Elon’s Twitter long game

Thought Leadership

Following Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, Chief Strategy Officer Harvey Cossell discusses what this means for the future of the platform.

You don’t need to be locked in any sort of echo chamber to have missed the news that Elon Musk is buying Twitter for an eyewatering $44bn – a sum that might seem excessive, but Musk did not become the world’s richest man by making poor financial or business decisions.

Indeed, the billionaire tech entrepreneur – who has been on Twitter since 2009, amassing more than 90m followers – said the platform has “tremendous potential”, so he must believe the price was right and the prospects extremely high.

And those prospects may stem from Musk’s love/hate relationship with the platform – he is a vocal critic of what he perceives as its Left-leaning policies, and is now calling for changes including rolling back content moderation and prioritising free speech as a “societal imperative”. 

Well, if you love something enough, set it free. But Musk should be warned his personal desire for free speech absolutism won’t be for everyone. Indeed, it’s probably not for most people at all.

People might not like what is ‘good’ for them
The most serious challenge is that although many people have seen plenty of hateful and unsavoury perspectives on Twitter, as with any social media, the bigger issue is that these mainly go unchecked – and this is because they’re incubated in algorithm controlled echo-chambers. 

In the recent past, Twitter has tackled this issue by limiting what people can say, and shutting down accounts that step too far. And so Musk – who sees free speech as the bedrock of a functioning democracy – may try to break those echo-chambers to facilitate broader debate. 

Perhaps Musk genuinely believes hearing things we don’t agree with is good for us, or perhaps his stance is based on the bitter experience of being fined $40m for a single tweet, or ending up in court on defamation charges for some of his many offensive comments

Whatever the true motivation, changing the rules of free speech could pose serious challenges given the context of the platform’s current mode of behaviour.

People are broadly interest-led, following their passions, the people they like, the subjects they want to spend time with. Within this model, any debate usually occurs between people of broadly similar ideology.

If you have ever tried to get out of your Twitter echo-chamber it can be a refreshing and useful experience, but it can also become very stressful, very quickly. The views you come across can be alarming, but if Musk wants Twitter to be a true “town square” this may be exactly the way he plans to do it. 

To that end, if he were to make the algorithm open-source and break down the echo-chambers then every view – including hate speech – will be out in the open, but potentially kept in check by the wider community through debate and discourse. 

The obvious question is whether or not the community will step up to participate. It might be good for democracy, but it might also be a huge headache for users that just want to scroll away some time until lunch. Or it might simply descend into a horrible, polarised slanging match.

Musk, as a US citizen, also appears to have assumed Twitter’s users operate in the same political context as he does – but with 320 million people based in dozens of countries, this is not true. Thus, it might be unwise to pin a business’s potential on an assumption that the rest of the world is as politically binary as America.

Musk must also consider the regulatory mood, which globally is taking a fragmented but generally more mature and fixed approach to protecting users while limiting misinformation and hate speech. Indeed, his moves on Twitter might even accelerate such regulations.

Keeping Twitter unique amongst platforms
There are deeper issues too about where Musk sees additional functionality and features going. Platforms tend to evolve slowly, listening and monitoring for user feedback over time, and adjusting and testing accordingly. 

Taking Twitter private and making overnight changes from the top risks embedding one rich, white man’s biases into a platform that has slowly advanced to meet the needs of millions of people from all over the globe.

It is for that reason that Musk should be careful to maintain the identity, UX and functionality that still has the platform on course to secure 340m users by 2024. Musk has already mooted the idea of allowing longer posts and introducing the ability to edit them after they have been published, as well as charging businesses for access.

But merging propositions or copying features from other platforms might only lead to market homogenisation, and that’s never a good thing. 

There’s still much to be excited about
The bigger picture over the long-term is more interesting, however. 

For example, given Musk’s propensity to involve himself in many tech projects, what is stopping him from using the expertise holed up in Twitter to create something new? $44bn is an astonishing sum of money to bet on something – and it could signify much broader ambitions to compete with Meta or Google with a portfolio of complementary platforms, or even a new holding company entirely. 

Afterall, despite it being a distant technological goal, Musk is already co-founder of Neuralink, which is developing brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers. Who knows what bold vision he has beyond some functional tweaks.

Of course, so much of what I write here is speculation (and that’s part of the fun). But no matter our personal views on Musk, no one can deny his track record in shaking up stale and complacent categories – and that means there could be some really exciting times ahead.