But unlike so many of Musk’s moonshots (self-driving robotaxis, brain-machine interfaces, hyperloops, bulletproof cybertrucks, etc.), Twitter is already a mature product used daily by hundreds of millions of people. And with that comes a set of challenges, including at-times tedious day-to-day managerial tasks, that the world’s richest person may not be eager to take on.
The shiny new thing could quickly lose its luster.
“It’s like the figurative ‘the dog that caught the car’ now that he owns Twitter,” William Klepper, an expert on corporate governance and a professor at Columbia Business School, told HuffPost. “He’ll have to provide the executive leadership needed to maintain and grow the company. He can’t just hold it in his portfolio!”
Inherent in that is respect for Twitter’s existing company culture, which Klepper worried Musk may not take the time to understand, much less appreciate and work with.
“Twitter employees were already faced with a pending change,” Klepper said. “Musk will now increase their disorientation. He would be best to learn how to lead constructive change of an existing company culture ― i.e. the way they do things around Twitter.”
In addition to internal managerial concerns, the deal also makes Musk the high-profile face of controversial external choices, including intractable free speech problems at home and abroad.
Those problems, and how he chooses to resolve them, present a reputational risk that could spread to other parts of his sprawling technology fiefdom.
What happens, for instance, when Vietnam asks Twitter to silence government critics or face reduced access in the country? Will Musk acquiesce in exchange for a deal to open the market to Tesla? And will that taint the perception of Tesla back home?
“Musk leads without empathy, and the thought of a Twitter leading with even less empathy [than it already does] is terrifying.”
– Brianna Wu
Those concerns are shared by Brianna Wu, the executive director of Rebellion PAC who’s spent years advising Twitter’s trust and safety team after being inundated with violent threats on the platform during “Gamergate” in 2014, some of them so serious she and her husband left their house.
Wu told HuffPost there’s long been tension at Twitter between doing what’s good for users and doing what’s good for the company’s finances.
“Which makes sense if you think about it, right? A death threat or a rape threat on Twitter is great for engagement,” Wu said. “Everybody looks at it, everybody says something about it, you know, more eyeballs, more attention, more ads. But it’s not good for the user experience.”
With Musk at the helm, Wu said she fears profitability and engagement will be prioritized. At the same time, hard-fought, necessary protections for marginalized groups may not be enforced, leading to a resurgence in harassment.
“Musk leads without empathy,” Wu said, “and the thought of a Twitter leading with even less empathy” than it already does “is terrifying.”
Evan Greer, director at Fight for the Future, a digital rights nonprofit, had a similar assessment.
“Content moderation decisions on platforms as consequential as Twitter should be made carefully and through a human rights framework,” Greer said in an emailed statement. “But over the last several years, major social media platforms have increasingly made changes to their moderation practices based on news cycles and public relations. Now, there is a single human with the power to make changes to Twitter’s speech policies. That’s not a boon for free expression, it makes a mockery of it.”
“It was a problem when Twitter answered to Wall Street. But it’s certainly not better if it’s run by one billionaire.”