far shy of Facebook’s massive three billion plus user base or TikTok’s billion plus users.

But Twitter’s import is much less about being the place that everyone gathers than it is a microcosm of public discourse. Although it has become popular to repeat the mantra “Twitter is not real life” — a reminder that Twitter is not broadly representative of ‘the public’ at large — that phrase also misses that Twitter has a massively outsize influence on culture at large because it is the vector through which announcements are made, debates are had, and the chattering classes hash out the issues of the day.

Its significance is thus much different from Facebook, but also arguably not lesser.

But Twitter’s own management seems to undercut this importance. For one, those same so-called chattering classes refer to Twitter as “the hellsite,” a nod to how mentally and emotionally draining the app can be to use. Acrimony is rife, harassment and drive-by insults are common, and the longer you use the site the worse it gets.

No, Twitter cannot itself control the polarization and disagreement that signify a healthy democracy — and nor should it. But it has been painfully slow to implement features that cut down on the bitterness on Twitter, whether the ability to remove oneself from conversations, limit who can reply to you, or who can see your tweets.

Similarly, the capacity of anyone with even a moderate following to cast a harsh light on a single outburst can encourage harassment and brigading, and the unwillingness of Twitter to allow for an easy way to delete tweets or create ephemeral ones only makes matters worse.

Put more simply, Twitter is a vital but miserable place, and the company that runs it seems bent on doing as little as it can to make it any better.

In a conversation at TED on Thursday after his bid, Elon Musk revealed he has a shockingly naive view of what would make Twitter better, amounting to little more than “people should say whatever they want.”

It is quite plainly an inadequate, sophomoric understanding of the dynamics of online networks, spouted by a man who may have done much for clean electric cars but otherwise often pollutes the public sphere.

Unfortunately, Twitter’s own management appears little better when it comes to making the social platform a better place — and it’s why a know-nothing like Musk can at least try and swoop in and claim to want to fix what is nonetheless clearly broken.

Correction — April 18, 2022: This column was edited to remove a reference that Elon Musk was denied the opportunity to be on the board of directors of Twitter. In fact, he turned down a seat.