Elon Musk's Twitter doesn't scare me - even if it terrifies you

Elon Musk Buying Twitter
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Quitting. Sending their last Tweet. Running for the hills. Predicting doom. Just a sampling of the reactions to the news that Twitter's board accepted billionaire Elon Musk's $44 billion acquisition bid.

I admit, I too was stunned.

The news broke and, for a while, a hush fell over the platform. It was like 226M people were suddenly forced to consider their own mortality - at least on Twitter.

In speaking about the news to someone yesterday, I noticed that they described Musk as just a person buying Twitter. That's true. Elon Musk is only human. But it's also false – Musk is the most singular being in recent memory. He's like the "World's Most Interesting Man," if your interests run toward unpredictability and petulance mixed with genius.

The unpredictable jester

As is his way, Musk is not here to calm your fears. The Tesla CEO and the world's richest man made his intentions clear from the day he started trash-talking Twitter's freedom of speech bonifieds. It was failing and it seemed like he wanted to do something about it.

Musk can be transparent, but he's also a bizarre jokester who will come at you sideways, tweeting in riddles, puns, and memes. He told us at each step what he was doing, though not always directly. A tender offer for Twitter was accompanied by "_____ is the night" on Twitter.

He's a strategic thinker but tends to focus on the end game and not always the steps in between. Back when Musk wanted to quickly ramp up Tesla Model 3 production, he employed more robots in his factory than virtually any other auto manufacturer, only to learn that all those robots still couldn't do some of the fine tasks that qualified, human factory workers could accomplish. He quickly pulled some robots, put in more people, and eventually met his goals.

We saw a similar approach with Twitter. Musk's goal is to change the platform, open it up to more voices and more transparency. He thought a seat at the table (10%, roughly, of Twitter stock) would do it, but soon learned that a seat in the boardroom would be like golden handcuffs, making it impossible to weave his web of infamy on Twitter.

To gain total control, he'd need to gain Twitter totally.

If I'm dissatisfied with a company or service, I stop using them, maybe I even lodge a complaint. For Musk, the answer was, "I'll buy it." 

Not here to comfort

Normally a new leader coming into a department or company would seek to comfort nervous team members, employees, and customers. Musk is not the comforting type, and his sole public statement (aside from a joyous "Yesss!!!" tweet) and subsequent tweets (see above) have done little to assuage fears.

"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," said Musk in a release.

Assuming that a service that is used is used by a fraction of the world's population is somehow the digital town square is not only wrongheaded, it casually dismisses all the other platforms where people gather, share, and argue. Musk's view of Twitter is as narrow as, it seems, anyone else on the platform who follows just 114 people. He's followed by 83 million who often retweet, comment, and tweet on his posts, serving to amplify Musk's perspective. But I'd argue that Elon Musk and I see two very different Twitters.

Which is why I'm staying.

A rude awakening

I am convinced that Elon Musk doesn't understand Twitter as well as he thinks he does. He's a maverick at making cars, sending humans into space (and bringing them back), and delivering broadband to distant and struggling parts of the world. But he has no background in social media. He has no understanding of what Twitter is trying (and still often failing) to do with content moderation.

His perspective is of a frustrated user who thinks he knows why Twitter makes the choices it does, meaning he's a lot like you and me. The only difference is that he has $44 billion and you and I do not.

Say what you will about Elon Musk, but being a student - of anything - is part of his DNA. Musk loves nothing better than to see a problem, learn all about it, and then come up with a solution or at least ideas that can lead to one. His interest in space led him to train himself in rocket science and build Space X. Musk is often credited with "co-founding" Tesla, but he did build it from nothing, and many of the ideas that make it a success sprung from his studying of the industry and EV technology in general.

Where we're heading

Assuming the deal goes through, Musk will come in like a lion, probably scaring some Twitter employees right out of their San Francisco office, but as a businessperson and entrepreneur at heart, his goal will be for Twitter to succeed.

Right now, he thinks that's about free speech. If he ends up owning the newly private company, that will change. Will Musk adjust his position? Probably not right away. I suspect he may even make a few truly awful moves early on - to show he means what he says about free speech, but when those fail or blow up in his face, Musk will turn his attention back to the second part of his quote:

"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."

I know, the "authenticating humans" part is a bit creepy and concerning, but I can get behind new features and getting rid of spambots, even if I do lose half my followers.

I'm staying because, bear with me, I think Elon Musk has the potential and resources to do some good.

The complaint about Twitter is not only that it doesn't support free speech (sorry, Elon, it does), it's that it fails to protect vulnerable users on the platform from attack. It says it does, and I think Twitter tries its best to address this failing. But fail it does.

If Musk can actually find a way of protecting everyone on the platform so that the marginalized feel supported and protected that would be a major win. It will take insight and, something Musk has in excess, money.

If he can actually grow Twitter to be more than just a watering hole for the media crowd, businesses, and celebrities, a place where average people feel seen and heard, Twitter might grow large enough to compete with Facebook.

If he can fund the development of creative tools that recall the heyday of Vine but acknowledge the power of Reels and TikToks, Twitter might appeal again to a generation that isn't still griping about Bill Clinton.

That's a lot of "ifs", but none outside the realm of being achievable.

My point is, that I get the concern around the Musk/Twitter takeover. It's warranted, but I'm sticking around to see what happens, because I think that once Elon Musk really learns what Twitter is all about, he won't set about destroying it. It's not in his best interests, so he won't. Trust me.

Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.