So what becomes of Twitter under Elon Musk?
With the company set to accept Musk’s revised, revisited, and re-issued Twitter takeover offer, many are now pondering what this means for the app, and what Elon has in store for the platform as Tweeter-in-chief.
And of course, nobody knows exactly what Musk’s thinking.
At one time, Musk did seem to have a fairly definitive plan, which he’d pitched to potential investment partners, which, in his estimates, would take the app from the 238 million daily actives it has right now, to 931 million by 2028.
The detail on the ‘how’ exactly was pretty thin, but Elon seemed willing and ready to take the app to new heights, using a combination of subscriptions, verification and revised moderation to facilitate more engagement, and reinvigorate the app.
But is that possible? Could anyone, even the man who’s conquered reusable rockets and electric cars, really transform Twitter into one of the most relevant communication platforms in the world?
The odds of this happening are not great, but here’s what we know about Elon’s plans, based on his past communications and notes.
Eliminate the bots
Musk has loudly and repeatedly criticized Twitter for the amount of bots on the platform, a problem which he originally vowed to solve – ‘or die trying’. Since then, he’s sought to use Twitter’s bot numbers as a means to exit his takeover deal – but now, it seems like Twitter’s bot battling efforts are about to fall squarely into his lap.
So how does Musk tackle this? How can Elon eliminate bots in the app, without also damaging the business, given the levels of bot activity that he expects to find (Musk’s team estimates that upwards of 27% of the platform’s current users are bots)?
Based on his text message exchanges, which were recently published as part of the trial discovery process, reducing the platform’s reliance on ads is key.
As per Musk:
“Drastic action is needed. This is hard to do as a public company, as purging fake users will make the numbers look terrible, so restructuring should be done as a private company.”
So Musk will likely be looking to take Twitter private, at least in the short term, which, potentially, would mean no more Twitter ads.
That would also reduce the pressure on Musk to adhere to any universal standards around content moderation, as with no ad partners to cater to, the platform would no longer need to be concerned about problematic ad placements.
So, cool - Twitter goes private, no more ads, free speech for all. All good, right?
That seems to be what Elon’s thinking, but how he then re-builds Twitter into a revenue-positive business - Musk also told potential investors that he would look to 5x Twitter’s revenue by 2028 - is not so clear.
No ads means that 90% of Twitter’s current income is gone, straight up. And while Musk has also noted that he would then re-introduce ads at a later stage, the potential toxicity of a less moderated, more free-speech focused Twitter doesn’t exactly sound like the gold mine Musk seems to believe it could be.
Take it from every right-wing aligned, anti-censorship social platform that’s been launched and failed over the past four years - while people might say that they want free speech, when they have it, they actually don’t.
There’s a reason why every platform puts so much effort, and investment, into content moderation, and it’s not to control speech. I suspect Musk is going to find this out very quickly, with his now private Twitter platform being challenged with a range of content moderation questions as users seek to challenge the platform’s new ethos.
Musk’s position on censorship?
By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022
I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.
If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.
Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.
That means that a lot of highly controversial, anti-Semitic, hate speech, which isn’t against the law, but is currently against most platform policies, could soon be allowed in the app.
Will users prefer that? Sure, there’s a lot of noise about such, but I suspect, in reality, it won’t be as appealing as people think.
Open Sourced Algorithms
Another option that Musk has floated is open-sourcing Twitter’s algorithms and systems, so that users have more control over what they see in the app.
Twitter algorithm should be open source— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 24, 2022
This seems to have stemmed from Musk’s original discussions about the app with former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who believes that Twitter should be transformed into an open-source protocol - more of a platform to host discussion, but also inherently distant from what’s actually discussed in the app.
Musk explored several variations of this concept, including potentially charging users in crypto (Dogecoin specifically) to tweet, but he eventually came to the conclusion that it’s not viable at scale.
But open-sourced algorithms is another thing altogether, and Musk seems to be keen to explore this as a potential option to eliminate potential bias or manipulation in the app.
In Musk’s view, users should have a better understanding of what any algorithm amplifies, or demotes, in the Twitter feed, which could be achieved, theoretically, by giving them more choice about which version of the algorithm is applied to their experience.
Twitter’s actually been exploring this idea for years, via its bluesky project, which aims to build a new process that would allow users to see exactly what is, and isn’t, influenced by any algorithm they might choose to have on their Twitter experience.
So if you wanted more political content, you could choose a specific algorithm for that, or you might want less - or you could use any number of other algorithmic amplifiers to basically choose your own Twitter experience.
The point is that users would have transparency, and freedom to control their experience, as opposed to the opaque algorithms currently in place in social apps, which amplify certain discussions and bury others, based on some unknowable logic that’s locked inside of their internal servers.
Which makes some sense, but whether that’s workable also remains to be seen. Twitter’s been developing bluesky since 2019, and not a heap has come of it, but maybe, under Elon, it’ll get more focus, which could transform the way we experience Twitter entirely.
Would that be a positive change? Who knows, but it could mean that those more tolerant of robust, potentially offensive exchanges, could still engage in such in the app, while those who don’t want to be exposed to same could avoid it.
The bigger question to me here is how that kind of fracturing will impact the Twitter experience. Twitter has always been about the global town square approach, where everyone can take part in the conversation – but the more those discussions are siloed away, the less attractive, I would suggest, it’ll be.
Twitter lets everyone have their say, generally in public, and without that, you’re potentially looking at a whole different app.
Maybe that’s a good thing, but I can also see how its engagement rates could drop as a result, as it becomes more like a messenger group chat among those you know – and likely, those who share the same beliefs.
This is a more complex one, as Musk has gone back and forth on how he thinks this might work.
As noted, in Musk’s early conversations before launching his takeover bid for the app, he had floated the possibility of a kind of ‘payment per tweet model’, with the idea being that users would pay a tiny cost for every tweet or retweet they make. That would make it more difficult for spammers and scammers to mass tweet in the app, because they’d have to pay to do so - but since then, Musk seems to have cooled on this concept.
But Musk has also talked about subscriptions, and charging business users, specifically, to use the app.
Twitter, of course, already has a subscription service, in Twitter Blue, which only a tiny fraction of its users currently pay for. But Musk has also mapped out an alternative model for Blue, which he believes could encourage more people to pay up.
Back in April, Musk suggested lowering the price of Blue to $2 per month, and giving every paying subscriber a blue checkmark. That would then align with his bot-battling plan, by verifying all the real humans in the app, while also giving Twitter a bigger alternative revenue stream - which it’ll need as it seeks to replace its lost ad dollars.
Though as noted by Protocol:
“The problem: Under this plan, Twitter would actually make less money per user than it currently does. The company doesn’t break out ARPU in its quarterly results, but a bit of back-of-the-envelope math suggests that the average ad revenue for each of the company’s 217 million monetizable daily active users was around $6.50 in Q4 2021, which comes to $2.17 per month.”
So even if every single user signed on to this new, cheaper Twitter Blue option, with the lure of a prestigious checkmark, it still wouldn’t replace the ad dollars lost.
And there’s no way that all of those would pay – not to mention the millions of fake profiles that can’t be included in any such calculations.
Musk has since changed his tune on this too, noting in May that:
Twitter will always be free for casual users, but maybe a slight cost for commercial/government users— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 3, 2022
So maybe Musk will just look to charge business users, who’ve signed up for Professional Accounts in the app. I’m not so sure businesses will be keen to pay, especially if the tone of the app declines under Musk’s new free speech approach.
Either way, this does seem to be another element that Musk will explore as he seeks to reboot the platform.
These are the main changes that it seems like Musk will be looking to make when (if) he takes over at the app, with further tweaks and revisions along the way that will likely transform the tweet experience in different ways.
Musk could also look to change the name (to ‘X’ as part of his plan for an ‘everything app’) while he may also reinstate former President Trump, among other policy updates.
Truth Social (terrible name) exists because Twitter censored free speech— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 27, 2022
It’s a very high-risk, very public challenge for Elon, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can live up to his billing as the man who makes impossible things happen.
Because Twitter transforming itself into a significant challenger in the social media space does seem impossible, with Facebook, TikTok and Instagram all currently seeing usage levels more than 4x Twitter’s mDAU rates.
We’ll have to wait and see, but Mr. Musk’s wild ride looks set to get even bumpier over the coming months.