Elon Musk’s rise to become the richest man in the world has been an incredible one, deeply intertwined with the construction of a public persona that’s been essentially built on Twitter. Whether Musk is really like that or if it’s part of an act isn’t important, in the same way that it doesn’t really matter whether Tesla is truly greater than, say Toyota, when it comes to determining Elon’s net worth. Twitter, along with other major social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, has become an integral part of modern society across the globe, whether or not one lives in a Western democracy. Now, Musk, a different kind of mega-billionaire, will be in control of one of the largest and most influential communications platforms the world has ever seen.
It is important to reflect for a second on Musk’s condition as one of the wealthiest men in the world as measured by Forbes. A quick look at his profile reveals his net worth was valued at US$219 billion for the 2022 billionaires list, handily edging out Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos who, at US$171 billion, came in second. Last year, Musk was the second- richest man in the world (US$151 billion), while in 2020 he clocked in at 31st place (US$24.6 billion). His wealth has grown explosively over the past three years, surging 790 percent mainly on the back of an exponential jump in the value of Tesla stock as the electric vehicle company proved its concept and started to scale production.
Originally part of the so-called ‘PayPal mafia’ that hit it big during the dotcom days, Elon is now better known as a rogue billionaire entrepreneur who is looking to “disrupt” space through SpaceX, car manufacturing through Tesla, renewable energy through SolarCity, transit through The Boring Company, and now mass communication through Twitter.
He’s also quite different from other eccentric mega-billionaires. While many of them spend lavishly on yachts and properties where they hide their weirdness, Elon has always embraced it publicly. And one of the main channels to expose himself has been Twitter, where his style comes through as completely genuine. With nearly 90 million followers, Elon is one of Twitter’s most popular characters, up there in the top 10 along with the likes of Rihanna, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Barack Obama. Musk is irreverent, funny, and mean on Twitter, he smokes weed (marijuana), had a baby with famous pop artist Grimes who they apparently named X Æ A-12, pumped the cryptomarket for Dogecoin, and is actively trying to get humans on Mars. Whether you love him or hate him, it’s impossible to steer clear of Elon Musk if you’re keeping yourself informed.
Twitter, like Musk, is also different from other major social media and technology platforms. Starting with revenue, Twitter’s growth has been absolutely dwarfed by the likes of Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook), and Amazon. All of these companies make all of their money from the digital advertising market — except Amazon, an ecommerce giant that is quickly scaling its adtech business — with the so-called ‘triopoly’ taking up 74 percent of global digital ad spend, which represented 47 percent of all advertising expenditure in 2021 according to data from Ebiquity. Last year, Google raked in some US$210 billion in ad revenue, Facebook brought in US$115 billion, Amazon generated US$31 billion. And Twitter? A measly US$5.1 billion. Not only that, Twitter actually lost money reporting a net loss of US$221 million.
While Facebook turbocharged its ad business when it poached Sheryl Sandberg from Google — together both companies have become the leading attention manipulation masters of the Internet — Twitter always lagged well behind. In part, Twitter’s lack of innovation has been one of the elements that has kept it more consistent and reliable than some of its rivals, in particular the Facebook family of products. While Mark Zuckerberg has reinvented Facebook multiple times and gone on buying sprees to add Instagram and WhatsApp to Meta’s offerings, Twitter’s biggest change over the years appears to be extending a tweet’s size from 120 to 240 characters. With Jack Dorsey as CEO, it feels as if the product has remained the same over the past several years, becoming central for communicators including journalists, politicians, celebrities, and communities. It’s also one of the only digital platforms where text remains more relevant than images. And while a ranking algorithm exists, Twitter has always allowed its users to toggle back to chronological feeds. It has always been “freer” than its rivals in that it’s allowed obscene content, including nudity.
It was weird to see Jack Dorsey ban Donald Trump in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 Capitol Riot. It was also odd to see Twitter limit content from official Russian accounts after Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine. While it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Facebook and Google, under pressure from regulators, moved fast in the face of a possible public relations crisis, Twitter seemed like a different animal. Dorsey’s embrace of Bitcoin and relative sluggishness kept the ecosystem purer in a way, closer to the original libertarian wet dream of the Internet’s founders.
As Ezra Klein noted in a column titled “Elon Musk Got Twitter Because He Gets Twitter,” the real point of the social media platform in question is to gamify conversation. And while this is not what Dorsey wanted the platform to be — he saw it more like a sort of public service to societies that embrace freedom, or something like that — it is what has helped it thrive, at the expense of revenue and profitability. Musk claims his intention is to guard Twitter’s role as “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated” by protecting free speech. To do that he decided to buy the company for some US$44 billion and take it private.
Social media has become one of the main channels of communication for a very large portion of humanity, with the Internet becoming the centre of the information ecosystem. Under its current make up it is controlled by a limited number of companies that have thus far escaped regulation while putting their ad-focused business model front and centre. Zuckerberg and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin tried to keep the charade of working for the better good going for a long time, but it eventually became clear that their companies pursued their business interests like any private company should do. Twitter, for whatever reason, always lagged well behind. It isn’t clear whether Elon will be able to figure out how to combine the need for a free and open Internet with the safety precautions needed to face a world of misinformation and manipulation. But it will be interesting to see him try. Good luck.