Elon Musk is now a member of Twitter’s board and owns 9.2% of the social network’s stock. But does that mean he is instantaneously going to make the platform a better (or worse) place for the regular user like you or me? After all, he is already selling the promise of making significant changes over the coming months.
Perhaps you should keep any lofty hopes of a social media revolution in check, as he didn’t even manage to catalyze possibly the biggest change in Twitter’s product history — the edit button. But as no one should ever underestimate Musk, let’s look at how likely he is to have a major impact on product development at the social network going forward.
Digital Trends spoke to Brooke Hammerling, founder of Brew PR and the communications advisory firm The New New Thing, about the appointment.
“Having a person who not only uses Twitter regularly but has seen the highs and lows of it from a personal perspective on the board can be very helpful and productive for the company and product,” Hammerling told us, indicating he might be able to influence some changes in the long run.
Looking forward to working with Parag & Twitter board to make significant improvements to Twitter in coming months!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 5, 2022
But Twitter is different from Musk’s usual endeavors. He is not your regular billionaire who invests his money in growing businesses or struggling startups. He’s a serial entrepreneur who believes in building things from scratch, often against all odds.
For example, SpaceX now leads the space privatization race and happens to be the biggest NASA contractor despite experts predicting it to fail spectacularly in the initial days. Tesla happens to be the world’s biggest automobile brand, while Starlink leads the satellite internet segment. Musk’s solar panel and battery power ambitions continue to scale up and then there’s Neuralink, which aims to pioneer human-machine interfacing.
Twitter, despite being the de facto public town square in Musk’s own words, is not really a brimming-with-money social media success story. What Twitter offers in abundance are influence and clout, and no one has exploited it with such a high degree of success as Musk. From quickly solving customer problems shared as a tweet to posting updates about Tesla and SpaceX’s big moves, Musk’s Twitter feed keeps newsrooms busy and his 80 million followers chuckling. Just imagine the tweet confirming the inevitable acronym for his planned Texas Institute of Technology & Science, and the epic merch it will spawn.
Looking deeper, Musk’s own track record in the media-entertainment world hasn’t been particularly successful. He once mused about the idea of creating Pravda — the Russian word for truth — at a time when he was facing intense criticism over his management. The eponymous website was supposed to track a journalist or publications’ credibility and let people rate the “core truth” of an article. Nothing came out of it and, yes, he polled the idea on Twitter. He also tried creating a “new intergalactic media empire” with a company called Thud, but those plans also came crashing down with an ironic, well, thud.
But one has to ask, can Musk’s love for free speech reach Twitter? Free speech-parading alternatives like Parler, MeWe, and Rumble have yet to gain any noticeable traction, assuming they solve their existing problems first. But even an influential person like former president Donald Trump can’t save a free-speech-toting social media platform, as his Truth Social app has had a problematic start. The waitlist is long, the service has missed multiple deadlines, and a BBC analysis called it a disaster. So, what exactly will Musk be able to change at Twitter?
Given Musk’s unpredictable persona, it is hard to guess what lies ahead. But if one were to look at Musk’s love-hate Twitter history, it doesn’t look like Musk wants to, or can, fundamentally change Twitter even as another personal project. Musk has repeatedly complained about Twitter’s failure with the ‘freedom of speech’ tenet, the spread of propaganda content, and misinformation, but his own free speech liberties don’t paint a particularly positive picture for a person who calls himself a free speech absolutist.
From tweeting anti-vax, transphobic memes, and doubting a Senator’s existence for demanding a wealth tax to equating a sitting Prime Minister with Hitler and labeling a rescue diver as a pedophile, Musk’s expressions of free speech often err dangerously close to harassment and offensive. Or as one opinion carried by The New York Times puts it, Musk has mastered the art of troll philanthropy, with Twitter serving as the medium for it all. And then there are reports of Musk going after whistleblowers, silencing critics, and even firing people for sharing Tesla tech failure with the world.
Musk is ambitiously impulsive, and despite all his good intentions for humanity, running a social media platform with all its content moderation issues and handling of sensitive topics requires a patient, sensitive approach.
What about from Twitter’s side? Does it want instant change? Twitter is likely chasing that special Musk effect. Just the way Tesla stocks and cryptocurrency prices go into a tizzy with a mention in Musk’s tweets, Twitter’s stock jumped by 27% once news broke that he was now the company’s biggest shareholder. Can Musk’s involvement bring in more investment for Twitter? It is plausible. Will Musk eventually buy the company, or even become Lord of Twitter? That is unlikely. Musk’s arrangement with Twitter limits him from buying more than 15% of the company’s stock.
Some experts say Musk is simply trolling the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with his majority stake in Twitter. Musk’s tweets have already invited federal investigation and the SEC has even mandated his tweets be vetted by a lawyer as they can influence Tesla and investor’s business. Musk is trying to get out of that settlement. But if he can’t have his way, he can continue his rants against SEC. But this time, as a board member and the largest stakeholder at Twitter.
Will Musk eventually buy the company, or even become Lord of Twitter?
But making investors happy with his stock market charisma has little to do with user engagement or new features on the platform. One might imagine Musk influencing product decisions at Twitter, which is what ultimately matters to the average Twitter user, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen yet, or possibly at all.
Twitter spokesperson Adrian Zamora told The Verge that its policies are impartial and implemented universally, which means Musk can still get suspended for a bad tweet.
“Our policy decisions are not determined by the Board or shareholders,” Zamora said. “Our day-to-day operations and decisions are made by Twitter management and employees.”
But there’s still a chance that he might at least use his sway to propose a few user-facing changes. Twitter has an interest in cryptocurrencies, and so does Musk. He just might prove to be a catalyst for development in that decentralized-focused direction. But what exactly Musk can change at Twitter remains a mystery.
“Elon Musk is having a lot of fun keeping Twitter guessing about his true intentions. We can expect more memes and headline-making tweets from him as he puts his plans into action,” social media evangelist Matt Navarra told Digital Trends. “That’s if he even has a plan!”
The conclusion is don’t hold your breath for Musk to suddenly make huge changes at Twitter, but do remember who we’re talking about here, because whatever happens it sure is going to be an entertaining ride.