🤯 3 reasons why an Elon Musk-run Twitter might surprise both Left and Right
But to be honest, I would rather write about Tesla and SpaceX. Seriously.
Prolific tweeter Elon Musk purchasing Twitter is hardly the first time that personal experience has played a role in the uberbillionaire’s eventual business decisions. Compaq Computer’s $307 million purchase of Musk’s first company, Zip2, meant a $21 million payday for the 27-year-old entrepreneur back in 1999. As recounted in The Founders: The Story of PayPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley by Jimmy Soni:
To this day, that moment astonishes him — the amount as well as the means of delivery. The millions arrived by check. “Literally, to my mailbox. I was like, ‘This is insane. What if somebody…? I mean, I guess they’d have trouble cashing it?’ But it still seems a weird way to send money.”
Of course, Musk’s very next venture was about sending money. He started online financial services and payments company X.com, which later merged with online bank Confinity to become PayPal. And although these efforts gave Musk generational wealth — eBay’s 2002 purchase of PayPal meant nearly $200 million for Musk — they never added up to his original expansive vision of a company that unified all aspects of a person’s financial life. Soni notes that in some of Musk’s earliest investor pitches for X.com, he called this idea “the Amazon of financial services” — a vision Soni describes as “both eminently logical and impossibly grandiose.”
And perhaps a future book recounting Musk’s Twitter adventure will describe it in similar language. He aims to fix what he sees as a free speech problem at Twitter, and as he tweeted, “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” (To be sure, others see Twitter as already an “aggressive defender of free speech.”)
But this might not be a fixable problem — at least with a solution amenable to Left and Right — as social media platforms are currently configured. (In an essay from a week or so ago, I explain how decentralized content moderation might work.) So as this journey apparently begins, here are a few things for Musk’s critics and supporters to think about:
Content moderation is really hard. Musk calls himself a “free speech absolutist,” a position he later clarified: “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law.” But content moderation at scale — and there will be some moderation — is hard. Perhaps far harder than Musk realizes right now. For instance: A 2019 study found that of 22 “prominent, politically active” Twitter accounts suspended since the platform's inception, 21 were pro-Donald Trump versus one that was pro-Hillary Clinton. An obvious free speech problem, right? Anti-conservative bias, right? But those accounts weren’t suspended because they were pro-Trump or pro-tax cuts. Rather, they are a rogues' gallery of “outspoken or accused white nationalists, neo-Confederates, holocaust deniers, conspiracy peddlers, professional trolls, and other alt-right or fringe personalities,” according to TechDirt. A lot of tough decisions ahead. Maybe tougher than Musk realizes. I am reminded of his breezy endorsement of universal basic income. As he said last summer when talking about his TeslaBot project. “Essentially, in the future, physical work will be a choice. This is why I think long term there will need to be a universal basic income.” A UBI seems like a simple and elegant solution for technological unemployment. And if you knew a lot about tech and but less about labor economics, you might gravitate toward the idea. But there are so many ways to potentially implement a UBI (especially after the political system processes any such simple and elegant plan) — and so many value questions (such as personal liberty versus paternalism) associated with it, that a UBI is hardly simple or elegant. Content moderation will be at least equally fraught with various difficulties.
Musk’s politics are far from simple. Musk is no Republican, much less a right-winger of the nationalist-populist variety. Maybe that makes you happy, maybe sad, but that’s the reality. A recent New York Times analysis of Muskian ideology described it as a “largely nondenominational political philosophy.” Musk has described himself as “half Democrat, half Republican.” His Time magazine Person of the Year profile snarked that Mars-loving Musk has “disavowed terrestrial political affiliations.” Also in that Time piece, I am quoted on his politics: “The reason it’s confusing is it’s not on the traditional left-right spectrum. It’s a politics of progress. It’s a view that says the solution to man’s problems is growth and technological progress and maximizing human potential. It’s not a view fully represented by either side in this country.” And while Musk seems to have moved rightward during the pandemic, Bloomberg Businessweek’s Max Chafkin offers a practical explanation for that apparent shift:
Musk’s pivot rightward conveniently coincided not only with the rise of the nationalist-populist right, but also with the wish to cater to a growing market for EVs. In 2019 he unveiled a Tesla pickup, the Cybertruck, and the following year, after calling California’s stay-at-home orders “fascist,” he announced that he’d be manufacturing it at a new plant outside Austin. In 2021 he decided he would relocate Tesla’s headquarters there, too, complaining that California was the “land of over-regulation.” Musk’s Bay Area bashing was part of his effort to reframe Tesla as a company for pickup-driving dudes when Ford Motor and General Motors were beating him to the electric truck market.
Twitter might become a more interesting place to work. In my recent chat with Soni (more to come), I asked him whether if he were a Twitter employee right now, he would think “I’m embarking upon a grand new adventure” or “Better freshen up the resume.” His response:
I think it's decidedly the former. And I should say, I hope that I would think that, and I think it's a good posture to think that. There are changes that are going to be made to the company and the product. And I think that you can embrace them and sort of hang on for the ride and do your best. It seems to me to be a good way to live your life in general. But if I were a Twitter employee, I would reframe the whole situation and think to myself, “One of the world's truly great innovators just purchased our company and wants to make changes to it. It will be a sight to see and something that we will never experience again. We ought to embrace it.”
Even though I use Twitter, I am ultimately far less interested in what Musk might do with the microblogging platform than what’s happening with Tesla and SpaceX — despite Musk’s bit about Twitter’s civilizational importance. I think what happens at those other two companies is what will determine the entrepreneur’s legacy, not to mention the state of our planet and our destiny beyond it.
Thanks for reading this far! Just a quick note for first-time visitors and free subscribers. In my twice weekly issues for paid subscribers, I typically also include a short, sharp Q&A with an interesting thinker, in addition to a long-read essay. Here are some recent examples of those interviews:
Silicon Valley historian Margaret O’Mara on the rise of Silicon Valley
Innovation expert Matt Ridley on rational optimism and how innovation works
Existential risk expert Toby Ord on humanity’s precarious future
More From Less author Andrew McAfee on economic growth and the environment
A Culture of Growth author and economic historian Joel Mokyr on economic growth
Physicist and The Star Builders author Arthur Turrell on the state of nuclear fusion
Economist Stan Veuger on the social and political impact of the China trade shock
Researcher Alec Stapp on accelerating progress through public policy
Musk's purchase of Twitter may just be the opening round in a protracted conflict. We are seeing a call for Apple and Google to deplatform Twitter. If Twitter is expunged from iPhones and Androids, much of its value is gone in an instant. Twitter as a curator of acceptable discussion, as an instrument of narrative control, is too valuable to just give up. If it cannot be recaptured, destroying Twitter and destroying Musk will be fallbacks. Interesting days ahead.