So, Elon Musk finally claimed his Twitter plaything.
That may have seemed impossible earlier this month as Twitter adopted a poison pill against the billionaire entrepreneur, but I always figured it was an inevitability. After all, it was a fair enough price ($44 billion) that no one else, like, say, Disney, would want to match or, in the case of Big Tech, could match for fear of bringing further antitrust scrutiny.
Which brings us to the inevitable question: What now?
The honest answer when it comes to Musk — superhero to some, supervillain to others — is, “Who knows?” Editable tweets? Very likely. Fewer spam bots? Maybe. Twitter’s comely San Francisco headquarters building as a homeless shelter? Doubtful. An end of 4/20 weed jokes? Hard no. The man just negotiated a complex financial transaction that began with a built-in marijuana wisecrack.
One thing seems sure to me, however: The soon-to-be social media honcho is inclined to lift the permanent tweeting ban imposed last year on Donald Trump.
If you’re hyperventilating right now, you might want to take a breath because it was coming with or without Musk atop the Twitter organizational chart. Addressing the ban would have been near the top of Twitter management’s to-do list, since keeping off Trump as the 2024 G.O.P. presidential nominee — or as president — was always going to be a problematic stance. Twitter executives would have been under enormous pressure to reconsider the ban, which made sense at the time, and most likely would have let Trump back on, with certain behavior caveats.
And so it will be Musk doing it instead. He’d already made clear that he is sympathetic to the notion, long before this deal. When Twitter finally did toss Trump off the platform in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol for inciting violence (after many years of Twitter turning the other cheek to a bevy of lesser violations), Musk took issue with the decision. He was one of the few around tech to do so at the time, when most ran away in fear of being accused of being handmaidens to sedition.
Make no mistake about how valuable Trump has been to Twitter, or how dependent the former president was on the platform to reach his base. It was the central font for his repeated lies, but also a testing ground for his thinking about matters of global significance, musings that other presidents have conducted in private. It’s hard to imagine Trumpism, as it’s understood today, without Twitter or Twitter without Trumpism, ban or no.
Many have enjoyed the over-one-year long respite from Trumpy Twitter, but he’s poised to return with a vengeance. And maybe just in time for crucial midterms that are likely to upset Democrats’ hold in Washington and stall out any legislative action.
Maybe it won’t be a complete free-for-all for Trump. Expect Musk to employ a vague proposal he’s made about tantrum-stopping “timeouts” for those who cross whatever line he decides to put in place. That would certainly fit the sophomoric persona Trump had cultivated on the site.
In a twist, Trump told Fox News on Monday that he would not return to Twitter, even if allowed. “I am going to stay in Truth,” he said, referring to the moribund Truth Social site he pushed out. It’s a sad violin of a site, with technologists fleeing the premises as fast as the app drops on the download charts. A business even less impressive than Trump Steaks or Trump water, or Trump University — now that’s really saying something.
While other right-leaning Twitter clones like Gettr and Parler are certainly doing better, a free speech-touting Twitter will probably run Truth Social and the others out of business.
Plus, Musk has had plenty of success in very challenging industries — from electric cars to rockets to solar power — displaying a canny business acumen he is going to need in trying to revamp Twitter as a private company. Along with addressing the many insufferable numbskulls who populate the site, Musk will have to tackle myriad thorny issues, from the nearly impossible task of content moderation to keeping up with the Joneses in product innovation and how to keep growing and growing against the pull of the rest of the internet. Oh yeah, and did I mention how much the kids love TikTok?
And then there is a struggling business, which was the reason for Twitter’s weak stock performance since it went public in the fall of 2013. Though, he’ll have one advantage taking it private: far less disclosure about active users, profits and advertising sales; so it will be a guessing game about his business-side successes.
Advertisers, already exhausted by controversy, will not welcome a more toxic Twitter, and hopes for revenue-boosting subscriptions have been a bust so far. It’ll be a daily struggle just to hold onto Twitter’s employee base after all this. That’s why Musk — whose personal financial obligations in this deal appear to be considerable — will have to find his way to a better business, and not just a better product.
That’s a lot of complexity for Musk, who still has his day jobs running Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink and the Boring Company, even if he does have some arguably smart ideas. My suggestion is to make a strong ally of Twitter co-founder and recently departed C.E.O. Jack Dorsey, who was sidelined by activist investors. Bringing Dorsey back seems always to be a good move at Twitter. It’d certainly calm the waters that Musk cannot seem to help but churn up himself.
So, what’s next? So much and, of course, who knows?