The media is reporting that Elon Musk–the driving force behind Tesla, and SpaceX, cultural and political gadfly, former Saturday Night Live host, and reportedly the world’s richest person–has been successful in his bid to buy Twitter. CNBC says that Twitter’s Board of Directors has accepted Musk’s tender offer in a deal that will provide $44 billion for Twitter shareholders and result in Twitter being converted from a public to a private company.
This story is an intersection of two things that are beyond my ken: the unimaginable world of the hyper-rich, and the curious universe of Twitter users and followers. Musk’s net worth reportedly exceeds $250 billion, which gives him plenty of resources to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. In this instance, Musk says he wants to buy Twitter to further free speech interests. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in a prepared statement. Promoting free speech is a highly laudable goal, of course, and Musk’s track record in moving things like electric cars and space travel from dream to reality has been impressive.
But I think Musk is wrong to see Twitter as a “digital town square” where meaningful debate occurs. The next sentence of his prepared statement–where Musk says “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans”–illustrates why. For those people, like me, who don’t use it, Twitter seems like some weird, dystopian technoworld, haunted by bots and fake followers, where the 280-character limit for tweets requires turning complicated issues into simplified mush and encourages a kind of mean snarkiness not seen since high school. The tweeting record of President Trump bears witness to this fact, but his tweeting record is not alone. Twitter seems to bring out the worst in people, and most of us just don’t want to go there.
If Elon Musk really wants to promote free speech through his acquisition of Twitter, I wish him well, but I don’t think he can do anything that will lure me into that alternate reality, much less cause me to view Twitter as a “digital town square.” If Twitter is a kind of town square, it’s located in the darkest, creepiest part of town that most people would prefer to avoid.