Elon Musk, the climate activist, space entrepreneur and maker of electric vehicles, is apparently in a bidding war for Twitter (TWTR). My advice: Walk away.
Last month, Musk purchased about 10% of the microblogging company’s free-floating stock, making him the largest shareholder, according to a securities filing. What followed hasn’t been exactly clear: Twitter, the company, offered him a place on the board but also took steps to limit his power and instituted a “poison pill” that would dilute everyone’s shares and prevent a “hostile takeover.”
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It’s not clear why a man that already has Twitter’s influence would want to own it. As part of his campaign to win popular favor over the platform, Musk has put forward a number of apparent improvements he’d like to see. Like any good populist, Musk wants to give Twitter denizens what they think they want: an edit button, longer tweets, DOGE tipping (although, admittedly, the audience for DOGE improvements might be small).
Crypto, to the extent that there’s any such coherent cohort, has both a dog in the race and a perspective. Twitter is absolutely invaluable to the industry, as it is to other niche interests. Over and above other social or communicative platforms, Twitter is where news breaks, where reputations are made (and lost) and where coins go to market. There are other centralized platforms in crypto’s comms stack – Discord, Slack, even Gmail – but the “bird app” flies above.
See also: It's Time to Talk About Crypto Twitter | Opinion
Musk, at one time the wealthiest man on record, could do much to bolster the platform. Twitter is everyone’s megaphone – it has spurred revolutions, fostered social movements and, most recently, may have changed the course of a war. It’s quite seriously a world-historical medium, with its own emergent genre and, very frequently, genuinely fun. But, like anywhere else large groups meet and continually interact, Twitter can be nasty and brutish – and not just because the posting format is so short.
Twitter is inundated with spam. Sadly, much of this foul talk comes from crypto. Any major player in the “digital assets industry” will have their dedicated following of bots that post sometimes hundreds of messages under every tweet they cast. Some scammers have the gaul to impersonate you. It’s a problem that has spread beyond crypto to other popular figures. Scroll through the replies to any “viral” tweet and you’ll find scam links and phishing schemes, the worst “advertisements” for the worst coins.
Once, a Canadian videographer Dan Olson who recently locked-in a reputation as a smart crypto skeptic with his hour-long “documentary,” “Line Goes Up,” subtweeted a review I published here, dear “The Node” reader, only to find his suspicions confirmed that what crypto calls “a community” is just an army of shills and bots. It was a bad look. Of the thousands of replies to Olson, he suspected only 10 were “actual humans.” And that’s being “generous,” he said.
“I haven't felt the need to reply to much of anything because the crypto ecosystem's reality speaks for itself,” Olson wrote.
Add to this the nefarious campaign that other crypto critics Bennett Tomlin and “Cas Piancey” are astudiously documenting where crypto shills buyout or take over large Twitter accounts (>100,000 followers) to advertise their projects. For the inattentive, simply having a large Twitter account tweet platitudes about “Floki Coin” or “Floki Doge Coin” or “Dick Butt Coin” can imbue those fly-by-night rug-pulls with air of distinction and importance.
This trend literally rose to the level of the White House a few years back when a ne’er-do-well teenager took over the Twitter accounts of multiple celebrities, politicians and even this media company to post a classic giveaway scam. “I am giving back to my fans. All Bitcoin sent to my address below will be sent back doubled,” the Florida hacker wrote, on his way to racking up 30 felony charges.
Not all scams are criminal offenses (though they may offend other sensibilities), which might be part of the reason Twitter has had such a difficult go at cracking down on this activity. And, being fair, it’s not just crypto implicated here but also other quasi-Ponzis like multilevel marketing (MLM) and pyramid schemes. Give people an open platform and they’ll probably use it to extort others.
Of all the things Musk fanboys are hoping he does if/when he takes over as Big Boss of Twitter could win big simply by cleaning Twitter of this mess. Banish the bots, maybe the blue checks.
Apparently motivating Musk is a sense that Twitter has gone astray as a public communications platform – it reneged on its promise to be the “free speech wing of the free speech party.” The company, like all other social media firms, currently keeps its algorithms in a black box. It’s also not exactly forthcoming or consistent with explanations for banning accounts. This is to ask, why certain voices are banished and others boosted?
Before it came to light that Musk bought a large portion of Twitter, he raised the possibility of creating an alternative social media platform. It’s telling that he didn’t.
Put simply, there is no alternative to Twitter: People use the social platforms where the most popular and influential figures gather because they want a shot of actually influencing “the discourse” or watching as it unfolds. Platforms like Mastodon and even the Donald Trump-backed “Truth” have historically struggled to gain an audience – and often result in echo chambers of opinion.
Crypto, too, has largely failed at creating a viable alternative. Many people are put off by the idea that their posts will truly live forever on a blockchain and may resent that all of their interactions are monetized (even if just through microtransactions).
Musk might also follow through on former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s “Blue Sky” dream to open up the protocol’s algorithm. This would allow people to write their own front-end websites on top of Twitter and customize their content feeds.
He might also defend existing laws like Section 230 that ensure platforms remain open by shielding them from responsibility for what users post. Without such a protection, companies would certainly “censor” even more dissent or dangerous voices if they faced the threat of more lawsuits. Arguably, open protocols do in practice what the Communications and Decency Act does in theory: create spaces where all are free to post, and remove central arbiters from having to make content decisions (though Twitter is still free to “censor” because that form of political speech is protected by the First Amendment).
It’s all the more important to have these laws that stand for generations considering that, though dominant now, there’s nothing inherent in Twitter that means it will stave off competition forever.
Musk ain’t the man
There are clear moves Musk could make if he ran Twitter to make it a better experience, many deeply involved with the crypto industry. But I reiterate the call that he shouldn’t. Without giving credence to conspiracies that the real power brokers of America in finance, media and government are working together to block his ascent, it’s enough to say that Twitter’s problems are its own making and it will take a community – not an individual – to fix.
Last week, ex-Reddit CEO Yishan Wong weighed in on the Musk-Twitter story with the sage wisdom only a former executive of a modern-day communications giant could offer. He, too, said Musk should avoid the headache, and put forward the common-sense view that for-profit companies like Twitter and Facebook (now Meta) only “censor” as far as their bottom line is concerned.
Instead, they feel compelled to act, to moderate public debate, because “ideas really can – at certain times and places – become lightning rods for actual, physical, kinetic mob behavior,” Wong said. Perhaps this is blaming the victims, but it seems incontrovertible that when groups of people are forced to interact, often coming into a conversation midway with little context, will jump to conclusions and turn speech into weapons.
Wong said Twitter users should instead feel responsible for the platform from which they derive so much value and just be civil. Musk – who has been sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for market manipulation related to his tweets and who, in turn, asked at times that agency put on their “reasonableness pants” and, though deniable, perform fellatio on him – is not the man for the job.
Musk craves popularity, controversy and seems incapable of helping himself. Worse, his political commitments are variable (like most business-minded individuals, he uses or abuses governments often over Twitter based on what he perceives to benefit him). He seems willing to take sides, contrarian that he is, often against whatever is the “current thing.”
Instead, we Twitter users should use this moment to reflect and improve our behavior. Crypto, the source of so many of Twitter’s problems, also provides a blueprint by advocating for permissionless protocols. There’s a convincing argument that it be turned over to the people either as a public utility or through what Nathan Schneider calls “exit to community,” where stockholders sell their influence to the public. Let Musk do that.