On Twitter and Elon Musk

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I’ve written several posts about Twitter and new boss Elon Musk recently. I’ll probably be writing more. I realize that for those of you who aren’t on Twitter this might seem like an odd or perhaps even annoying focus. This is a political news site, Josh. Why are you going on about Twitter? At one level, I’ve always followed the rule of letting my interests drive my writing focus at TPM. But I don’t write about my ideas about medieval history or my estimation of the new Charlie Watts biography. Here I write about things in the broadly political domain. And Musk’s absurd but consequential Twitter adventure is right at the center of the bigger political issues that animate our age.

Social networks are at the core of the contemporary informational and political ecosystem. Twitter is relatively small as social networks go but has an outsized influence over politics and news. The platforms are the stage and playground of all the actors, good and bad, trying to drive ideas and perceptions of everything.

Musk meanwhile embodies all the features of over-mighty wealth in the early 21st century. His whims can impact the conduct of the ongoing war in Ukraine. He has opaque but consequential negotiations with various governments around the globe. Indeed, he functions on the global stage more like a state than an individual or even a large corporation.

Today we look back at the landmark anti-trust legislation of a century ago and see it as being about monopolies and anti-competitive practices. In a direct sense that is what the legislation is about. But the driving force behind the legislation was the growing recognition that capitalism can churn up people whose wealth is so vast that their very presence challenges the freedom of everyone else.

One of the ironies about Musk is that he is almost alone among tech titans for owing his wealth to tangible, non-virtual products, indeed ones from what amounts to heavy industry: Tesla, the electric car manufacturer, and SpaceX, which has rejuvenated the U.S. domestic space program. It is entirely right to point out that both of these companies could not have succeeded without working the levers of government lobbying and abundant subsidies and federal contracts. This sticks out like a sore thumb in his libertarian and increasingly anti-government worldview. But that doesn’t negate the fact that these companies have been highly successful. (In many ways, SpaceX is the standout more than Tesla, though the latter is the source of most of his wealth.)

It’s partly for this reason that his efforts to purchase Twitter have struck me as doomed from the start. It’s not his space. And it’s a highly complicated one. There’s a reason why no one has been able to make Twitter a profitable business through its whole history.

Musk is like Trump in the sense that his outsized wealth and power allow him to move freely in our normless era. His machinations are central to the global efforts to harness media as well as the rise of authoritarian governments around the globe. But they are also impulsive and chaotic. People look for a grand plan in the whole Twitter escapade. But that mistakes what’s going on. This is mainly an ego trip, somehow driven by Musk’s newly found rightist politics. Flush with money, he agreed to buy Twitter for likely three or four times its actual value. Then he reconsidered. But he’d already agreed to buy. And Twitter’s then-owners were not about to let him wriggle out of an agreement to pay them multiples more than they ever could have expected to get for the company. They sued. Musk realized he was going to lose. So he acquiesced and agreed to the sale.

Now he has set himself the difficult, perhaps impossible task of reconciling two seemingly impossible-to-reconcile goals. On the one hand he’s promised to open the site to what he calls “free speech,” a loosely moderated approach with at least a lot of highly controversial content but more likely a lot of hate speech, stalking, doxing and general mayhem. He also wants to make Twitter highly profitable — likely for eventual sale or re-IPO. That means advertising and a lot more of it than Twitter has ever been able to garner. But advertisers don’t want to be near controversy or Musk’s hyped fans spreading racist conspiracy theories. In its day, Facebook was such a killer app for ad targeting that most advertisers simply felt they could not do without it. Twitter has never had that value proposition. He’ll now trade between losing advertisers and having his Trumpist base snarling at him for being a sell out.

Did I mention how his leveraged buy out has now added roughly a billion dollars a year in debt service to Twitter’s bottom line? This is for a company whose total revenue is between three and four billion dollars a year.

I’m skeptical it will happen but Musk and his brain trust are now floating the idea of charging people $20 a month to keep their blue check marks. If literally every verified user agreed to do that it would produce a bit under $100 million, a drop in the bucket for the three or four billion it takes the run the company.

My own view of the matter is that I hope Twitter implodes. At a minimum I won’t shed any tears if it does. I have always thought that we should resist any and all conceits from the social platforms that they constitute any kind of public square. A lot of good people on the outside and even inside these companies have spent years trying to figure out how that works, devising quasi-governmental rule making systems and bodies to adjudicate how things should work. It’s all wrong. Of course the companies buy into these ideas and even embrace the responsibilities the responsibilities that go along with it. Of course they do. It’s a great thing to own the public square. They eagerly work to stitch their enterprises into the economic and judicial frameworks they inhabit. But they’re not the public square and we should be on the other side of everything that advances those pretensions. They’re private businesses organized around profit maximization. No more, no less.

What we are seeing is likely the start of an epic bonfire in which Musk tries to reconcile the various forces unleashed by his impulsive behavior and very likely fails. It won’t be pretty. It may be hilarious. But it will be important to watch.

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