Three possible models for Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter Inc. are:
- Musk is a business genius, and will find a way to make Twitter much more valuable. This seems to be the theory of Musk’s equity co-investors, for instance.
- Musk doesn’t care about making money, but he has a philosophical commitment to promoting free speech and vigorous debate on Twitter, the modern town square. This seems to be Musk’s theory, sometimes.
- Musk is very rich and very addicted to Twitter, and buying Twitter lets him be the boss of Twitter and make his own experience more fun, or possibly less fun but in a way that feeds his addiction. This was more or less my original theory of the deal.
In Musk’s unfathomably long first week or so running Twitter, he has driven away and threatened advertisers, fired and then un-fired employees who he needed to run the site, rolled out and then rolled back a new verification service that didn’t work, banned a bunch of users for making fun of him, and then taken to Twitter to make fun of them. If this is business genius it is, uh, too early to see the results. If this is commitment to free speech, it is an unusual view of free speech. If he is having fun, it is an unusual kind of fun. (He changed the location in his Twitter bio to “Hell.”) But if he is displaying the symptoms of an advanced case of Twitter addiction then, yes, this is all exactly what you would expect. He spent $44 billion to buy Twitter so he could win more arguments on Twitter.
There’s a great part of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup where Groucho says of Chico, “He may look like an idiot, he may talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you, he really is an idiot.” I let it fool me: I thought, like many others, Musk must be concealing intelligence, albeit of a cunning and nasty kind, that allowed him to succeed at business. But it now seems like he might be on track to tank Twitter in a matter of weeks and perhaps even damage his other investments. Brands above all want a sterile and nonthreatening environment for advertisement: they certainly don’t want to be associated with the kind of seediness that Elon’s fanboys hope becomes the dominant tone of the platform. Twitter has in fact been a great force for democracy, not because it helps us share ideas or rationally deliberate—God no—but because it shows the rich and powerful to be just schmucks like everyone else. All the sweaty jokes and lame memes, all the crude and harebrained ideas—that’s really him, that’s what he’s like, there’s nothing more to it!
I have to say I … completely sympathize? If I had limitless resources and people made fun of me on Twitter, I would like to think that I would ignore them and keep working on my world-changing plans to solve climate change and colonize outer space. And then when I succeeded and adoring interviewers asked me “what do you say now to the haters who made fun of you on Twitter,” I would say “honestly Bob I never read them, I was too focused on changing the world, I am not troubled by petty carping on Twitter.” But realistically would I be tempted to buy Twitter, shut down their accounts and tweet zingers at them on their way out? Absolutely. What is the point of all that money if not to win meaningless fights on internet message boards?