For the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts, Twitter serves many useful purposes and some useless ones.
Twitter is also useful in figuring out which stories pick up traction among media elites and which ones fade in less than a day. This is particularly true if there are legitimate disagreements over the interpretation of the news event; this used to happen more frequently but is rarer now. At its best, however, such engagement can lead to productive discomfort, which is something that should happen on a regular basis in an engaged, vibrant democracy.
The useless aspects of Twitter are easier to recall. It has been a time suck, and it has taken years for me to even partially avoid the quicksand of some online debates. Every once in a while, I have had a tweet go viral and not in the good way. Oh, and while I have accrued some benefits from being a straight White guy, the rampant antisemitism I experienced during the 2016 campaign was not my definition of productive discomfort. It was just uncomfortable.
So I get why Elon Musk’s intended purchase of Twitter has discomfited some and elated others. Even though the $44 billion takeover has yet to be completed, Twitter appears to have gained conservative users while shedding liberal ones. We know from Musk’s own statements as well as the Wall Street Journal’s reporting that Musk believes Twitter has engaged in too much content moderation. The WSJ story explains: “Before and during Mr. Musk’s breakneck takeover of Twitter, a close-knit group of libertarian-leaning activists and businessmen have been encouraging him to get involved.”
My Washington Post colleague Will Oremus notes, “As Musk’s bid for Twitter has advanced, his tweets have displayed an increasingly enthusiastic embrace of the right’s expectations for a more laissez-faire regime — and an increasingly open disdain for both the left and Twitter’s existing leadership.”
It does not matter whether Musk’s take is accurate (see Philip Bump for why it’s distorted), it matters that Musk thinks he is right and will receive positive reinforcement to that effect.
Given Musk’s outlook, will Twitter be more useful or useless once he takes over? My hunch is that he will have less of an impact that many expect. The Journal reports that Musk is “focused primarily on Twitter’s role as a potential public good, rather than a business focused on short-term profits.” That suggests big changes.
To complete the sale, however, Musk had to secure funding from banks. He cannot run it as a public trust, he has to show increased profits. That requires cost-cutting, continued growth and new revenue sources. The former is possible, but carries risks. As Reuters reported, “some banks … feared Musk’s unpredictability could result in an exodus of talent from Twitter, harming its business.” An exodus of talent cuts costs but not in the good way.
The latter two pillars for boosting profits are even more dubious. No doubt Twitter is large enough to compel some prominent folks to use it regardless of any changes. Maybe more conservatives will flock to Twitter. But as FiveThirtyEight’s Monica Potts and Jean Yi write, large sites without content moderation tend not to thrive.
The digital town square Musk is envisioning might not materialize because Twitter has never lived up to its goal of being a marketplace of ideas. More than that, Americans seem to dislike the social media platforms that forgo content moderation entirely, with anything-goes platforms never being quite as popular as the larger platforms that limit some of what users see. A town square that is a free-speech free-for-all risks becoming the kind of place that few people want to visit, which serves as its own limit on the kind of speech it fosters.
My colleague Margaret Sullivan is correct when she notes that “if there are no limits on harassment and abusive speech, people — particularly women and members of minority groups who tend to be the targets — will leave the platform altogether.”
Donald Trump’s return could swamp that exodus, but Trump has said he is not coming back. In this case, I believe him. Musk, in purchasing Twitter, is doing the one thing Trump hates the most — displacing him as the center of controversy in social media conversations. Trump cannot stand being second banana to anyone; he would rather pout on his own empty platform.
That leaves new sources of revenue. According to Reuters, “Musk had to convince the banks that Twitter produced enough cash flow to service the debt he sought … Ideas he brought up included charging a fee when a third-party website wants to quote or embed a tweet from verified individuals or organizations.” Musk knows how to make a buck way better than I do, but that gambit seems unlikely to be much of a revenue-generator.
After watching Musk tweet for the past week, I don’t think he is any worse than Twitter’s founder or his successors. Rather, Musk seems like the archetype of a plutocrat who aspires to be a thought leader, makes mistakes when he drifts outside his area of expertise and has surrounded himself with people feeding his ego because they are afraid to speak truth to money.
I suspect Twitter will not change all that much if Musk actually buys it. If it does become a free-for-all, that will be bad for the public sphere — but even worse for Musk’s bottom line.