This past week, a man walked into a struggling American company of massive cultural importance, carrying – believe it or not – a ceramic bathroom sink.
The man was trying to buy the company for $44 billion but was hot and cold about the prospects of doing the deal because the company may not be worth all that even after factoring in its value as a major contributor to pop culture.
The sink-carrier happens to be stunt-puller extraordinaire Elon Musk, the richest man in the world. The company he has wooed with love-hate overtures happens to be Twitter — the social media platform used to challenge dictatorships, and which is essentially the editor-in-chief of the 21st century media, deciding what becomes news. After months of courting the social media giant and numerous rebuffs from the latter, Musk has finally sealed the deal that will bring big bang changes to the platform. And that is why this deal is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of The Week.
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Lead up to Musk buying Twitter
Sometime during the pandemic, Musk became a lot more famous thanks to his tweeting. He already had a cult following for his approach to colonising Mars via his space company SpaceX and for revolutionising the energy sector by making good-looking electric vehicles under Tesla.
Two years ago, Musk had 39.6 million followers on Twitter. One year ago, 61.6 million followers. Now, he has 110.3 million—a number that can even leave Hollywood superstars envious.
When the world was locked down, Musk started tweeting memes about cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and dogecoin. When his tweets started affecting the price of the asset class, mainstream news media was reduced to going on ‘Elon Watch’ reporting on the juvenile memes the billionaire tweeted.
Then in April this year, Musk’s bit with Twitter started gathering pace and media attention.
He had decided to join the Twitter board of directors after he became its largest shareholder with a 9.2 per cent stake. Then he decided not to take the board seat. On 14 April, Musk offered to buy Twitter.
Then came trust issues.
In July, Musk said he didn’t want to buy the micro-blogging site because Twitter didn’t provide accurate information on the count of monetisable daily active users it has and how many are just spam and bot accounts. Twitter sued Musk to force him to do the deal.
The matter was finally put to rest on 27 October when Musk walked into Twitter headquarters, carrying a sink, changed his location on the site to Twitter HQ, and his bio to “Chief Twit”.
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What this means for Twitter
When Musk completes Twitter acquisition, it will be off the stock market and will become a private company. And Musk gets to change things at Twitter without having to live up to public expectations of what the company should be doing with its platform.
In a very lucid, meme-free note, Musk says he bought Twitter because he loves humanity and thinks civilisation should have a “common digital town square” and wants to make Twitter that town square where a “wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner”, a place “warm and welcoming to all” while the platform complies with “laws of the land”. He acknowledges his efforts can fail.
This could include reversing the decision to permanently ban Donald Trump, which Twitter’s then head for legal and policy affairs Vijaya Gadde received a barrage of hate for.
Musk has already hinted that he thinks Gadde represents “Twitter’s left wing bias”.
And Parag Agrawal? The Twitter CEO of less than a year? He is leaving. As is Gadde; so is Twitter’s finance head, and also its general counsel.
There could be big job cuts at Twitter. Musk had earlier said he will be firing 75 per cent of Twitter staff but later said it won’t happen. But again, this could change since this is Musk we are talking about.
Musk seems to be trying to make Twitter more profitable. His post stating his reasons for buying Twitter because he loves humanity was addressed to Twitter advertisers, not users. Encouraging more advertisers could help Twitter revenue, which is nowhere near what its peers Meta or Snapchat generate. Which is odd given the kind of influence Twitter wields in deciding TV news and news narratives in general. So maybe Musk, the businessman, can fix Twitter’s ad model.
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What this means for Twitter users
Twitter is mostly populated by activists, politicians, government officials, software engineers and developers, some entrepreneurs like Musk, and the journalists who stalk them.
The reason Twitter is like the editor-in-chief-platform is because when the first sets of people and their supporters tweet, journalists pick these up to report on. Nothing makes a journalist happier than the joy of discovering tweets that went viral, racking up thousands of likes and reshares.
Twitter has made creating news easier, for better or for worse. The drill is: tweet, make it go viral either by getting real people or bots to reshare it, then WhatsApp it or DM it to journalists to write about.
As Musk implies, it’s now a “social media algorithm” that decides current affairs, not humans.
None of that is going to change with Musk taking over – unless Musk plays with Twitter’s trending hashtag section and the determining algorithms.
Musk does signal that he wants citizen journalism to flourish on Twitter and that local news outlets “should get way more prominence”.
The New York Times and the kind of mainstream media it symbolises, which are capable of shaping global opinion, may not be favored by a Musk-owned Twitter.
Musk has tweeted, “The New York Times has emerged as a new, chaotic actor in global politics. The paper’s interventions in some of the world’s most combustible conflicts have sometimes been a boon, but their messaging has also caused problems.”
One thing is for sure. Now as the owner, when musk tweets one of his memes — saying things like he wants to buy Coca-Cola to put the cocaine back in — newsrooms are about to get a lot more fun, and a whole lot more absurd.