Elon Musk will pay $44 billion for a media property
Twitter's most precious asset isn't its technology, its business, its data, or its employees. What makes Twitter unique is the attention it has won from the media profession — and that is what Elon Musk bought for $44 billion Monday.
Catch up quick: Journalists fell in love with Twitter because it's a fast, open medium for sharing news. Then their presence on the platform transformed what was once just a buzzy, ephemeral social network into a conduit for world leaders, public institutions and social debates.
In announcing that his offer to buy the company had been accepted, Musk called Twitter "the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated."
Yes, but: Town squares are generally run by town governments. When private companies own them, we call them "malls."
By the numbers: In the Big Tech wars, Twitter is only a bit player.
- It has a little over 200 million daily average users globally and brings in $5 billion in annual revenue.
- Compare that to Facebook's 3 billion users and $117 billion annual revenue.
Musk's purchase of Twitter, then, is less a big move in the tech industry's platform wars than the latest instance of a digital billionaire buying up a media institution.
- There's one key difference, though: The journalists on Twitter aren't Musk's employees — they're just voluntary users. They're free to leave at any time.
- Sometimes, their actual bosses tell them tweeting is part of their job, but just as often, their editors exhort them to "get off Twitter."
- If journalists tomorrow stopped using Twitter as a combination water cooler, source bank, news wire and jobs board, its power and prominence would begin to dissipate — eroding its appeal to presidents and plutocrats.
Reality check: So far, the record shows that story-chasing reporters, take-happy pundits and spotlight-thirsty public figures have all had a devil of a time quitting Twitter.
- Over the years, tons of journalists have made big shows of departing in a huff — only to return.
- To win them over, any alternative is going to need to similarly hook them with speed and scale.
Our thought bubble: Musk can hang on to Twitter's journalistic sway by improving the integrity and civility of its conversations.
- To the extent that his drive for his version of free-speech principles opens it up to new waves of misinformation and harassment, the service's influence could dwindle.
Editor's note: The headline of this story has been corrected to reflect that Musk will pay $44 billion, not that he has paid it.