I'm not sure Twitter can survive Elon Musk

Elon Musk and Twitter
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Elon Musk, the current king of cryptic tweets, is now the official owner of Twitter. He might also be its new CEO if reports of the ouster of current CEO Parag Agrawal are true. This is, depending on your perspective, cause for wild celebration or abject terror. I'm leaning toward the latter.

No one except Musk – and perhaps not even Musk – actually knows what he plans to do with the 16-year-old platform, aside from making it a "common digital town square" and not allowing it to devolve into "a free-for-all hellscape." 

Those comments come from an open letter (posted on Twitter, naturally) to Twitter advertisers. It was an unambiguous effort by Musk to allay partner fears, and to keep them from fleeing the platform en masse as soon as he took over.

Other than that, though, Musk has given us a series of cryptic actions and tweets. First, he arrived at Twitter headquarters carrying a bathroom sink and tweeted "Entering Twitter HQ – let that sink in!" For me, was a ham-handed way of signaling that he's planning big changes, up to and including the sink (maybe Musk couldn't find a kitchen sink at short notice).

I can only imagine the cold terror that ran down Twitter employees' backs when they witnessed that bizarre moment.

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While there, he chatted up employees and enthused in another Tweet, "Meeting a lot of cool people at Twitter today!" One must assume that CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal, and Head of Policy Vijaya Gadde, all of whom were reportedly shown the door, are not among those "cool people."

Subsequent tweets have offered less clarity: "the bird is free," Musk tweeted early Friday morning at approximately midnight, when, I have to assume, his ownership became official.

Later he tweeted, "let the good times roll" with some musical symbols. I asked him on Twitter to define "good times." He did not respond.

Musk's broadly stated goal "to try and help humanity," sounds, I guess, okay, if a bit vague. I mean, wouldn't we all like to help humanity in our own way?

Twitter is unlikely to serve that role, especially if the past is any indication. It's had moments where it helped inspire people, and has even triggered mass movements like the Arab Spring, but those days are long in the past. Perhaps Musk should focus on smaller goals, like a safe environment, better tools, and consistent growth.

The problem is that, even as Musk takes control, he admits his lofty goals could very well fail. Then what?

I can tell you that in his effort to somehow improve humanity, Musk stands a very real possibility of harming it – by, for instance, reopening Twitter to people and voices who serve no purpose but to do just that.

The apparent removal of Twitter Policy Head Gadde is beyond worrisome, and could lead to some incredibly damaging decisions.

If, for instance, Musk invites former US President Donald Trump back onto the platform because he believes Trump was unfairly banned (he was not), it will backfire in the most spectacular way.

Sure, there's something to be said for opening the doors of Twitter to all voices and points of view. That's a worthy goal. But incendiary and dangerous voices, ones who might want to use the still-formidable platform to spread hate and incite violence, cannot exist on the platform.

It's still not clear that Musk truly understands that.

The apparent removal of Twitter Policy Head Gadde is beyond worrisome and could lead to some incredibly damaging decisions.

Or maybe he does, and, perhaps, his efforts will focus on the financial health of Twitter – he's shown interest in monetizing more portions of the platform. Of course, if he asks everyone who tweets to pay a subscription fee, the platform will implode faster than you can spark a Twitter fight by insisting that a tomato is a fruit.

Maybe Musk will go ahead with his goal of making Twitter the Weibo or WeChat of US social media. In China, these platforms do far more than just host communities and chats. Earlier this year, Musk told Twitter employees that he wants Twitter to be more like a super-app that combines social media, payments, gaming, ride-hailing, and, I'm guessing, much more.

That's a lot of water for Twitter to carry, and it's not something I expect Musk to try right away – or perhaps I'm recommending that Musk doesn't try this right away.

I think it's fair to say that Twitter cannot thrive in its current form (its growth is slow-to-static), but if Musk isn't careful, and tries to fix what he believes is an unfair moderation policy but opening the doors to people who deserved to be banned, he won't get a chance to try any of his more ambitious strategies.

Let's hope he doesn't destroy the thing he purports to love – but I'm not getting my hopes up.

Lance Ulanoff
US Editor in Chief

A 35-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, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.