It’s confirmed: Elon Musk is buying Twitter. The richest man in the world has struck a deal with the platform worth $44bn. This is bad news on multiple levels. It’s bad for the distribution of power in the world, it’s bad for the power of Big Tech and it’s bad for “free speech”. (While Musk says that he wants to secure free speech, that sometimes comes at the cost of people less powerful than him.)
But what does all of this actually mean for Twitter as a platform?
Many of those outraged by Musk’s acquisition are specifically concerned about how he might change the way that Twitter functions. Will he introduce an edit button? Dangerously lax moderation? Or worst of all, reinstate the account of Donald Trump? They fear Twitter will get much worse, even unusable; that they’ll open their apps next week to find a completely different platform, full of violent imagery, abuse and an endless stream of unchecked pro-Trump content. While all of this is technically possible — and if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s to not discount the most far-fetched outcome — it seems far more plausible that the changes we will see under Musk will be much less dramatic.
From what we know so far, it seems Musk has bought Twitter on a gut feeling rather than with a clear vision to overhaul the platform in mind. So far the changes he’s mentioned are relatively light, and are far from original, such as getting rid of full bans and introducing temporary “timeouts” or turning Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters into a homeless shelter (it seems unlikely the latter will actually come to pass). Many of the changes people fear Musk might introduce were already on Twitter’s agenda for this year and next: the edit button has, apparently, been in the works for several months; and the company was already intending to address letting Trump back on to the platform, especially given his apparent plans to run as a candidate in the 2024 US presidential election. And when it comes to moderation, it may prove to be more of a headache than a liberation to reduce it significantly, with content such as child abuse proliferating even under current levels of moderation.
It also seems likely that Musk hasn’t considered the boring logistics of running Twitter, a platform that has struggled to keep up with its contemporaries and which is about to come up against new rules in the UK and EU that may make it more demanding to run. Moderation changes also risk losing advertisers and breaking laws, which again may impede Musk’s mission.
But the outcry over Musk’s ownership reveals a more fundamental issue: the ideal of what Twitter should be can never exist. There’s a contingent of Twitter users who believe the platform should be purely a fun, harmonious space where the content you believe is bad doesn’t exist. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that even most hideous things should be allowed to be shared ad nauseam, with no repercussions. It’s impossible to create a social media utopia where everyone is happy because it will always be at odds with someone else’s vision. It’s easy to act as though Musk is the problem, but he merely represents a divide that runs much deeper.
Of course, even in a matter of a few weeks, I could be proved wrong about all of this. Twitter could become an unmoderated cesspit of scams, hate speech and violent imagery that makes it effectively unusable, and Musk could simply shrug off fines and legal issues with his endless cash. However, it feels likely that the reality will be much more dull: a Twitter that’s ever so slightly worse, but not bad enough to force the majority of users to leave.