Twitter officially accepted a buyout offer from Elon Musk on Monday valued at $44 billion. Musk is the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, the richest person in the world and has been described as something of a memelord on Twitter.
He’s praised the platform as a bastion of free speech, but he has some ideas to make it … more free: more transparency about the algorithm, maybe an edit button and less content moderation.
What he’s not after, he’s said, is making money. Then he’s in the right place, says Amy Webb, a futurist and founder of the Future Today Institute.
The following is a transcript of her conversation with Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino.
Amy Webb: Social media is just not profitable. And Twitter is very different. There’s a way to sponsor posts, you can certainly have advertisements, but Twitter’s share of the overall social media pie is pretty small. And advertisers are looking to platforms that just deliver greater insights, or more sticky, [or] have content that’s less ephemeral. Twitter does have an outsized influence, because the people who use it tend to be media, you know, journalists, thought leaders, politicians, so the tweets reverberate loudly. But as a business, the organization’s struggled to make a strong path for itself.
Meghan McCarty Carino: Yeah, when we think about the value of Twitter as a business — in this deal, it’s valued at $44 billion — what does Twitter have going for it? And what are the challenges that it faces as a business?
Webb: If you look at both Tesla and SpaceX, these are companies that he turned into juggernauts. The difference is that Twitter is now a mature company. It has a user base, but it also has an enormous amount of baggage. When Musk bought Tesla, nobody knew what Tesla was at that point. They didn’t know the car company from the human. And that is just not the case when it comes to Twitter. How is he planning on really turning a profit in a way that’s not going to completely eviscerate the existing user base and send people elsewhere?
McCarty Carino: Musk’s other businesses are not necessarily in this wheelhouse. But he is a very active and influential user of the platform. How do you think that sort of changes the approach to managing a social media platform?
Webb: Well, I am a very active user of Starbucks, but that doesn’t make me qualified to be the CEO of Starbucks. This is a space where a lot of people have opinions. A lot of people who use the service are the very people who he’s trying to reach. And that’s a different situation than creating a space ecosystem or creating an enormous disruption in the auto industry. This is different. It doesn’t feel like Elon Musk is eyeing Twitter as a gateway to force the entire social media ecosystem to change for the better. This doesn’t feel like disruptive innovation. It just feels disruptive.
McCarty Carino: Many Twitter users have expressed a lot of concern about this, people talking about abandoning the platform. Of course, any social media platform is only as good as its network effects, right? But I can sort of see that going both ways. People have been saying that they hate Twitter and want to get off of it for a long time.
Webb: Right, but everybody has also quit Facebook how many times now, right? I think the bigger picture is that for the past 15 years, social media has been about having short conversations in public. But we might see this sort of pendulum swing in the direction away from truly public discourse to more private networks and private spaces. So you would find those right now on places like Discord or Telegram. There are alternative social media spaces where people are gathering, so the biggest swing might be away from this public, very open dialogue to a more controlled, walled-garden space, which changes the business fundamentals.
McCarty Carino: How could this change how people interact online?
Webb: There’s a big contradiction right now. On the one hand, you have people talking about the third version of the web — Web3 — and decentralization and making the web totally free, unencumbered, completely open. We’re actually seeing a retreat in a different direction. So we’re seeing more people gather in these more intimate, walled spaces. This puts Twitter in a very interesting position because Elon Musk’s position is that it should go sort of the Web3 route, which is totally unencumbered, free of anybody foisting editorial guidelines or anything else like that. And if the system is not advertising-supported and if he’s going to privately finance it for a while, then that’s fine. But what does it become and who do we become? So I think that this is maybe the beginning of a transition that was already underway. But it could accelerate that transition away from totally free, everybody talking at each other, yelling at each other in public, to forums that are more walled, more discrete, a little bit harder to find, harder to get into, where the most important conversations are happening.
Related Links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
If you’re curious about all the ideas Elon Musk has proposed to change Twitter, The Washington Post cataloged all of them, including an edit button and making the algorithm more open so users can see if a tweet has been promoted or demoted.
But don’t expect any sweeping changes overnight. Bloomberg reports the company has locked down any product changes through Friday unless they are “business critical.”
And, while Musk’s offer has gotten plenty of attention, he’s not the first big name to express interest in buying Twitter. The Wall Street Journal has a list of all the other Twitter suitors through the years, including Salesforce, Google and even Disney.
But as the WSJ notes, a family-friendly company associated with the happiest place on earth is probably not the best fit for Twitter.
Correction (April 26 2022): Previous versions of this story misstated the origin of SpaceX. Elon Musk is the founder of SpaceX.