Elon Musk proves he’s the wrong man to save the world
It’s on. Elon Musk has officially filed to kill his own Twitter acquisition, and Twitter is calling his bluff. They’ll see Musk in court. And while it’s only going to get messier from here, one important verdict has already been rendered by Elon Musk himself: he doesn’t have what it takes to run Twitter. And that’s a damning blow to his own central mythology.
We’ll look at the specifics of Musk’s formal SEC filing in a minute, but first it’s important to remember what he’s said about the deal and why he wanted to do it in the first place. It’s not like the world forced the acquisition of a relatively small social network on the world’s richest man. (On the contrary: he forced this on Twitter.) In fact, a reasonable person would conclude he was never serious about it to begin with; Musk’s conduct surrounding the deal has been marked by a lot of obvious troll behavior. And we’re already seeing a lot of Musk stans and Twitter haters divining a 4D-chess narrative that makes his blunder seem intentional. But.
There are some things Musk said in the frenzy of the Twitter takeover that can’t be ignored. That’s because they strike at the heart of what built his original reputation: as a visionary, a bold industrialist, a futurist, and maybe even the guy who would solve climate change and multi-planetary civilization. Sure, lately he works tirelessly to attract a huge base of social reactionaries and various right-wingers who care more about his trolling than the missions of SpaceX or Tesla. But Musk’s real credibility — if he ever had any — was being the face of genuinely huge and ambitious efforts to change the world and make it better.
He probably didn’t need to, but he brought that same world-saving energy to the Twitter deal:
Musk said he was motivated by the fact that Twitter had become a “de facto town square” and that it’s “really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they’re able to speak freely.” (He talked about “free speech” a lot during this time.)
Speaking at a TED conference, Musk said the deal is not a way to make money. Some of his exact words: “it’s about the future of civilization, but you don’t care about the economics at all.”
Later, speaking internally to employees of Twitter, Musk said “I want Twitter to contribute to a better, long-lasting civilization where we better understand the nature of reality.”
Musk: “Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.”
These statements stand out above everything else because (a) things that are important to the future of human life are not things you typically troll people about, and (b) that should be especially true if you are Elon Musk, who has spent his entire modern career since Tesla cultivating the idea that he is on a mission to save the future of humanity and spread civilization across the stars. Does he tweet dumb memes a lot? Yes. Did he send a car into space as a joke? Sure. But the missions of his companies are dead serious. Tesla’s mission is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Neuralink wants to build devices that help people with paralysis to “regain independence.” And SpaceX? That’s about nothing less than “enabling people to live on other planets.”
So: Musk has intentionally spent his career leaning into some of the world’s most difficult-to-solve problems. He gives lots of keynotes, throws big ideas on the board, and makes lots of promises. Incidentally, this campaign to save the world earned him one of the biggest and most active fanbases on Twitter. And let’s be real: the man loves to tweet. The only person in the world who might love tweeting more than Elon Musk has been banned from the platform and impeached twice by the United States Congress.
But remember: Musk didn’t say “I want to buy Twitter because I love tweeting and I command an army of users here.” He said Twitter was important to the future of human civilization. And so, spiritually, the deal joined the ranks of the Teslas and the SpaceXs of the world.
What kind of problems would prevent this man from unlocking Twitter’s true potential? To help steer it and, along with his other companies, help humanity flourish in the future? He only really makes two assertions in his SEC filing:
Twitter won’t give him data necessary for him to figure out how many spam bots are on the platform.
Twitter fired some people and lost some executives.
This is weak crybaby stuff.
Musk has been going on about the alleged bot issue for a while, even getting into public beefs with the CEO of Twitter about it. I’m not going to unpack this whole spat — the Delaware Court of Chancery is about to examine that in some detail — but the TL;DR is that Musk wants to tank a huge deal over a problem known to every social media company on the planet. And the big social networks have all dedicated vast amounts of resources toward fixing the problem over several decades. Are we really to believe that Elon Musk has uncovered some secret scandal previously unknown to every tech CEO out there? Nonsense. Figuring out spam is table stakes for running a social network. Musk’s bluster about bots is a fundamentally unserious position from a guy who is otherwise willing to solve world-shaking problems like climate change.
But let’s assume just for fun that Musk is right. After he started the deal and looked under the hood and laid out his plans for Twitter’s staff, he discovered Twitter’s bot population is more like 20% than 5%. So what? What’s a spread of 90 million users when TikTok and Facebook are ahead of you by billions? If your position is that Mark Zuckerberg is an unelected tyrant of speech, how is abandoning Twitter going to help you take him on? And why would you argue in your SEC filing that revenue from active users is at stake? That doesn’t sound like “not caring about the economics at all.” That sounds like only caring about the economics.
And as for blowing the deal because a few Twitter execs fired staff while continuing to operate normally and roll out new features (hi, co-tweeting!) — get real. You’re buying Twitter for $44 billion. It’s yours now. You can clean house if you want to and correct or reverse all of the ill-advised decisions that brought the platform within your sights originally. Nobody will stop you! The SEC couldn’t even get you to stop tweeting!
There are many possible theories for why Musk put himself, Twitter, and the world through this charade. But in the end, Musk wrote a check his myth couldn’t cash.
We’re left with two possibilities. Either Musk doesn’t think he can do the job he promised at Twitter, and he’s not the world-changing force he’s been made out to be. Or, he was lying about the kinds of lofty ideals and visions that built his companies and his image.
What kind of man trolls the world about a better future?