This is a longer version of my op ed published in The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 17, 2022.
Now comes the awkward part.
Elon Musk says he is going through with his unsolicited takeover offer for Twitter, despite fighting in court to scuttle it. Twitter executives first rejected his bid, then accepted it—and then sued the world’s richest 12-digit billionaire to force him to go through with it.
The barbarian is at your gate, you are fighting to repel him, and when he relents, you sue him for lack of follow-through. Who does this?
In this shotgun wedding, Elon must make a real business out of Twitter, which lost almost half a billion dollars on $5 billion in revenue last year and trails TikTok and Snap in audience reach. He envisions something bigger.
As Musk put it in a tweet on Tuesday, Oct. 4, “Buying Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app,” a platform for banking, payments, stock trading, crypto investing, professional and personal services, media & entertainment, and retail products. Imagine an amalgam of PayPal (which Musk co-founded) and the Apple app store, mixed with Salesforce’s platform for app developers, and Tradeshift’s B2B payment platform.
This vision dates to 1999, when Musk co-founded an early online bank called X.com, funding it with $12 million of his own money from the sale of an earlier startup. A year later X.com acquired Confinity, a cash-strapped rival that had a more successful service called PayPal, and months later Musk was ejected as CEO—while on his honeymoon.
X.com renamed itself PayPal and focused on online payments, selling out to Ebay a year later. Musk used his quarter-billion-dollar windfall to fund Space X in March 2002 and Tesla in July 2003. In 2017 he bought the X.com domain from PayPal, saying he had no plans for it.
Now this. Under Elon Musk, Twitter could bring community to commerce. Influencers and their fans could provide the ultimate in digital word of mouth, tied to membership privileges such as exclusive discounts, secret instant sales, and first access to new products.
First, Musk must address three thorny problems: Twitter’s quashing of conservative and nonconforming views; the audience-inflating bots that Musk cited for wanting to pull out of the deal; and flim-flam consumer scams.
To rid the company of political censorship and end its endemic aversion to conservative views and contrarian thinking, Elon should start by moving Twitter out of Silicon Valley to Texas or Florida, as I suggested here. Just as Musk moved his own residence and Tesla’s base from Palo Alto to Austin in 2021, which will save him $2.5 billion in taxes.
Next up, lift the lifetime ban that Twitter imposed on @realDonaldTrump. It is unthinkable that a former POTUS is banned for life while the murderous dictators of China, Russia, and Iran are free to tweet lies and vitriol with impunity.
Banning the Boogeyman overestimates Trump’s supposed oratory powers. The former president’s rambling discourses, focused largely on himself, are insufficient to rile up millions of white supremacists, even if they did actually exist. (Where are they?)
Under Elon’s reign, Twitter also should hire outsiders to conduct an independent audit of all Twitter communications regarding censorship requests by any government-related party—a clear violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against any government-imposed prior restraint on free speech.
This litany of past government engagement should be fully revealed and released to the public. Musk also should create a new formal process for logging, disclosing, and adjudicating all future government requests and providing targets with the right to object and respond.
Twitter has insisted its fake-audience bot problem amounts to only 5% of total users, and quantifying the real extent is doable with the right tech CSI sleuths and AI analysis. Thwarting flim-flam will be more difficult because of the human factor at play.
Example: I am in hot demand and making new friends on Twitter: Scarlett, Una, Vivi, Junia, Cheryl, Ava, Julie, Enron (Enron???), Linda, Lucy, Vera, Miranda, Carolina, Jessica, Faye, Wendy. These first names are on 16 accounts that have sent me private messages, all of them adorned with profile photos of gorgeous young women, most of them Asian, all of them 30 or 40 years younger than I am. Meanwhile, I have new requests from eight more social media sirens.
This is in just the past two months.
Nice to Have Fans…