Future Tense

There’s a Reason No Smart Buyer Already Purchased Twitter

Elon Musk surround by a bunch of blue Twitter birds.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images and Twitter.

What if I were to tell you that Twitter is not that important in the world?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it is important. It’s certainly important to some people, namely an otherwise successful investor—the richest human in the history of the world for now—who borrowed and begged for $44 billion to buy a company that has almost never made money.

But really. How important is it in a global and historical scale? If it went away tomorrow, would the world be poorer for it?

Advertisement

Sure, for years a rich troll spewed nonsense via the service and somehow became president of the United States, only to wear out his welcome after violating Twitter’s rules one too many times by lying about the results of his own election failure and stoking a violent uprising against the United States.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

And sure, most of the influential politicians, journalists, and celebrities are active on the site, which is easy to use and easy to monitor. And sure, most of the scholarship about social media is based on Twitter because it’s easy to scrape data from it. All of this gives us the impression that what happens on Twitter matters beyond Twitter.

That’s not to say that Twitter is unimportant to those of us who use it. It’s important to me. It’s important to those politicians, celebrities, and journalists. And it’s valuable to anyone trying to generate attention among elites for ideas or campaigns.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Black Twitter” is certainly the most visible and influential of all Twitter-based phenomena, and it could not have thrived under any previous or existing platform the way it has on Twitter. Twitter is qualitatively valuable because of its collection of segmented user bases in the United States in ways it fails to be quantitatively important in the world at large.

But let’s put Twitter in context. In terms of users, it’s not among the top 10 social media platforms in the world. It’s behind Telegram, Snapchat, and even Pinterest. It has about the same number, 436 million users, as Reddit.

Advertisement

In contrast, Meta owns four of the top seven (Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram). Alphabet owns YouTube. Tencent owns WeChat, the largest service in China. And ByteDance owns TikTok, the fast riser of the past two years and the years to come. All of the top seven have about or more than 1 billion users. Meta’s four services have almost 4 billion humans using them regularly—more than half the population of the planet. More than that, Meta is astronomically profitable.

Advertisement

The fact that Twitter has been a business failure since its inception is no secret. It’s been put up for sale many times, yet no smart buyer concluded that its potential for growth or revenue outweighed its headaches and liabilities.

Advertisement
Advertisement

So when Musk first announced he wanted to buy Twitter, I declared there was no way he was serious. In general, Musk is not a serious person. He tweets all sorts of nonsense and never follows up. And he clearly did not have the cash on hand to do anything like buy a majority of Twitter stock. Plus, I assumed he was at least somewhat rational and informed about how bad a business Twitter is. Why would he want such a headache? I figured he was just trolling everyone, once again ruining the week for journalists and critics for laughs.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Well, somehow he managed to get the whole $44 billion, making sure that he would pay nothing in taxes for selling his own stock and minimizing his personal risk. It turns out I gave him too much credit for being smart and not enough for being bold—perhaps reckless—with other people’s money.

If you want to understand why the board of Twitter capitulated to letting Elon Musk take it over despite having no clear plan to enhance revenue, turn a profit, or even grow user numbers, you only have to focus on the fact that sticking with Twitter meant for them less money, more problems over time. So how could a new owner of Twitter make it more relevant in the world and finally make it profitable and sustainable as a business? None of Musk’s plans seem to address these two failures.

Advertisement

Musk wants to add an “edit button” to Twitter, an expensive reengineering project that would slow the service and generate a bit of goodwill among users. But its potential to seed user growth or engagement is murky, at best. He would prefer tweets be longer than the current 280 characters, which, again, adds nothing to the core value of the service yet adds expense. He wants to “authenticate all humans” using Twitter, allegedly to limit the proliferation of bots. There are cheaper and easier ways to stifle bots, and Twitter has been at work for years on those functions with some success.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Most confusingly, Musk wants to make “the algorithm” that ranks tweets for each of us, determining what we see first when we look at the app or Twitter’s homepage, “open source.” But it’s not clear what he means here.* Does he mean that “the algorithm” (a myth, as Twitter, like other services, runs on collections of algorithms and real-time human decisions that perform various functions within a dynamic, complex, and growing system) would sit on an editable platform so that anyone could make changes, like we can to Linux? Or does he just mean that a collection of code (perhaps annotated for nonspecialist humans to understand, perhaps not) would be readable in some transparent form? Musk has used “open source” improperly before, like when he promised to make Tesla patents “open source,” when, in fact, he only pledged not to file legal action to enforce those patents under some very strict conditions. Tesla did not create a special general patent licence like the free software movement did for copyright.

Advertisement

Most of the conversation about Musk’s takeover has focused on his pledge to undo much of the content moderation that Twitter has installed over the past five years. Industry experts consistently conclude that strong content moderation to reduce the presence of threats, hate speech, and harassment makes the experience better for most users and thus increases engagement. As UCLA professor and current Twitter adviser Sarah Roberts has written, content moderation is essential brand management for any large platform.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Had Musk joined the Twitter board, as he was invited to a few weeks back, he would have faced such clear arguments and would have had to protect strong moderation to fulfil his fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders. If he takes it private, he need not respect the data nor the wishes of most Twitter users. He can starve the place if he wishes, risking only the stock he put forth as collateral for the acquisition loans.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

At no point has Musk told advertisers why spending a dollar (or a rupee or a real) on Twitter would be smarter than spending it on an ad on Facebook or YouTube—proven winners. That’s going to be his chief job going forward. He’s never worked for a firm that depended on advertising for revenue, let alone run one (part time, along with his three other companies). So this can’t give much confidence to other investors about the long-term prospects of Twitter.

Twitter has two more revenue sources, neither of which currently constitutes more than a tiny sliver of its cash flow: It charges a small number of “Twitter Blue” users a small amount per month to have some extra features such as time to revise a tweet before sending it out and access to ad-free, professional content. And it offers other companies access to public user data. As Apple restricts apps from harvesting data without explicit permission from an iPhone user, both targeted advertisements and the value of user data have dropped. Again, Musk has said nothing about how Twitter might address these challenges.

Advertisement

Twitter is also notorious for lacking the talent, vision, or gumption to create services more interesting than the same old feed we have imbibed since 2009. Yeah, now each annoying tweet can be 280 characters long, but what were Fleets for? And why are Spaces so hard to use compared with other audio conversation platforms? Twitter has sat back, promoting pontifications from professors and politicians, while insurgents like Snap and TikTok have helped the world laugh and dance. Twitter needs to be bold and creative—and fast.

So a smart owner committed to saving Twitter would immediately put resources and attention to recruiting and retaining top talent. That owner should inspire with a vision of a more exciting, satisfying, and comfortable workplace. That seems not to be how current Twitter staff see Musk. Perhaps they know from miserable Tesla workers how bad a boss Musk is.

Advertisement
Advertisement

In short, everything Musk wants to do to Twitter would seem to work against the goals of improving the service, enhancing revenue, and growing the user base globally. And he seems to have no vision beyond pumping Twitter full of more blather—just more racist and venomous. Even if Twitter is still important in the world today, a few years of Musk making bad choices might ensure it’s less influential in coming years. You might not have to worry about quitting Twitter in disgust because Musk owns it. Twitter might quit you soon enough.

Correction, April 26, 2022: This article originally misstated that Elon Musk has never been a coder. In the mid-’90s, he programmed at a company he co-founded.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement