Elon Musk has already created the first truly successful electric car. He wants his company SpaceX to put men on Mars. Musk himself has occasionally joked that he wants to die on Mars, just not on impact.
Successfully landing and establishing an encampment on the Red Planet might prove far easier than Musk’s latest undertaking: fixing Twitter.
Musk had floated the idea of buying Twitter as far back as 2017. In mid-April he put together financing to purchase Twitter for around $43 billion. While this news might not have been the subject of much talk at sports bars across the country, it has certainly been one of the hottest topics on Twitter itself.
Musk’s prospective purchase of the micro-blogging site, where fragments of often underdeveloped thoughts and hot takes come at you 280 characters at a time, brought triumphalism from many on the political right, who see the vaguely right-wing, though thoroughly idiosyncratic, Musk as a champion of free speech culture. It also produced shrieks of horror from the left, who fear generally that Musk will radically diminish content moderation policies, and specifically that he’ll let former president Donald Trump back on the platform.
A New York Times op-ed expressed fear that “Twitter under Elon Musk will be a scary place.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren warned the deal is “dangerous to our democracy.” Washington Post columnist Max Boot was “frightened” by what this would mean. Former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich fretted that this would mean an “oligarch” would “control the internet.” (No one tell him about Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg, please.) In a tweet now deleted, MSNBC analyst Anand Giridharadas saw cause to proclaim the need to “abolish billionaires,” lest they “inevitably manspread economic power into every other form of power,” whatever the heck that means.
And not to be outdone, CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis lamented that “Today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany.”
If these reactions to the wealthiest man in the world purchasing the 17th most popular social media platform in the world seem hysterical and overwrought to you, you’re not alone. It could be because you’re not among the 396 million Twitter users worldwide and 69.3 million Twitter users in the United States.
But those numbers are somewhat misleading. While nearly 20% of the country may have a Twitter account, only 3% of the population produces 90% of all the tweets. On top of this, Twitter users are overwhelmingly on the left. If Twitter were a state, it would be about as reliably blue as Hawaii or Vermont. If the 10% of Twitter users who create 92% of all tweets were a congressional district, they’d be comparable to the voting patterns of New York’s 13th district, which includes upper Manhattan and parts of the Bronx.
As the comedian Dave Chappelle observed, “Twitter’s not a real place.”
But it’s very real for the small cadre of people who, if they were to lose the little blue “verified user” checkmark next to their name on Twitter, would die of embarrassment. And this is a huge part of why Musk’s task of bettering the platform strikes me as Sisyphean.
He faces two problems.
The first is Twitter’s outsize importance, not to the general public, but to elites, who comprise that 10% of overactive users and who will spill the most ink and pixels over every move Musk makes. They all take it way too seriously. They’re the kind of people who proclaim that Twitter, or social media in general, is the new public square—as if the actual, real-world public squares have vanished.
Twitter isn’t the public square for the average Joe American. It’s the public square for politicians, journalists, celebrities, and others who spend too much of their time online. This isn’t to say that they couldn’t or shouldn’t benefit from clearer content-moderation policies. But we shouldn’t overstate the relative importance of the social network with the 17th most users.
The second problem is even more vexatious. Changing Twitter’s content-moderation policies or creating transparency on how Twitter’s algorithm works doesn’t fix and couldn’t fix our broken politics and civics. Twitter is just another place where politically inclined people jack directly into their id and then perform for others, which makes the actual point of our politics—reaching important accommodations—more difficult.
Twitter isn’t a cause of those problems. It’s an acute symptom of them.
Can Elon Musk improve Twitter? I’m doubtful. If he does make it a place that better aligns with a culture of free expression, makes clear and understandable decisions on necessary content moderation, and reduces the instances where the real-life toxicity and mob mentality of the platform spills over into the real world and damages people’s lives, we’ll certainly be better for it.
But if Musk’s bid to fix it dies on impact, then Twitter will still be the same place with the same problems that existed before the Musk regime, and we’re really not any worse off.
And if he does fail, at least Musk still has a plan to escape the planet where Twitter exists. If only more of us had that option.