Elon Musk now owns Twitter…but can he save it?

Elon Musk now owns Twitter. He has fired Jack Dorsey’s hand-picked managerial successors. 

This, in itself, is a victory for the First Amendment. The CEO Musk fired, Parag Agrawal, once made the following statement, regarding Twitter and free speech:

“Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation … [and to] focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.”

The above soundbite is code for: tech CEOs and their minions directing the unwashed masses toward predetermined conclusions. Parag Agrawal had no sincere interest in “healthy public conversation” at all.

So, as they sang near the end of The Wizard of Oz, “Ding dong, the witch is dead!” But what comes next, in the witch’s place?

Twitter has generally been the least useful and most unpleasant of all the social media platforms. Facebook is no free speech zone, but it’s useful for keeping in touch with your high school classmates and past work colleagues. There is a lot of garbage on YouTube, but some genuinely useful and entertaining content, as well. 

Twitter, on the other hand, is a microblogging platform filled with 280-character rants from mostly anonymous users.

Twitter can be used to distribute short video clips and still images, but it can’t compete with Instagram or YouTube as an audiovisual platform. The 280-character tweet limit encourages snark and sloganeering rather than thoughtful exposition. Twitter is not a true blogging platform.

And Twitter has been losing users for years. Twitter, as social media platforms go, simply isn’t a very informative or fun place to hang out. This is true whether you consider yourself primarily a content creator, or a content consumer.

The new Elon Musk version of Twitter will also enter a social media landscape that has become hopelessly fragmented. And no, I’m not just talking about young people gravitating to TikTok and Snapchat. I’m also talking about direct competition for conservatives who want a social media platform they can use without the interference of speech nannies. 

After the 2020 election, millions of conservatives, Republicans, and free speech advocates left Twitter for sites like Parler and Truth Social. Some of them may come back. But some of them will be perfectly happy with the newer alternatives, and see no reason to return to Twitter.

A mixed reaction can also be expected from leftwing Twitter users, who now comprise the overwhelming majority there. Some of them will stay to fight what they regard as the good fight. Others will decide that they can’t function in an online environment without speech commissars and endless “rules”. Some of them will bail simply because they don’t like what they’ve heard about Elon Musk from their leftwing Twitter friends.

Twitter has never been an advertiser’s ideal platform, because of the format, and because the true scope and makeup of the user base has always been unknowable. (If you’re talking to some anonymous Twitter user, the odds are fairly good that you’re talking to a bot, or a teenage boy in Serbia.) And to make matters worse, there are signs that digital advertising revenues are drying up in advance of the looming recession. 

Elon Musk has killed the Internet beast of Jack Dorsey’s Twitter. There is now one less monolithic site on the Internet where a clique of ideologically motivated busybodies will arbitrarily delete content and ban users. Another wall has come down.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether or not Elon Musk can transform the carcass of Twitter into something better, and something commercially viable. This may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory in the end.