The only person who should be freaking out about Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is Elon Musk
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/04/2022 (329 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Elon Musk will discover it’s easier to visit Mars than fix Twitter on Earth.
Why the world’s richest man wants to own a social media platform is not entirely clear. But Musk is no longer just a power user with 85 million followers. He is now Lord Elon of the Twitterverse. And in the weeks to come, the service will be revamped to reflect his omnipotent demands.
In response to Musk’s hostile takeover bid of $44 billion (U.S.), Twitter waved a white flag on Monday from its sputtering tugboat. The board, under pressure from shareholders, accepted the cash offer. (No competing bid probably helped.)
The company also realized Musk, like a great white shark, was circling, hungry and could stomach any poison pill: Sell to a predator or get savaged in a bloody attack?
And as with everything Musk does, the reaction from all sides was over the top.
Conservatives who feel persecuted by Big Tech celebrated as if the Berlin Wall had just fallen: Lord Elon will plug free speech into one of his Tesla superchargers! Lord Elon will lift the lifetime bans, stop deplatforming, unlock the gulags and allow us to tweet any rotten thing we desire!
Meanwhile, as conservatives popped champagne, progressives lunged for the smelling salts. It was as if Darth Vader swiped the deed to the Jedi Temple. Will Twitter now become a bastion of hate speech? Will Lord Elon shrink Twitter into a Petri dish as disinformation multiplies in an unmoderated bacterial culture?
The polarized reaction fits with the times. Even if Moses bought Twitter, there’d be fear and loathing. But as everyone cheers or condemns, the only person who should be freaking out is Elon Musk. This guy just made a big mistake.
Electric cars, rocket ships, hyperloops, satellites — this stuff is easy-peasy compared to trying to “fix” Twitter. Musk does not grasp the headaches on his horizon.
After he triumphed on Monday, Musk tweeted his own quotes, including: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
Is free speech crucial to democracy? Absolutely. Is Twitter the digital town square? That’s debatable. Twitter seems more like a private club by default because most people have no interest in joining.
My friends who are not in media, government or PR do not use Twitter any more than they use an abacus. Even most people who do have Twitter accounts do not use Twitter. A recent Pew study found 25 per cent of Twitter users produce 97 per cent of all tweets. It’s like a basketball game — go Raptors! — in which only two players touch the ball. There is not a city on this planet in which Twitter qualifies as a town square.
If Twitter vanished tomorrow, “the future of humanity” trajectory would not be knocked off course. If anything, we might be better off.
Musk says he wants to improve Twitter with product enhancements, open source algorithms, a war on spam bots and by “authenticating all humans.” That last one reminded me of an anti-aging ad in which the narrator claimed all you must do is target every cell in your body. Oh, is that all? The key to eternal youth is confronting 37 trillion cells? Woman, I’ll die of old age before I finish one hand!
The biggest challenge Musk must overcome now is his own addiction to Twitter. I have no clue how he runs so many companies when he spends so much time trolling and sharing memes and playing footsies with fans. But this addiction has locked him into a bunker in which he can’t see how Twitter can be profoundly toxic to anyone who is bullied, ridiculed and attacked by random strangers who are exercising free speech that often has no point beyond anti-social aggression.
Instead of trying to rescue the statistically minuscule number of users who’ve run afoul of Twitter’s code of conduct, Musk should give some thought as to why a much higher volume of decent and rule-following users leave voluntarily.
No one ever quits Twitter because it’s intellectually enriching and too good for the soul. They leave because it can start to feel like a sewer in which flinging feces has no consequence. I can tell you right now, if Musk greenlights an anything goes policy by virtue of free speech absolutism, a lot of his users will be the ones to go.
There is no doubt Musk is a smart cookie. But when it comes to Twitter, he’s more of a hash brownie. For him, this is not a business deal — it’s an ego play. This is the most expensive hobby horse in the history of corporate acquisitions.
I’m really into bird watching. That doesn’t mean I should buy Costa Rica.
Musk will soon realize he’s in an impossible position. Some of his subjects want to run their yaps with no muzzles. Some want protections from abuse. This is a tough circle to square. And that’s to say nothing of creeping government regulation and a global workforce that has grave concerns about their new owner.
And what happens when Musk concludes Twitter’s ad model is not working and it’s time to switch to subscriptions? Does he really think everyone is as addicted as he is and might pay to tweet while remitting monthly fees in Dogecoin?
It won’t be easy for Lord Elon of the Twitterverse to “fix” his new toy. You can’t really fix something that keeps breaking from the inside.
And, sadly, there will be no time to tweet.
Vinay Menon is the Star’s pop culture columnist based in Toronto. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org