There are so many open questions about how the company will change under Elon Musk’s leadership. Will he make it better, using his keen intelligence and business savvy to drive changes that have been overdue for years, or will he try to remove some of the safeguards against harassment and misinformation that have been put in place to take the edge off its worst impulses?
I’ve been on Twitter since May 2007, coming up on 15 years. I remember a time when Twitter wasn’t as contentious as it is now. In fact, in the early days of the platform, it was a relatively quiet place where people shared what they were eating for lunch, naively trying to figure out what they were getting from this new thing they found.
It was a place with a spirit of fun and goodwill, something that may be hard for a lot of people to believe now. That was before the marketers discovered it, and long before the haters turned it into a highly politicized cesspool, a refuge for scoundrels, manipulators and outright liars.
Spreading lies and misinformation is not some new phenomenon, of course. Social media outlets like Twitter just made it a whole lot easier to do. A quote often attributed to Mark Twain (thought it may actually be Jonathan Swift) certainly drives home this fact: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”
We have certainly had that point driven home hard in recent times.
Still, at one time, when we were a lot more optimistic, we saw social media in general as a great equalizer where you could interact with rock stars, politicians and executives in a great open town square where hierarchies were flattened by the medium, but that was before the ugly underside began to show itself; slowly at first, and then in a rushing torrent of negativity.
The platform, like much of social media, began to succumb to its worst impulses — harassment, doxxing, threats of rape and murder, a refuge for misinformation and racists. Is Elon owning it going to make it better, worse — or both in different ways?
As someone close to me told me, “What a logical fallacy it is when you assume that because things are bad now, they can’t get any worse.”
The fact is we don’t know what’s going to happen, but when the richest man in the world buys a prominent online social gathering place, it’s not hard to imagine him making it into his own image of what online social should look like.
Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, who has been on the platform almost as long as I have, says that he worries that having one person in charge leaves Twitter dangerously susceptible to abuse.
“How active could he be in using his new ‘toy’ in helping people he wants to see in office get their messages out, as well as how he may hamper/cripple/ban competitors from using the platform. Same thing applies to potential business competitors. How many will feel the need to kiss the ring in order to have full access to the power of the channel,” Leary wondered.
In the worst case, Musk could make Twitter his own personal social playground. In the best, he will work to improve some of the longstanding problems that have plagued the platform for years. In a statement on the deal Musk said that he wants to “make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”
Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research is more optimistic about the future with Musk in charge. “Musk is coming back to where he started — back to software. I think it will be key for making sure Twitter operates independently, and that he is ‘only’ improving the offering,” he said.
“That will make shareholders happy (who still have to agree to sell their stock to him) and the same for advertisers. He has boosted the platform with his presence as more people will want to check what he is tweeting. I think we will see a number of software innovations including an edit button, maybe threaded conversations and better business with moderation, audience management.”
Musk is at his heart a businessman and he’s paying a lot of money to buy this latest bauble. You would think that he would want to get a solid return on his investment, and on a platform that uses DAUs and MAUs as currency, you don’t want to be driving people away.
Whether people leave or stay, whether Musk is benevolent dictator or despot, only time will tell. All we know now is that he intends to own Twitter, and he will be mostly free to do what he wants with it, for better or worse.
It’s worth noting that the deal still has to be approved by shareholders and is subject to standard regulatory approval processes.