Having now lived through and covered many of these brain spasms, I initially found it impossible to pay much attention to his latest fad. Yes Elon, I’m sure you’ll buy Twitter, hollow out the moderation guidelines, and turn it back into a bastion of free-flowing, no-holds-barred comments. It’s definitely going to happen…right after you buy Disney and move Disney World to Altoona.
But Musk has gone and surprised me by stringing together real commitments from real bankers to fund the acquisition, and I’m starting to think he actually wants to buy Twitter. Since this doesn’t make much financial sense, I think he genuinely believes he can make a difference by relaxing Twitter’s content guidelines.
Now I’m still skeptical that that will happen. For one, the board is hostile, which would make it difficult for Musk to close the deal. Second, there are plenty of reasons for Musk to get cold feet before completing it. I mean, I too preferred the old, unmoderated internet to today’s crowdsourced cultural revolution. But I probably wouldn’t risk seriously damaging my personal fortune to bring it back.
Musk, of course, has a lot more money than I do — about $264.6 billion more, in fact. But buying Twitter will cost him tens of billions, plus significant financing and operating costs that could add up to a billion a year. That’s a lot of money, even for him, given that most of his net worth is illiquid and consists of Tesla stock, which would fall in value once he sells a significant amount.
And beyond those harsh financial realities, there are also tough institutional realities to consider: Buying Twitter isn’t the same as making it what Musk wants.
Ordinary people tend to think of property and control as functionally the same; I bought my house, I can decide if I want to renovate. But homeowners only have to worry about the local building authority, the reliability of their general contractor, and the laws of physics when remodeling. You don’t have to deal with 7,500 employees who have their own ideas about what the house should look like – and who in many cases strongly resist attempts to change it.
Corporate renovations have a completely different level of difficulty. There are certainly policies Musk could change by executive order, thereby immediately improving public discourse. It could recalibrate the algorithms to show us tweets in simple reverse chronological order, rather than promoting the tweets most likely to “engage” us, making users less likely to encounter the latest hot-button outrage. It could de-emphasize the ad, which would reduce pressure from advertisers to ban offensive language. He could scrap the retweeting features that encourage the formation of unsubscribe mobs. All of those things would make a big difference — but they’d also likely make Twitter a less profitable business and cost it a lot of money.
And probably the hardest thing to fix is what Musk’s fans (and maybe Musk himself) think he could jettison: his moderation policies. Which brings us back to Twitter’s 7,500 employees.
Twitter’s formal moderation policies are just one of the factors that determine what gets banned; At least as important is Twitter’s corporate culture and the sensitivity of employees who would make moderation decisions while Musk isn’t running Tesla. Whatever rules Musk makes, they’re the ones policing the gray areas — and there will always be gray areas because nobody, not even Elon Musk, wants one really unmoderated area where child pornography and spam tweets with defamation and copyright infringement jostle for our attention, crowding out the interesting discussions we’d like to have.
Changing a company’s culture is so notoriously difficult that bosses trying to turn the tide sometimes bring it out of orbit so they can start over: firing everyone and getting them to reapply for their jobs, or move the company to another city where most current employees don’t want to live in. But those aren’t practical options at a company the size of Twitter.
The alternative is the slow and patient work of leadership, changing behavior one hire and one meeting at a time. It’s possible, but it’s hard to imagine this being done by a boss who has another, larger company to run. Even harder when that boss is the quirky Mr. Musk, whose attention never lingers on a project. This short attention span makes him an ideal client for Twitter, but also a highly unlikely savior.