—That escalated quickly.
Days after the inexplicably idle mega-billionaire and chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX announced that he had bought a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter and would join its board, wait no he’s not doing that; Musk says he wants the whole damn thing.
In a tweet, Musk disclosed that he served Twitter an offer to buy its remaining stock at $54 per share, seemingly confirming murmurs that his endgame — and it is a game for him — is staging a hostile takeover of one of the world’s most prominent social networks.
It’s still a mystery how Musk plans to conjure enough cash to execute his grand plans at Twitter while competently helming two large, ambitious tech companies, but the world’s richest man apparently didn’t have enough to keep him busy. Not content to simultaneously run two tech companies, Musk is aiming for three. And that could be very bad news, both for a platform that was finally starting to move in a healthy direction and the team that’s taking it there.
Twitter isn’t perfect. It’s always been both things — the terrible hell site and the one that occasionally gives us moments of transcendence. During Russia’s bloody invasion of neighboring Ukraine, Twitter has been both a nexus of misinformation and a vital aggregator of real-time open source intelligence about the war. Much like, in its last era, Jack Dorsey was both a self-serious aloof tech mystic and one who occasionally had moments of real moral clarity that reverberated through the platform and its policies.
Musk isn’t just the antithesis of the leadership Twitter actually needs right now — he’s also an emblem of the platform at its worst. A petty, thin-skinned troll much too rich for all of this (truly it would only take one million dollars to keep me from tweeting ever again — a modest price!), Musk actively conducts a formidable army of internet goons, regularly misleads the public about his heroic efforts to intervene in various global crises, sows mistrust about the media when the media is generally just doing its job, slanders private citizens and generally conducts himself like a person who doesn’t give a single shit about the literally incomprehensible power differential between himself and basically every other person on the planet.
And, we’ve really got to emphasize this bit, Musk really should have more than enough going on to keep him from executing a dramatic and totally unnecessary power grab at his favorite place to trawl for internet points with weed and boob jokes.
Twitter is not rocket science
Social media is very different from spaceships, but the first one isn’t easy either. Running a social media company in 2022 is as much about running a company as it is about mitigating very real society-level harms like harassment, misinformation and negative impacts to mental health. Musk isn’t just unconcerned with things like harassment and misinformation, two of Twitter’s most pressing threats to the social order; he’s a notorious vector for both.
Musk might think he knows what’s right for the business of Twitter — and maybe he does; he’s very, very rich which, in the absence of wisdom, seems more than sufficient for most of life’s endeavors! But Twitter finally looks to be on the right course, paying attention to the right things (new products, new revenue streams, new users). It’s a shame that the world’s richest man might derail that progress in the service of amusing himself.
Toward the end of the Trump era, Twitter began making more decisive steps toward limiting the harms that had prevailed on its platform for years, leading the industry on dynamic content moderation after a too-long era of inaction, but leading still. The company crafted new misinformation tools on the fly and generally opened up about its policy-making process with the refreshing admission that its set of rules was a living document shaped by fallible people and not something etched in stone.
During that period of time, at Twitter and every other major social network, it became clear that after years of pretending otherwise, the most sensitive policy decisions ultimately came down to one person’s hunch about what was either the most right, or at least looked the least wrong in the moment. Most famously, the company took the bold if well-overdue step of issuing the then-president a permanent lifetime ban for his role in inciting violence during the insurrection at the Capitol.
Twitter’s hunch-haver is no longer Jack Dorsey, who left his role as chief executive late last year. But if Musk’s inexplicable extracurricular gambit does go through, it might instead be a petty man animated by a misguided notion of free speech that mostly means posting anything you want to a privately owned social network regardless of the potential harm it may cause — an intellectual posture that curiously doesn’t extend to his own workers when they dare to disagree with him. It’s not hard to imagine Musk reversing Twitter’s progress on hate and harassment and generally derailing a lot of important, thoughtful work at the company. That’s a bummer.
“I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy,” Musk wrote in his letter to the board. “However, since making my investment I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form.”
“… Twitter has extraordinary potential,” he continued. “I will unlock it.”
For those of us who would love to see Twitter evolve into a more useful, less toxic utility for real-time information and very occasionally very funny jokes, Twitter has been moving in a promising direction. From the company’s aspirations to build a choose-your-own-algorithm open standard and its premium subscription product Twitter Blue to new anti-harassment tools designed to mitigate its disproportionate burden on the often marginalized voices that Twitter can, in its finer moments, amplify, the social network has at last been showing a little spring green here and there. But that growth is under threat.
Last week after Musk appeared to reverse course on taking a board seat with his investment, Rumman Chowdhury, who directs Twitter’s AI ethics team working on algorithmic harms, observed “Musk’s immediate chilling effect” at the company.
“Twitter has a beautiful culture of hilarious constructive criticism, and I saw that go silent because of his minions attacking employees,” she wrote on Twitter, lauding the company for doing right by its employees by keeping Musk out of the henhouse. She later muted the thread, observing only that “the trolls have descended.”
Indeed they have.