It was not my intention to write about Twitter in this week’s Finding the Words column. But when the world’s richest man buys a social media platform for $44B (16% of his $273B net worth), citing the need to “protect America’s public square,” there’s cause to throw this week’s planned topic out the window, and consider the early effects of this platform takeover.
Ironically, I was leading a media training yesterday afternoon when the news broke, just moments after I was sharing how journalists use Twitter as a tool, and instantaneously the questions started…“What does this mean?” “What will happen to the platform?” “Will he run it, like Bezos runs the Washington Post?” and “Is Twitter really worth it?”
In an attempt to sort through it for myself, and for you, here’s what we know: Elon Musk is buying Twitter.
Here’s what else we know: Not much.
Other than the price of the purchase itself, just about every other key question regarding the future of Twitter remains unanswered. Users, employees, investors and politicians are eagerly waiting to hear more about who will lead the company, who will be on the board, and what changes will take place on the platform. Bottom line: we just need to wait and see what will happen, who will stay, and who will go.
But in the near term, there are a couple important considerations and storylines to watch:
On Twitter as a Communications Platform:
Yesterday, CNN’s Brian Stelter was asked about Twitter’s importance, and here’s what he said:
“Twitter matters much more for communication purposes than as a business. It has struggled as a business. If you say, ‘Is it that important?’ Well, no, it’s not that important as a business. But as a communications platform, even in emergencies … as a way for politicians and celebrities to communicate and get messages out, it is important, it is a utility in that way. But..it doesn’t feel like the future anymore. It feels like something you’re required to do. If you’re in a public life, it feels like a requirement rather than something you enjoy, rather than a leisure activity. Maybe Elon Musk can change all that. I think if you’re a Twitter user, you don’t go quit your account. You go see what he does next.”
So there’s that.
On Twitter as a Business:
In his New York Times commentary, Anand Giridharadas called it “a problem masquerading as a solution,” referencing the myriad ways that Twitter’s known problems are often mirrored or matched by Elon Musk himself, from the spread of mis- and disinformation to Twitter’s racism problem. Here’s what he added:
“As much as Twitter has tried to implement policies to monitor and track for the spread of disinformation… Twitter has a disinformation problem — fake news about Covid vaccines, climate and more running buck wild across the platform. Mr. Musk has shown himself to be a highly capable peddler of dubious claims.”
So, there’s also that.
And on Twitter as the Public Square:
Renée DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory shared this on the Atlantic:
“Many Silicon Valley veterans remember the early, idealistic vision for Twitter: a place for conversation and jokes, but also a place where everyone was on equal footing and anyone could have a voice. Ordinary people could come together, break through, bypass the gatekeepers. And, it is true, that Twitter plays a central role in public discourse today. But, it’s hardly the same as a public square, and content moderation can’t be reduced to “censorship.” What Musk and others portray as a battle over “free speech” is a proxy fight over who is entitled to attention.”
So again, there’s that.
Bottom line: Twitter has lost its way, and regardless of where Musk is taking it, the need to better understand Twitter’s role in the world is essential. If nothing else, Twitter’s purpose as a platform will become clearer with time, but it will take more than one man’s deep pockets to get us there.
This is week 17 of the Finding The Words column, a series published every Wednesday that delivers a dose of communication insights direct to your inbox. If you like what you read, we hope you’ll subscribe to ensure you receive this each week.