Some are anxious, others excited – Twitter is now a private company, and Elon Musk holds all the reins. Many expect sweeping changes, especially around the platform’s content moderation policies. Free speech vs hate speech was at the center of much of the debate about the platform. The truth is, this view misses the mark. Musk will bring sweeping changes to Twitter, but his focus is on something else entirely.
Some six months after Musk’s initial offer to buy Twitter, one of the most polarizing corporate acquisitions is over. After a court order by a Delaware judge, the tech CEO purchased the platform for $44 billion at $54.20 per share.
Musk’s Twitter buyout was a polarizing issue from the start, largely due to his own statements. Since his announcement of the Twitter buyout, Musk described himself as a “free-speech absolutist and called out “cancel culture” and the “woke mind virus.” He also said that Twitter should not have banned Donald Trump after January 6th Capitol riot.
These statements made many on the left believe that Musk would let Twitter become saturated with hate speech and misinformation. At the same time, many on the right were overjoyed. They hoped Musk would end what they saw as the deplatforming of conservatives. Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Green asked Twitter to reinstate the accounts of several popular conservative figures, including Trump’s.
Advertisers Call the Shots
Yet, as the deadline for the deal was approaching, Musk somewhat suddenly changed his rhetoric. In a letter directed at Twitter advertisers, Musk reassured them that he wouldn’t remove content moderation. “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all-hellscape where anything can be said with no consequences!” he wrote. Instead, Twitter should be “warm and welcoming to all” and take users’ desired experiences into account.
Still, some users started testing the limits. In response, Musk said he would form a content moderation council. He also clarified that there were no policy changes so far. No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before the council convenes,” Musk tweeted.
Ads are a major revenue source for Twitter and other major social media companies. Moreover, advertisers have become increasingly sensitive to the kind of content on social media. Earlier, a lack of content moderation spurred advertiser boycotts against Youtube and Facebook. Both of these companies now have guidelines about advertiser-friendly content.
For instance, Google blocks ads on drugs, firearms and tobacco-related content, as well as content that’s “hateful and derogatory.” Meta rates controversial content, and lets advertisers choose whether they want their ads to appear with risky content or not. According to Meta, fewer advertisers will display ads before controversial content, including content discussing debated social issues. That means creators who talk about controversial topics will also likely earn less money.
Twitter Can’t Afford to Lose Users
A lack of content moderation may scare more than just advertisers. Users also expect a certain level of experience on the platform. Back in 2018, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey addressed the spread of “abuse, harassment troll armies” as well as “misinformation” and “echo chambers” that are scaring away users.
“We love instant, public, global messaging and conversation. It’s what Twitter is and it’s why we‘re here. But we didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences.” Dorsey said.
Losing users is one thing Twitter can’t afford. For years, the social media platform lagged behind its major competitors. In 2021, Twitter posted revenue of $5 billion. At the same time, Meta’s revenue surpassed $117 billion, or more than 20 times as much as Twitter’s.
“Your Feedback is Appreciated, Now Pay $8”
To counteract its reliance on ads, Musk unveiled his plans to rework how Twitter’s verification system works. The coveted “blue checkmark” was until now reserved for the famous. Now, everyone would be able to get the verification. All they would have to do is to get the $8/month Twitter premium service.
Despite the initial backlash, Musk quickly turned around the narrative about monetization. With a handful of clever tweets, he managed to reframe the maneuver as a way to empower the average user.
“The entitled elite is not mad that they have to pay $8/month. They’re mad that anyone can pay $8/month,” said David Sachs of Craft Ventures. Some users welcomed the idea because it would reduce the platform’s reliance on collecting user data. Erik Voorhees, the founder of Coinapult, said that “charging $8 for premium Twitter experience means Twitter becomes the product again, instead of you.”
Twitter verification would also help combat the platform’s rampant bot problem, Musk said. He added that the subscription would also allow Twitter to reward its creators. As for the critics, he has just one message for them – Pay the $8.
Musk Could Bring the Change Twitter Needs
Musk’s proposals help highlight just how slow Twitter was to change in the past years. One factor behind this stagnation could be Twitter’s ownership structure. As a company where founders don’t control most of the voting shares, Twitter was somewhat of an outlier. Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg and Snap’s Evan Spiegel and Robert Murphy all control the majority of the voting shares of their respective companies.
On the other hand, Twitter’s founder and CEO Jack Dorsey had to answer to shareholders. They often fought Dorsey’s plans that could potentially revitalize the company. This includes making Twitter open source. Ultimately, Dorsey stepped down as CEO to focus on his fintech company Block.
Without a founder firmly in control, Twitter might have become overly cautious and unable to capitalize on new trends. Now that Musk has taken the reins, this has changed. Unlike Dorsey, Musk is now completely free to innovate and experiment. Moreover, his unique skill for showmanship and the ability to sell his vision will prove invaluable to the struggling platform.
Musk has already fired four Twitter executives, including Dorsey’s successor Parag Agrawal. Tesla’s engineers are already looking into Twitter’s code, to review the work done so far. We can expect more new features very soon.
After years of sluggish growth, Twitter desperately needed a change. Musk will bring change, just not the kind everyone is expecting.