Musk's Twitter to-do list
Elon Musk looks like he is once more poised to purchase Twitter, but the company hasn't changed much since he decided to walk away from acquiring it in July: It's financially hurting, beset by free-speech disputes and shaken by months of relentless criticism, much of it from its likely new owner.
The big picture: Musk and his supporters believe he is just the person to solve these problems. His critics point out that building electric vehicles and reusable rockets is a very different skill from managing a community of hundreds of millions of people.
Here are the immediate tasks Musk would face as Twitter's new proprietor.
- Musk has said Twitter should enforce fewer rules about speech and let users say anything that is not explicitly outlawed by their governments.
- 15 years of experience with mass social networks online tells us that such an approach is wildly impractical and likely to unleash floods of spam, bullying, fraud and disinformation.
- That will either drive swathes of Twitter users away from the platform in disgust or push Musk to rebuild the content-moderation systems he now wishes to dismantle.
The biggest free-speech choice of all Musk will immediately confront is what to do about former president Donald Trump's account.
- Trump was permanently banned from Twitter after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and Musk doesn't have to do anything.
- But he has said that he is against permanent bans, and many of his fans believe he will invite Trump back to the service.
- If he does that, Musk should plan on having to resolve a bottomless supply of conflicts sparked by Trump's penchant for testing or breaking any limits placed on his expression.
- Big social platforms typically start with meteoric user growth and then build massive revenue streams with fat profit margins, but Twitter has never figured out how to fulfill that pattern.
- Musk has promised to turn the business around, and given the debt the company will take on in order to go private, he will have to push hard to do so.
- But the outlook for Twitter, as for every ad-supported business, looks dim in the current market downturn, and it isn't at all clear that subscriptions will turn the tide for the company.
- In addition, Musk's "free speech utopia" plan is likely to complicate or even foil efforts to expand ad revenue, since most advertisers favor an orderly environment and aren't keen to see their messages run alongside objectionable content (a problem Twitter faces even today).
- During Musk's months-long effort to wriggle out of his deal to buy Twitter, he made much of a complaint that the service is overrun by fake accounts and bots.
- There's been much debate over the extent of that problem, but once Musk owns the company he will be free to try to solve that problem —or declare it a non-issue.
- Last month, Twitter's former security head filed a whistleblower complaint charging the company with a slew of operational lapses. As a new owner, Musk will own that problem, too.
- Running a company is mostly about finding and keeping the best people. A Musk-owned Twitter will face the challenge of trying to retain and inspire teams at Twitter whose work Musk has repeatedly disparaged — or, more likely, he will have to hire a ton of new talent to replace the departing droves.
- Text messages that surfaced during the court proceedings indicated Musk thinks poorly of Twitter's current CEO, Parag Agrawal, so expect the new owner to hire new leadership, too.
- In another of those leaked texts, VC Steve Jurvetson suggested Musk hire a former Uber exec with a business background. Musk answered, “Please send me anyone who actually writes good software" — as if the company's chief problem is bad code.
The bottom line: A Musk-owned Twitter will aim to unleash free speech, make money and "write good software." If Musk actually closes the deal this time, we'll see whether he can achieve any of those goals — and whether people will want to use Twitter once he's done.