Musk’s bid will change Twitter even if it fails

Elon Musk is the living embodiment of a Twitter feed — a rapid-fire mix of jokes, arguments and ideas. Chaos is part of the appeal. Trying to apply financial norms to his proposed takeover of Twitter is pointless.

In two weeks Musk has disclosed a major stake in Twitter, agreed to join its board, reversed that decision and launched a bid to take the company private. The success of his $43bn bid depends on funding, rivals and executives — and Musk maintaining interest. Whatever the outcome, Twitter is going to change.

Even prolific tweeters acknowledge that the platform is underwhelming. Founded in 2006, two years after Facebook, it has failed to keep pace with its gigantic rival. In spite of being used by some of the world’s best-known and most powerful people, user growth and advertising revenue are comparatively sluggish. The stock price is up just 77 per cent since listing nine years ago. Facebook parent Meta’s has increased four times as much.

This is partly because Twitter is not regarded as a particularly fun place to be. It is an excellent way to skim news and find opinions but it shows users a hodgepodge of information that can be exhausting. Bad-tempered arguments are so rife they have their own name — Twitter spats. The real sore point is moderation. Some users believe passionately that it is too restrictive. Others say it is too lax. Both sides claim it is ruining Twitter.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have spent years trying to balance the idea of free expression with the reality of dangerous, violent content that harms users and puts off advertisers. Who wants to risk an expensive advertising campaign and carefully curated brand appearing alongside abusive messages?

As Yishan Wong, former chief executive of Reddit, wrote on Twitter, there is no consensus on what free speech means. Moderation is hard. That is why Facebook wants lawmakers to do the job for it and come up with rules on what constitutes harmful online content.

Perhaps the answer lies in the magic of algorithms. Between making jokes about removing the w and calling the company Titter, Musk has spoken in favour of a radical change to the way Twitter works. His suggestion is to open-source the algorithm that organises the tweets that users see. That would, in theory, let users understand how decisions on content are made. It might even allow developers to build their own custom-made algorithms. Users might then opt into (and pay for) an algorithm that curates tech news, for example. Or one that promotes only cited research and first-hand sources.

The idea is that this will make Twitter more engaging for users and solve bitter arguments over moderation. Anything could be uploaded to Twitter but users would self-moderate and might only see the content in the algorithm they signed up for.

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey is also a believer in giving users more control. In 2019, he launched Bluesky to look at how decentralised social media could work. Bluesky envisions Twitter as an application built on a new open standard. It is a sign of how seriously Twitter takes the idea that Parag Agrawal ran Bluesky before stepping up to become Twitter’s chief executive.

There are some fairly serious drawbacks to this idea. Twitter will have to think carefully before handing over its data. If it no longer controlled algorithms, would it still collect advertising revenue? Or would it let developers charge for subscriptions and then try to take a cut of those charges?

Nathan Baschez, co founder of media start-up Every and another fan of open-sourcing, makes a good point that Twitter’s ardent fans should remember. The majority of accounts are held by casual users. They may have no interest in specific algorithms. And developers might not rush to build them.

Subscriptions are unlikely to replace the $4.5bn in advertising revenue that Twitter made last year either. There is already a subscription pilot programme called Twitter Blue that offers extra features for $2.99 a month. It remains “very small” according to the company.

Still, Musk’s interest in Twitter has focused global attention on the company in a way that makes it hard for executives to claim nothing can be improved. The way the business is run and the experience of its users are both up for grabs.

Musk has set his sights high. “Civilisational risk is decreased the more we can increase the trust in Twitter as a public platform,” he said during an interview at the TED conference in Vancouver last week. How can Twitter’s board argue against that?