Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter marks the end of an era, and the beginning of a new project for him and his investors. But is it what we want, too? And are we up for making a different choice, if not?
On Wednesday, October 26, Elon Musk walked into Twitter’s offices in San Francisco with a kitchen sink, for a video captioned “Entering Twitter HQ—let that sink in!” On Thursday, he made his purchase of the company official with a tweet addressed, “Dear Twitter Advertisers”. In this first message as “Chief Twit”, Musk promised a fruitful working relationship in pursuit of making Twitter “the most respected advertising platform in the world”, which he argued was its fundamental goal, while also extolling the importance “to the future of civilization” of having a “common digital town square”.
Average users are welcome to wonder at the feasibility of achieving either goal amid the chaos that’s accompanied the whole saga of this purchase, which will legally conclude before 5pm on Friday, as per the court-appointed deadline.
But while there’s room to wring our hands over all these theatrics, there’s also an opportunity to be more proactive in the wake of why this sale concerns so many.
If we take a step back, Twitter is just a company. The digital platform it supports? One of many generated by human beings: a product, and a fairly recent one at that. It was founded in 2006, pitched as a “microblogging” forum in a world of Blogger, Livejournal, Tumblr, and other major players in the “blogosphere”. It was a magical digital era, really, wherein everyone, even government websites, started keeping a blog as a way to connect with others and be heard.
In the 2010s, Twitter and Facebook became significant players in world politics: first, for their role in the Arab Spring; later, more notably as forums for misinformation, breaches of campaign finance laws, and even escalation to genocide. After the 2016 election, US citizens could sometimes expect foreign and domestic policy to play out in real-time through the POTUS Twitter account. In pandemic, Twitter gained added importance as a means of connecting us to one another in lockdown—but also, as a means of dividing us through the spread of disinformation.
It’s been a wild ride these 16 years, in other words.
But things change. And some things have been changing all along.
Musk’s purchase of Twitter for $44 billion, for instance, is considered to be well above fair value for the company, which tech analyst Dan Ives told clients today is closer to $25 billion. Although rumors had been swirling about mass layoffs post-purchase (up to 75 percent of the workforce, which Musk today claimed were not accurate), the company was already struggling to sustain profitability, and facing the possibility of downsizing. Yahoo Finance reports that Twitter’s second quarter failed to meet earning estimates, in an economy that’s seeing advertisers across the board leave major tech companies (like parent company Alphabet, and YouTube) in the lurch.
This is also why Musk’s immediate warmth toward advertisers isn’t surprising: Twitter relied on them for 90 percent of its revenue in 2021. Musk now plans to make Twitter profitable by using it as an accelerant for creating what he calls “X, the everything app”. This will be styled a bit like WeChat in China, which is an integrated entertainment, communications, service-provider, and payment system—and a project for which Musk can easily apply his experience with PayPal to achieve, so long as he retains investor and subscriber confidence along the way.
Simply put: He’s not really buying Twitter. He’s buying its infrastructure, and its nearly 400 million users, with a plan for guiding them both into the creation of a radically different service in a few years’ time.
Which leaves us with a simple choice: Is it a service we want, or not?
And if not, are we ready to build something else instead?
For example, in Colombia “leapfrogging” has been a key feature in tech advances, because adversity often creates an ideal playing field for innovation. Whereas in Canada I was still paying rent with actual cheques in 2018, lower levels of financial security here required a more forward-thinking system: an online app to achieve well-documented payments for rent, utilities, and other commercial services. Likewise, banks here were using elaborate two-step authentications long before my Canadian bank started doing likewise—but out of necessity, due to higher rates of fraud.
So instead of throwing up our hands at what Twitter might become, let’s imagine a future where this major change makes “leapfroggers” of us all: online, and in politics.
Experts in Asian digital economies recently told CNN, for instance, that Musk faces a very different marketplace than the one that greeted WeChat developers when they sought to become their own region’s “everything app” at a time of looser state regulations. Plenty of other mobile payment systems are already well-established in the US, and Western countries have been more openly trying to enforce (if also losing, in court cases to date) anti-monopoly regulations.
All of this gives Western users a lot more agency to decide our digital futures, along with the extent to which they shape our democratic and economic possibilities. Advertiser dollars are not guaranteed to today’s tech monopolies, as many such companies have started to see in the last few quarters. And policymakers are trying to defend a more diversified marketplace of ideas, businesses, and products.
The third part of the equation is us.
What do we want? What would best serve both our everyday need for connection, and a rejuvenation of democratic practice through online collaboration?
And what are we willing to do, or lean into, to achieve that better end?