On October 26, Elon Musk strode into Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters carrying a heavy white porcelain object. The media described it as a “kitchen sink” and mused about various “everything but the…” implications. Musk himself tweeted a short video of his grand entrance, commenting, “Let that sink in!” But even a glance at the ceramic signifier showed it wasn’t a kitchen sink at all, but rather a washbasin of the sort one would find in a typical powder room. A bathroom vanity.
Perhaps that’s a signifier as well. “Vanity” isn’t a bad watchword for Musk’s Twitter adventure. In one sense, it could be a reference to the entrepreneur’s abundant self-regard. Or it might be seen as a nod to the existential futility of every human endeavor. (Cue Ecclesiastes.) Either way, the stakes could not be higher.
Musk’s $44 billion acquisition was the largest leveraged buyout of a tech company in history, the New York Times reports. Musk himself admits he overpaid. For those who dozed through their Mergers & Acquisitions class, “leveraged” means he didn’t pay the full purchase price himself. Yes, he put up a fortune, but he also loaded $13 billion in debt onto a company that has been only sporadically profitable. Twitter will have to slash costs and supercharge revenue if it hopes to keep up with the debt payments. Meanwhile, the economy is shaky, interest rates are soaring, and tech-industry advertising revenues are starting to tank. Not great timing for a deal like this.
A former Tesla engineer told me these sorts of high-stakes gambles are familiar to people who work with Musk. “He likes to set almost impossible challenges for himself and his companies,” he said. “And then he’ll overpromise in his public statements. But I think he really believes those things when he says them.” Musk has overpromised about so many things—development milestones for SpaceX rockets, how soon Teslas will fully drive themselves—that his predictions have become an industry joke. But Musk has also accomplished so much more than any other living entrepreneur that I find it hard to fault him for being a bit excitable. Still, his Twitter acquisition looks like the biggest, riskiest reach of his career.
Musk’s fortune and reputation aren’t the only things at stake. There’s also, you know, the future of America. In a May TED talk, Musk said he wasn’t buying Twitter to make money but to provide an “inclusive arena for free speech.” That sounds like more Muskian hype, but I believe he is sincere. “My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization,” he went on. “I don’t care about the economics at all.” OK, but we live in a country that still has a First Amendment. Does it really matter that much whether Twitter favors woke speech police on one side or extremist carnival barkers on the other? After all, most Americans rarely even look at Twitter. And of those who are on the platform, only a small percentage are deeply engaged.
I think it does matter. The audience isn’t massive, but Twitter is the virtual hangout spot for elites in media and policymaking. These people aren’t just chatting; they’re organizing. In a column on Bari Weiss’s Common Sense Substack, Walter Kirn writes about covering the 2012 Democratic Convention, back in the early days of Twitter. During a speech by Michelle Obama, Kirn sat in a row with some of the country’s top political reporters. He watched as they all logged in to Twitter to monitor the comments—and make their own—as Obama spoke. “Within minutes, a consensus formed that the speech was a triumph,” he writes. He realized that night that Twitter “had become an opinion sculpting instrument, an oracle of the establishment.”
Of course, conservatives and disaffected moderates have also used Twitter to reach bigger audiences and to challenge entrenched orthodoxies. If Twitter were a truly level playing field, that would be great—a thousand flowers blooming and all that. But it has never been a level playing field, especially not since Trump’s election in 2016. Twitter’s moderators and algorithm jockeys have increasingly embraced the notion that conservative viewpoints aren’t just wrong, they’re “misinformation.” So, over time, Twitter has evolved from a platform designed for the maximal exchange of ideas to one more concerned about protecting the public from ideological contagion.
The problem isn’t that conservatives are shouted down by louder or smarter voices. It’s that the digital elite decides which issues are even fit to be discussed. Hunter Biden’s laptop, the possible Wuhan lab leak, worries about “gender affirming” medical interventions for kids—Twitter diligently suppressed these topics, sometimes through subtle “shadow bans,” sometimes with an almost Soviet brazenness. (Remember when the New York Post’s whole account got locked over the laptop story? During a presidential election?) This kind of power makes Twitter a force multiplier in the war of ideas.
So, while Twitter might not be the biggest social-media platform, it sets the agenda for other tech companies and the media. If woke extremists throw a tantrum on Twitter, you can be sure Facebook, too, will start demoting posts on the suddenly verboten topic. And it’s not just social media. Amazon has dropped books questioning transgender orthodoxy, and Pay Pal routinely closes the accounts of users who transgress vague ideological redlines. This new censoriousness is pervading all our elite institutions. We can’t expect Musk to change it single-handedly. But if he can bring a more open spirit to discussions on Twitter, it would be a breakthrough for free speech. Who knows, it might even become contagious.
So what are the chances Musk can make any of this work? In a column published not long after Musk announced his plan to buy the platform, I wrote: “I have to admit, I have…qualms.” Reader, I still have…qualms. If anything, my qualms have grown. First, let’s get something straight: Elon Musk is unquestionably the single greatest entrepreneur of our time. He’s the first person to have launched a major car company successfully in, oh, a century or so. And his company SpaceX revolutionized the rocket business—and saved NASA’s manned space program in the process. He has been on the precipice of failure many times and always come through stronger. Musk is famous for his tolerance for risk. But sometimes he creates risks through his own unruly behavior. “He’s unfiltered,” the Tesla engineer told me. “You could say he’s immature at times.”
The manic energy Musk brings to his enterprises—his constantly shifting focus, his runaway enthusiasms—all that can be problematic for an entrepreneur trying to steer multiple businesses through rocky political shoals. (“The bird is freed,” Musk tweeted when his deal closed. “In Europe, the bird will fly by our rules,” an EU official in charge of tech policy snapped back.) Musk likes to wade into issues he doesn’t know much about. His suggestions about how to end the war in Ukraine, for example, were less than helpful. And he just can’t help being a bit of a troll. Shortly after taking over the company, he tweeted, then deleted, a link to a nasty theory about what really happened in the (admittedly, very weird) Paul Pelosi attack. When the New York Times slammed him for sharing a “Link From Site Known to Publish False News,” Musk tweeted back, “This is fake—I did *not* tweet out a link to the New York Times!”
OK, that’s pretty funny. But is it wise to be tweaking politicians and journalists like some guest on Greg Gutfeld’s show? Twitter might need to allow more controversy on its platform. But too much controversy stirred up by the CEO is bad for business. Already, General Mills, Volkswagen, General Motors, and other companies have announced they are “pausing” their advertising on the platform until things settle down. Does anyone think they would have done this if the new owner’s name was, say, Jeff Bezos or Laurene Jobs?
At the same time, Musk’s manic energy could be good for Twitter. Longtime Twitter users, including me, feel that the service has been getting worse for years. For me, Twitter’s biggest strength is in helping me discover new expert voices in fields such as energy, or the war in Ukraine. But Twitter seems more interested in telling me whom not to listen to. The “What’s happening” bar on the home page is full of progressive claptrap: why Daniel Radcliffe “spoke out against J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans beliefs,” or “fact checkers say” that this or that opinion is wrong. Musk seems like just the guy to shake the place up and put more trust in the users.
He certainly has no shortage of ideas. In recent weeks, Musk has floated all sorts of possibilities. Twitter could offer longer video clips. It could become a paid service, at least for users who want the coveted blue check that means their identity has been confirmed. For Twitter users, it has been interesting to see Musk thinking out loud. Sometimes users will throw out their own suggestions and he’ll respond. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a leading business figure interact so directly with customers about how a company should operate.
But thinking out loud has its limits. Musk often muses about his plans in ways that seem almost deliberately insulting to the company’s current employees. At one point, he casually told investors that he might need to lay off 75 percent of the staff. Soon after the deal was completed, he followed through, offering pink slips to 3,700 workers, about half the company’s total workforce. I don’t doubt that the company was overstaffed. But by firing half the staff in one fell swoop, Musk risks losing crucial institutional knowledge while simultaneously alienating the employees he wants to keep. He needs the employees who remain to buy into his vision. That process takes both empathy and time. Musk has never been known for empathy. As for time, well, he has several other companies to run. As Megan McArdle notes, “it’s hard enough to gut-rehab a corporate workforce and culture with a leader who is tirelessly dedicated to the task full time.”
What could go wrong? Plenty. A social-media platform is like an ecosystem; it exists in a kind of balance that can be easily disrupted. Twitter was both heavy-handed and shamelessly biased in its moderation of abusive or inappropriate comments. But that doesn’t mean the platform can just roll back moderation to the bare minimum. Other social-media platforms have learned the hard way that when moderation fails, jerks, wackos, and spammers take over. Almost no one, especially advertisers, wants to be part of a community like that. According to several reports, Musk has cut his moderation team down to a “skeleton crew.” Will they be able to keep up with the wave of abuse and misuse coming their way? Already we see signs that ideological troublemakers are posting the ugliest material possible. They’re trying to prove that Musk’s Twitter will be the fascist hellhole critics predict. And the Washington Post and others are happy to blame it all on Musk.
If the site plunges into messy disarray—with users and advertisers fleeing—it might be impossible to restore its former vitality. And making good on those debt payments might become an insuperable challenge. But Musk is right: The world really needs “an inclusive arena for free speech.” Until now, Twitter has amplified the voices of a censorious, woke elite and suppressed a range of more diverse voices. Musk is gambling that there is a much bigger audience of people who don’t want to be protected from dangerous ideas. They just want to be trusted to make up their own minds. If he’s right about that, and I hope he is, Musk just might pull this out. He’s done it before.
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