Why Is Musk Buying Twitter? I Thought He Was A Technologist Doing Great Things.

Tech Industry

Musk appears to want a piece of the infrastructure of the global conversation. That, as they say, is a pretty big ask.

In a 2021 blog post, Scott Galloway declared that “Elon Musk is now the most influential individual in the world – so influential, he can distort the modern world’s premier platform, our free market system.” Galloway also noted that: “our idolatry of innovators and the algorithmic media ecosystem have distorted the allocation platform. In the spectacle economy, it’s about the show, the now, the short-term hit.”

Is that what’s going on with Musk and Twitter? Is it just a spectacle? Is it a distraction for “the most influential individual in the world”? Is he just trolling the media he wants to influence? Why in the world would the richest man in the world want to own Twitter? Or take it private? Or decide what’s OK and what’s not on a social media platform that reaches hundreds of millions of people? (Did I just answer my own question?)

Why, All Day Long

So what the hell is going on with this Twitter thing? Tesla, The Boring Company, SpaceX and Neuralink are all technology Musketeers. Twitter? While the others are technology companies, Twitter is something else. (Maybe he just wants to rewrite the algorithms)?

As his Tweets have already revealed, he wants something else. He wants influence, control and power over the expression, interpretation and sharing of ideas, apparently regardless of their accuracy, value or the risk they might demonstrate. Musk appears to want a piece of the infrastructure of the global conversation. That, as they say, is a pretty big ask.

Celebrity CEOs in the Public Square

Here’s what I wrote last year:

“CEOs of technology companies exploit their personal and professional fame for influence, market share and money. Their shareholders and egos demand nothing less. Musk is gathering as much celebrity capital as he can before BMW, GM, Ford, the Japanese and South Koreans come for him (he’s also hedging with Bitcoin). And they’re coming … what happens when the celebrity fades? Or when the celebrities themselves lose interest and start buying islands and sports teams for kicks?”

Why, Elon, Really?

A recent Tweet by Musk:

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“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 … I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”

Not much about content: what are you going to do when someone with a lot of followers incites a riot?

Or what about this Tweet?

“I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”

Well said, I guess, but what happens when these critics spew unconscionable lies about you and your companies, lies that affect the value of the companies and distract you from running the companies in which lots of people have parked their pensions?

Media Concentration, Intent & Billionaire Boredom

There are at least three disturbing aspects about Musk’s latest venture. The first is the power and control that wealth provides. Who owns the Washington Post? Who controls Bloomberg? News Corp? Who controls Facebook? Now, who controls Twitter? In 2018, Forbes published an article with the chilling title, These 15 Billionaires Own America’s News Media Companies.” Yahoo published a much more recent list – “15 Richest Media Owners in the World.” I don’t know about you, but I’m nervous about the concentration of so many media platforms in the hands of so few.

The 2nd is what Musk will do with Twitter. The “free speech” umbrella – like all such umbrellas – sets up a false debate where no one wants to take a counter position. But like the now ancient example of why no one can yell fire in a movie theater, where do you draw the line? Musk’s purchase of Twitter now gives him control over where the lines get drawn. OK — or scary?

The 3rd aspect that concerns me is what appears to be “billionaire boredom.” Musk has an incredible technology platform spread across at least four companies. (He also has a lot of money.) He has a lot to do to solve some really complex, incredibly important human problems (and deliver for his shareholders). Why not stay in this swim lane? I’m nervous about where boredom might lead. Is the (earthly) transportation industry next? Food? Energy? Without serious regulatory controls, which are hard to find, massive wealth enables the almost arbitrary creation of oligarchies.

It’s apparently not that hard to raise $50B in a couple of weeks to make someone happy.

Is anyone else nervous?

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