Elon Musk is a Kane digital citizen

What if one of the world’s leading information tools was owned by a mercurial billionaire who could do whatever he wanted?

Yes, I’m talking about Elon Musk’s proposal to buy Twitter for himself, which he revealed on Thursday. Its offer reaches more than $ 43 billion, which is a lot of money, even for Musk, the CEO of Tesla and the owner of SpaceX. (Musk’s letter offering to buy Twitter said his purchase would be conditional on finding help paying for the purchase. He did not say where the money might come from.)

Will Musk really have the cash and attention span to continue with his takeover bid, and will Twitter say yes? Who knows? The word “unpredictable” does not do justice at this time. We are already in the 2nd week of the very public and rocky romance of Musk and Twitter, and maybe there will be more strangeness.

But imagine Musk finally buying Twitter from shareholders who own it today. The closest comparison to this could be the barons of 19th century newspapers such as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and the fictional Charles Foster Kane, who used their diaries to follow their personal agendas, sensationalize world events and harass their enemies.

We haven’t really had a Digital Age Citizen Kane, but Musk could be. And the global influence of Twitter is certainly greater and more powerful than that of any Hearst newspaper of its time.

The purchase of The Washington Post by Jeff Bezos and the media empire of Rupert Murdoch are close, perhaps, but that would be a milestone: the purchase by a baron of 21st century technology of a digital platform of global importance, with the purpose of refounding it in its image. .

“It would be a step back from the ‘Citizen Kane’ era of press barons who used their newspapers to advance their favorite causes,” Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School, told me. .

Musk’s favorite idea is a Twitter that works the way he uses Twitter: no restrictions. He imagines a social network transformed, by him, into a model of expression without theoretical limits.

It’s basically the same argument that former President Donald J. Trump has for his application, Social Truth. Several other social networking sites also promised to create meetings on the Internet without the arbitrary rules imposed by companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook. But these sites are still relatively small and unimportant compared to Twitter.

The Twitter purchase proposed by Musk, then, would be a real-world experiment in a parallel social media application with no restrictions on what people can do or say. I don’t know what that would be like when applied.

Social Truth does not allow absolute free expression. Few people want their social media channels to be blocked by cryptocurrency spam ads, terrorist recruitment campaigns, or child harassment. No one is sure what a Twitter would be like who is not accountable to anyone but Musk. (An intriguing question: Would Musk restore Trump’s Twitter account?)

I also wonder if Musk really wants to own Twitter. It’s fun to imagine what you would do if you were the head of Twitter, but it’s not so much fun to be the head of Twitter. See Mark Zuckerberg running Facebook. This guy doesn’t seem to be having fun.

“My guess is that Musk likes to be able to tell Twitter what to do and he doesn’t really care what he does,” Bloomberg opinion writer Matt Levine said Tuesday in a strangely predictive column.

If Twitter were owned exclusively by Musk, it wouldn’t have to worry about stock price whims or shareholder demands, as Zuckerberg does. But that doesn’t mean Musk is free from irritation.

When you own a powerful website, you may be receiving threats from the Russian government to imprison your employees for posts they dislike, or from a family member who asks you why a bully has permission to harass you. them in their private messages. Musk might not want to deal with the ugly details of having a global influence tool, but he would have no choice if he were the sole owner of Twitter.

I want to save a little pity for Twitter executives and directors. They are in an impossible situation. (The company said its board would “carefully review” Musk’s proposal and decide what it believes is in the best interest of Twitter and its shareholders.)

Twitter’s board of directors could accept Musk’s offer, and could decide that finding the cash to buy Twitter and turn it into an imaginary haven of free speech isn’t a big use of your money, time and energy. Then Twitter would have a worthless takeover bid, the company’s stock price would likely close, and angry shareholders would likely sue for advice.

The Twitter board might say no to Musk with the theory that the company has a long-term plan that would make it much more valuable than what Musk offers. In that case, Musk said, he could sell the billions of dollars in Twitter shares he recently bought. The price of Twitter shares would likely close, and angry shareholders would likely sue for advice.

Twitter’s relatively new CEO, Parag Agrawal, might prefer to get his toes off than face weeks of messy drama about Musk. Maybe it’s not great for Musk to keep getting involved in a messy drama on Twitter, though … Okay, that’s what he does in his spare time.

What if Musk gets what he thinks he wants? I won’t spoil the movie “Citizen Kane” if you haven’t seen it, but here’s the short version: Kane got his wildest dreams and was miserable.

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