Can Elon Musk really handle running Twitter? It's no Tesla

Musk is a formidable chief executive, but the social media giant is unlike any other business

Elon Musk has sealed a deal with Twitter's board of directors to acquire the company for $44bn. AFP
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Make no mistake: any time someone plops down $44 billion without batting an eye to purchase an influential social media platform, it is going to cause concern – and rightfully so. There's no point in pretending that Tesla chief executive Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is nothing to write home about.

It has also become clear that, at least for now, there is little if anything that will stand in Mr Musk’s way. Twitter’s board agreed to the deal and US regulators have tended to be all bark and no bite when it comes to trying to regulate social media platforms or, for that matter, internet giants.

That debate, for the most part, was settled back when the seeds to the internet were first planted in 1991, when Al Gore, then a senator, introduced the "High Computing Performance Act". To make a long story short, there was initially a large push to make federal funding the backbone of the internet, which would have probably made it easier to regulate, at least on the national level.

That ship, however, sailed by 1992, when Mr Gore, who went on to become US vice president the following year, told the National Press Club that “unlike the interstate highways, the information highways will be built, paid for and funded principally by the private sector".

There are mountains of articles, research papers and even documentaries about why and how this decision was made. And while there’s little point in dwelling on it, it is true that the seeds sown more than three decades ago led, in part, to the amount of concentrated power we see on the internet today.

I suspect, however, that even the authors and supporters of the High Computer Performance Act failed to see just how fast and influential computer networks would become. It is also safe to say that few, if any, predicted the evolution of the internet into fiefdoms of social networks.

That leads us to the world’s wealthiest individual, Elon Musk. His ideas, opinions, political persuasions and influence make his purchase of Twitter scary for some and a much-needed breath of fresh air for others. Regardless of where one stands on it, Mr Musk is more than likely to find that being in charge of a social media platform is far different from running Tesla, the electric automobile company he co-founded.

Though it is popular, in terms of web traffic, Twitter routinely lags behind Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. AFP
Musk's ideas, opinions, political persuasions and influence make his purchase of Twitter scary for some and a much-needed breath of fresh air for others

As a social media editor, I can tell you that although billions of people use social networks, the stigma that comes with their territory is not for the faint-hearted. I may eat my words many years from now for saying this, but the sheer amount of criticism and second-guessing that Mr Musk will encounter might be a humbling experience for him. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg probably has truckloads of notes he might want to pass along to Mr Musk as to how to deal with the day-to-day issues that come with the glories of running a prominent social media platform.

That being said, Mr Musk’s critics would be foolish to write him off. Some of his ideas, such as "defeating the spam bots" and "authenticating all humans", seem like noble and much-needed steps in the right direction to make Twitter a more honest and trustworthy platform.

His stated commitment to more free speech on the platform is admirable, but it also raises questions about whether or not those motives are genuine. As has been pointed out by many, he seemed perturbed when someone once tracked his private jet. “Can you take this down? It is a security risk,” he messaged the creator of the account. A back-and-forth series of messages ensued, and despite Mr Musk’s multiple attempts, the account remains today. Again, his recent commitment to free speech seems to melt on contact, and it will prove far more complicated than he realises in a world of geopolitical diversity and philosophical differences too numerous to mention.

Finally, there is the platform of Twitter itself. I love the platform, just as much as the next social media editor. And I believe its founder, Jack Dorsey, is right when he says that "it is the closest thing we have ever had to a global consciousness".

However, it is not the only game in town. Its influence is undeniable, but if one takes a quick look at the key metric of "daily active users", it is a far cry from being the behemoth it is often made out to be. According to the consumer data company Statista, it barely cracks the top 15, trailing behind WhatsApp, WeChat, TikTok, Snapchat and even Pinterest. In terms of web traffic, it routinely lags behind Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn on many days.

This is in no way an attempt to rain on Mr Musk’s Twitter parade. And this is not to minimise the dangers of concentrated wealth, power and influence when it comes to Big Tech either. But if we take a moment to look at the tech graveyard, we will find such platforms as MySpace, AOL, Friendster and Google Plus, which seemed invincible, only for us to see them come and go at the crest of a wave.

Only time will tell if Mr Musk can ride that wave. It also remains to be seen just how big of a wave that really is.

Published: April 26, 2022, 3:05 PM