Voices: Twitter was losing users long before this deal. Has Elon Musk bought a lemon?

‘The bird is freed,’ Musk tweeted, not long after the acquisition was made official – but what liberty means in this context is hard to gauge (Reuters)
‘The bird is freed,’ Musk tweeted, not long after the acquisition was made official – but what liberty means in this context is hard to gauge (Reuters)

Well, that’s that. After months of talking about it – and talking, and talking – Elon Musk owns Twitter.

His first order of business after finalising the $44bn (£37.9bn) deal on 27 October? Firing chief executive Parag Agrawal, chief financial officer Ned Segal, and legal affairs and policy head Vijaya Gadde – an action that surprised no one, as Musk had publicly accused Twitter executives of misleading him about, among other things, the number of fake accounts and bots on the platform.

The rest of Twitter, meanwhile, is bracing for other moves. There will likely be layoffs of hundreds, if not thousands, of employees. There will also potentially be a rethink, and perhaps an abandonment, of the content moderation protocols that Twitter previously put in place to combat misinformation, threats, and other “problematic” speech.

“The bird is freed,” Musk tweeted, not long after the acquisition was made official – but what liberty means in this context is hard to gauge. A free-speech absolutist, Musk has vowed to do away with the lifetime bans from the platform that caused such consternation in recent years – including, most notably, the banning of Donald Trump and the recent suspension of Kanye West (West’s Twitter account appeared to be reinstated this morning).

In a message to Twitter’s advertisers, Musk tweeted that he believes “it is important to the future of civilisation to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence…. That said, Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences.” Oh, yes. “Obviously”. But amid all the warm and fuzzy platitudes about town squares and healthy debate, it’s hard to get a sense of what, in the end, will differentiate Twitter under Elon Musk from, say, the bare-knuckle paradise of extremist bile and conspiracy-fuelled rage that is Gab.

For example: will the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and other “Stop the Steal” kooks and goons be allowed to again spread their lies, unchecked, on Twitter? Will unapologetic racists be welcomed with open arms into the “digital town square”? How egregious would speech have to be before this new, thick-skinned Twitter decides that users are veering into hellscape territory? (“Please tone it down with that pro-autocracy QAnon stuff, Mr Flynn.”)

Beyond the head-scratching about what Twitter under Musk will look and sound like, there’s also the fiscal questions about the $44bn acquisition. Specifically, did Elon Musk buy a lemon? Well before the deal even went through, Twitter was losing many of its most prominent users. According to a recent report from Reuters, citing internal company research, “Twitter is struggling to keep its most active users – who are vital to the business – engaged ... These ‘heavy tweeters’ account for less than 10 per cent of monthly overall users but generate 90 per cent of all tweets and half of global revenue.”

There’s also the very real, persistent challenge of having to compete with other social leviathans like Instagram and Tiktok, both of which boast more users – hundreds of millions more – than Twitter and have notably evolved well beyond their initial incarnations as apps for pretty pictures and funny dances.

Despite these perceived headwinds, though, one can’t forget that Elon Musk is the richest human on Earth. He has founded, co-founded, or otherwise had a hand in running innovative, audacious companies like PayPal, SpaceX, Neuralink, Tesla, the Boring Company, and others. Whether you love him or hate him – or, like plenty of us, find him weirdly uninteresting for such an accomplished guy – very few people would bet against Musk when it comes to a multibillion-dollar investment like Twitter.

As a business, Twitter is intermittently profitable. (According to Barron’s, “Twitter has posted a net loss every year, except 2018 and 2019 when it made a profit of just over $1bn.”). It has a large – some might argue an outsized – presence in popular culture. Its ad-revenue model might be rickety, but it has other ways of making money now and in the future, including data licensing.

Any way you look at it, a decade and a half after its founding, Twitter remains a force to be reckoned with.

And what if we take Musk at his word about why he bought Twitter in the first place? “I didn’t do it to make more money,” he recently said. “I did it to try to help humanity, whom I love.” Leaving aside its cringe-inducing, semi-messianic tone, Musk’s message squares with the evident rationale behind much of his empire-building. Endeavours like Tesla, SpaceX, and the Boring Company, after all, could only have been created by an incurable optimist.

Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that we optimistically await the transformation of Twitter into what Elon Musk clearly believes it can and should be: a healthy, uplifting, robust arena of competing ideas.

His is an admirable vision. His goals are laudable. But I hope Mr Musk will understand if, while waiting for that vision to be realised, I don’t hold my breath.