Your hot take on Elon's Twitter purchase is probably wrong
Birds aren't real, and neither are a lot of these flash analyses of Musk's purchase of our favorite feathered app. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.
Of all the ink spilled over the $44 billion Elon Musk spent to take Twitter private, what stands out to me is how little of it took a birds-eye view of the situation. Tuesday felt like the end of an era, and not just for the company. Twitter was one of the early social media darlings in the mid-2000s, but its longevity is less important than its mere survival. The social app landscape is littered with corpses, blown VC dollars, and broken dreams. But while Twitter’s underperformance made it an acquisition target, it’s still standing and has massive cultural influence in a space where others died spectacular deaths.
Remember Google Buzz? Peach? Yo? Gowalla? Twitter survived them all. But in going back to being a privately held company, I look at this news as a closing chapter on an era in overinvestment in social platforms. The world of AR and VR are coming, fintech as an integrated backbone (and perhaps even an organizing principle itself) is ascendant, and apps built around mere posting feel very old money. Looking for the next Twitter as an alternative is foolish. There cannot be another Twitter, because the market is building other products now.
The buzz (not the Buzz, mind you) yesterday was more about larger concerns some Twitter users had about what the sale means for Twitter’s direction. Musk’s operating principle in pursuing the purchase was that he disagreed with Twitter’s content moderation policies and standards, and ostensibly by taking the company private that would free him from a board of directors and allow him to redo those policies in ways that give more latitude to users. That is my charitable reading of his aims. Others are much more concerned, saying it starts with bringing Trump back (though Trump claims he’s not interested, which means he probably is) and taking the restraints off of some of Twitter’s most abusive users.
Twitter has never been a particularly kind place when it comes to abuse from anonymous trolls, particularly to folks in the LGBTQ community, women and people of color. While the company does have standards in place, it hasn’t been able to keep up with the sheer scale of its problems and it also has a history of enforcing its rules unevenly. Critics have long argued the company needs to devote resources to engineering better tools to block bots, trolls and abusers and instead we got Fleets and Twitter Blue. In some ways this is related to the company’s poor performance. The products that developers worked on were intended to grow active daily users, and the twisted logic of social platforms is that abusive users are still active users a company can count when seeking advertising revenue, and so there were always incentives to turn a blind eye.
So the burning question is how much more toxic the platform will become for people at the margins in the Musk era. A lot of that question is going to depend on Musk himself, and what it is he actually believes.
There is … a lot going on there. It’s easy to zero in on the free speech argument and track that with his past criticism of Twitter’s content moderation policies. It’s easy to look at this statement and see your worst fears realized. But I zero in on the middle part in particular, where he talks about taking on spam bots, because bots remain sources of some of the worst things on Twitter. A free speech platform that verifies people (“authenticating all humans” sounds right out of a cyberpunk novel) and nukes bots such that this town square is an actual conversation has some merit, with much weighing on what content standards Twitter will end up with and whether users finally will get tools to stop abuse.
Again, this is a charitable reading about the intentions of a man Casey Newton has famously called a “chaos muppet.” But right now I’m firmly in wait-and-see mode on the purchase for a few reasons.
Musk can’t afford a mass exodus. I’m not talking reputation, I am talking money. He borrowed most of the $44 billion to make this purchase. He has creditors, and that means he likely had to put up assets as collateral. Twitter made a bit over $3 billion in profit last year on about $5 billion in revenue, but even that revenue was thanks to a nearly 40% growth in revenue post-2020. The company did pretty well since banning Trump relative to previous years, and bringing back Trump or letting the platform become more toxic could drive people away in ways that will hurt the revenue generation.
This matters, of course, because much of that $3 billion in profit is in the short term going to be paid to creditors in the form of debt service. It’s not hard to imagine he’s looking at about $2 billion in debt payments per year. Twitter is only a year removed from only $1 billion in profit, so you’d have to think a user exodus would be a critical concern up front lest he face calls on the assets he leveraged to acquire the financing.
The way I look at it is that the people mad about Trump being booted already left Twitter, and the company is still doing quite well (and in fact growing!). Any replatforming of abusive users has potential financial implications, and so the decision to do so without any content standards feels like a pretty poor financial decision from this corner. His collateral has to at least partly be his stock/stake in Tesla, and that makes the purchase more than a billionaire vanity project lest he lose functional (not financial) control of his most valuable company. He didn’t get to this point by being stupid. While his ideas on free speech and town squares smack of recycled technolibertarianism and the predictable muddling of a constitutional guarantee that doesn’t apply to private companies, he surely sees the financial incentives to not bleed users.
A toxic own-the-libs-without-the-libs social network can’t work. Just ask Gab, or Parler, or Gettr. Or lol Truth Social. This isn’t right-wing radio, which took off in a different era when local monopolies mattered and a hierarchical form of information distribution still had legs. Social apps are networked forms of information flow, built around conversation, and a conversation full of agreement and vigorous nodding is boring. People don’t join a social network because they love free speech. That might be a philosophy that guides how you run a network or think it ought to operate, but it’s not a topic unless we’re talking about a college class. We don’t sit around talking about free expression; we use it to talk about things we care about. No, free expression might be a draw but if the conversation is boring, many will leave.
And that’s precisely what happened to those other apps. Trump got booted from Twitter, people got mad and left to these upstart competitors, and then many of them returned to Twitter. It turns out that in addition to free speech, some of the worst actors online also need to believe they are being heard by people that dislike them. And that remains the underlying risk for a liberal exodus on Twitter. Bleeding users on the left also risks creating a deadzone that will lead to lack of interest on the right.
In other words, the failed attempts at conservative Twitter alternatives is precisely the reason your worst fears about what the service becomes under Elon are probably overwrought. You worry about a radioactive Twitter experience, but it’s more likely to end in the site’s death and Elon losing his collateral assets. So, let’s assume for a second Elon is a rational actor and not being immature and petty (I know, I know …). A bit of moderation and technology magic is likely in order to make this work and not have him losing his stake in Tesla and SpaceX. Which leads to my next point.
There is a technical path to having his cake and eating it too
Elon is a famous Twitter shitposter, but he’s also a billionaire running a global company. He hasn’t yet had to learn about what regular Twitter users do with the service he’s about to acquire, the kind of internal research the company has had and used to make decisions. Most of his stances on speech and features are philosophical and dictated by his own experience, but they’ve never had to be applied at scale to millions of individuals because he’s never run a media company. That is fine when you’re just one highly trafficked account on a platform you don’t own, but it doesn’t translate into good policy when you own the platform.
If he wants to own a stable company, he’s going to have to learn what Twitter has long known about its users and how that information has shaped some of the content policies he despises. It might not be enough to reverse course on all his ideas, but that information is crucial to keeping the lights on and the revenue flowing to his creditors. He no longer has the luxury of standing on pure philosophical objection when he has this much skin in the game.
There’s another layer to this that’s important. There is no such thing as a universal Twitter experience. One of the platform’s unique strengths that separate it from other social networking competitors is that it’s built mostly on following people you don’t know and sorting you by interests and passions. Facebook and LinkedIn are larger, but those products largely are mapping real-world connections. Twitter is more like Instagram, a social graph of people you know and interesting people whose work you like or admire. There are layers upon layers of subcultures on Twitter, ones that most users are oblivious to as an experience even if a post or two sometimes leaks into their feed by a retweet. If I had to put my finger on what makes Twitter unique among its social platform competitors, it is that.
To that end, it’s possible he could replatform some of the worst abusers and have it largely go unnoticed if at the same time he gives people tools to create better personal experiences around the subcultures they want to be part of. Banning bots and giving people better tools to block abusers aren’t nothing. Besides cutting people off from harmful targeting, they also give people the ability to create a Twitter experience that means they don’t see the worst stuff happening unless they go looking for it.
There are less visible kinds of re-platforming that won’t bleed users
Related to the last point, it is much more helpful to view possible changes in terms of how information reaches people, not in terms of the content itself. Most of the worst effects of relaxed standards likely will be about the platform effects of viral, dangerous misinformation because that is much more likely to obscure without much public notice.
To that end, if I had to predict anything it’d be that misinformation is going to thrive in the Musk era but content standards around abuse would largely remain and we might even get better tools to stop it, because abuse is most visible to users in ways that might make them quit the service. Not because of anything Musk believes, but because this is the cold economic reality he is facing when loaded with debt service.
It is arguable Musk might not care about backlash or lost users or revenue. He certainly has ways he can raise more revenue via subscription or data sales, but he also has said he’s not wanting to do advertising. So there’s some undetermined tradeoff there and the balance of that equation matters. But either way, all of these models depend on active users to pay with their attention or their Dogecoin.
In that sense, the path forward is to turn those subcultures into echo chambers by giving people the very tools they’ve asked for. In that sense, a workable vision of a future Twitter would be echo chambers that increasingly become less aware of one another, such that we look around and don’t think “this hellsite has gotten worse” even if we wouldn’t say it’s much better. That isn’t a growth mindset, but stasis will do when you have creditors. That’s my read of “open sourcing algorithms” in Musk’s statement. Imagine letting people opt into algorithms designed openly by developers that let you choose your own echo chamber in the form of your Twitter timeline rather have it be thrust upon you by an algorithm working in the background.
If this sounds like increasing our addiction to the service by making our ability to create filter bubbles more efficient and lasting, I wouldn’t disagree with you. Would that be a cynical way to have his free speech dream while also not shutting off the revenue spigot? Hell yes, and also it’s arguably not great for democracy. It’s a different, somewhat more dystopian vision of the future than the hand-wringers on Twitter yesterday, one that requires us to squint a bit more to see some of the damage being done. Out of sight, out of mind. How much attention span and fight do we have in us?
Finally, the data caveat
There’s one darker place this could all go, one I saw scant mention of yesterday but worries me more than conspiracy theorists and abusers: what Musk would do with our data.
To date, Twitter has been run with a growth mindset from startup to publicly traded company. The decisions the company made were largely and transparent to increase trust in the brand and grow active users. But the upshot of this is they have nearly 20 years’ worth of user data that has mostly been deployed to create products and sell ads. But that is incredibly valuable data for non-commercial purposes, and it is an opportunity for an unscrupulous seller.
I’m thinking of political campaigns and activists, foremost. Small changes in the Terms Of Service that allow Twitter much more liberal and untransparent sale of data certainly would be a concern when you have a single owner who isn’t beholden to shareholders, and theoretically even old data from users who long quit the service would be of value for buyers
I worry more about the loss of guardrails that come from having no board of directors, shareholders, and regulatory authority that comes with being a publicly traded company. Data sales, sure, but also how the company would handle subpoenas for user data. Twitter more than most companies has famously gone to court to fight invasive fishing expedition requests. Does the new owner share these concerns, and how can he transparently show that user data is off limits to revenue generation?
I am wait-and-see on the effects of the sale. There were a lot of understandable knee-jerk reactions yesterday, and I share some of the worries many expressed. But I do think the financial realities Musk is facing are at least cause for some initial restraint as he figures out what the hell he just purchased, and my hope is that as he learns more about how the service works it will make plain that the major changes he argued for as a mere user have huge financial costs that mean losing control of Tesla.
This is not an “Elon will moderate once he becomes president” argument, because life doesn’t work like that for billionaires. He got to this place by being who he is, and with his wealth there isn’t anyone left to tell him no. That makes him dangerous in that regard, an unaccountable owner of one of the most influential media companies on the planet. But he still understands the language of finance, and for now the incentives seem lined up in ways that would prohibit him from turning Twitter back into the Wild West like it was in those early days of 2007-08 when I first joined up. There are no better angels here; we are counting on him not being stupid enough to lose control of his other assets.
Is it enough? Who knows. I just don’t think there is a natural place to go instead, and so my hope is it will be enough.
Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Find him on Twitter (until Elon sends him fleeing to loving embrace of Yo) at @jeremylittau.
Thank you for your enlightening perspective. That was a great read.