Elon Musk, Twitter and Running Things Like a DAO

Why the world's richest man may not have the lasting influence he craves.

AccessTimeIconApr 11, 2022 at 6:44 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 4:54 p.m. UTC
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Even before he was the richest man in the world, Elon Musk was something of a wild card.

It’s a schtick, at this point (the stuff of Saturday Night Live sketches), but it comes from something real. Where other billionaires tend to take a long-term view of their companies, their political ambitions, their plans to reshape global commerce – Musk usually operates in the short term, the realm of impulse. When he sees a problem, he decides to fix it; at least, that’s the image he promulgates.

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Results may vary. When a group of young Thai soccer players found themselves trapped in a cave back in 2018, Musk offered up his companies’ services for the extraction international rescue mission. The soccer players were eventually saved without his help, and one of the rescuers ended up suing Musk for defamation. When the Tesla CEO got fed up with traffic in Los Angeles, he started a new company dedicated to digging a network of transporter tunnels under major cities. Futuristic as it sounds, The Boring Company has been met with widespread skepticism from industry experts and civil engineers.

A similar dynamic may be at play in Musk’s recent Twitter power grab. As of last week, Musk owns 9.2% of Twitter (TWTR). And there are high hopes, especially from the historically libertarian crypto industry, that he might reform one of the world's most valuable communications platforms.

But while Musk might be at least somewhat culturally aligned with crypto, it’s hard to imagine his involvement in Twitter will bring about a haven for “free speech” – at least, not the kind the industry imagines.

A tweet-y bird

Musk’s impulsive decisions often start out as impulsive posts on Twitter. So when he conducted a poll earlier this month about whether the social media platform “rigorously adheres” to the principle of free speech and followed it up with the disclaimer that “the consequences of this poll will be important,” it was fair to assume some immediate action was at hand.

Musk spent $3 billion on Twitter stock the following week and became the company’s largest shareholder. He then refiled his mandated disclosure of the new stake to clarify he would be an “active” investor – a major force behind the development of the product. And when Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s CEO, announced Musk would join the company’s board, that initial $3 billion bet began to look like a possible regime change.

It was a surprise, then, when Agrawal made another announcement late Sunday evening: Musk had seemingly changed his mind about joining the board.

Agrawal’s note is opaque, but it does offer a few clues about what may be going on behind the scenes. The current board members, wrote Agrawal, “believed that having Elon as a fiduciary of the company where he, like all board members, has to act in the best interests of the company and all our shareholders, was the best path forward.”

One implication of this drawn-out, finger-wagging sentence is that Musk had been informed of his responsibilities and decided to abdicate them by staying away from the board.

Musk has always enjoyed the posture of the capricious billionaire, but he also just seems to like speaking transparently, online.

Ironically, that was part of what made him a public hero (and in some eyes a villain) during the crypto 2021 bull market. The rise of dogecoin – once a lowly meme coin and now a major token listed on top exchanges – is owed mostly to Musk’s breathless tweets. Traders liked that he could pump the price of his favorite dog-themed coin with a single post, without having to worry about the consequences. (Perhaps speaking to that dynamic, DOGE spiked 10% following news that Musk took a majority stake in the microblogging platform.)

In the world of traditional equities, promotional tweets from a billionaire with undisclosed investments might look more like market manipulation than anything else. But thanks to the comparatively light regulations around crypto, Musk can tweet as much as he wants.

Deciding by polls

This past weekend, Musk was starting to crowdsource product ideas for Twitter via polls on the site. Among the possibly serious suggestions: adding an “edit button” for tweets, selling verified check marks to anyone who wants one and turning Twitter headquarters into a homeless shelter, “since no one shows up anyway.”

It’s no accident that all of these tweets have since been deleted.

The sort of reckless, tweet-forward thought leadership that works in crypto doesn't necessarily fly in the traditional business world. It doesn’t even work for the companies Musk already controls: back in 2018, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused Musk of fraud over a tweet about Tesla’s share prices.

Ironically, as a senior employee at crypto exchange Coinbase pointed out, Musk’s Twitter polls almost functioned like a voting mechanism for a DAO, or decentralized autonomous organization. Where DAOs ask token holders to make decisions collectively, via on-chain voting programs, Musk was asking Twitter users for input about the product.

There was no consideration for market research, for feasibility, for any of the traditional metrics an executive might use to evaluate whether a change is worth pursuing. And while there’s no telling whether Musk might have tried to force any of those changes through, the directness of the tweets (bolstered by Musk’s apparent willingness to reshape an entire company based on the results of a single poll) is startling.

In abandoning the Twitter board, Musk is affirming his commitment to posting; no wonder he gets along with the crypto crowd.


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Will Gottsegen

Will Gottsegen was CoinDesk's media and culture reporter.