From Tesla to Twitter: Why Elon Musk is so invested in the future

The visionary is all set to transform social media after his $44 billion takeover of the world's most influential town square

By Vinay Kamat

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Wed 27 Apr 2022, 10:53 AM

Last updated: Thu 28 Apr 2022, 2:18 PM

Before we talk Twitter, let’s understand Elon Musk.

In an inspiring commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology in 2018, Musk asks: What is the purpose of things? He answers: “If we can advance the knowledge of the world, if we do things that expand the scope and scale of consciousness, then we are better able to ask the right questions and become more enlightened…. And that is the only way forward.”

Purposefully, Musk is changing the way we make and use sustainable energy, disrupting the auto business, and trying to extend life beyond our planet. All these mega moves, through Tesla and SpaceX, make Musk one of the biggest investors in the future.

In Elon Musk, biographer Ashlee Vance quotes the visionary entrepreneur: “I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future. If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multiplanetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet, then…I think that would be really good.”

Vance starts his book with a searching question from Musk: “Do you think I am insane?” While not exactly a shocker, the question echoes Steve Jobs’ famous advice to Stanford students: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” While there is purpose, risk, entrepreneurial zeal, adventurism, madness—five things that define the world’s richest man—in Musk’s numerous plays, everything starts with a larger purpose. That appears to be his signature tune.

Musk’s tweets tell the story of doggedness, focus and optimism: “To be frank, in the early days, I thought there was >90% chance that both SpaceX & Tesla would be worth $0….It took an utterly insane amount of work to move the SpaceX & Tesla success probabilities above ~zero.”

How does all this connect with Twitter, the world’s most influential town square with around 330 million users? Twitter (2021 revenue: $5 billion) is dwarfed by other advertising platforms like Facebook ($117 billion) and Google ($257 billion). Insta and TikTok are becoming influencers’ enclaves. Still, the town square is poised to become a city square under a mayor with Tesla-sized ambitions.

Let’s look at how Twitter became Twitter. One of Twitter’s greatest moments came during the Hudson Miracle, when the world woke up to Twitter on January 15, 2009. The social platform was the first to report a plane crash in the River Hudson, becoming the breaking news bullhorn since. But there was more to Twitter. Arab Spring, Me Too and Black Lives Matter became influential conversations on the social platform, making it a social and political catalyst.

Breaking news creates its own buzz. Usually, a story that is tweeted and retweeted turns into a multiplier event as it gains the followership of influentials. Finally, it becomes a news phenomenon. A social platform’s virality decides the hierarchy of news. In the Age of Twitter, editors seldom influence news priority; it’s ordained by tweets. Twitter is no longer the town square, it’s a news arena where tweets battle it out to decide the pecking order of news.

Writer Joshua Benton writes about The New York Times’ response to its journalists’ Twitter usage, in NiemanLab.

“Twitter takes up too much of journalists’ time.

“It warps their reporting by changing who they see as their audience and the feedback they get on their work.

“It’s a major driver of harassment and abuse.

“Bad tweets are a significant reputational threat to the Times and its staffers.”

Many newsrooms have issued similar guidelines, pointing to a culture that is increasingly shaped by Twitter. Donald Trump’s impact on global markets was pervasive during his tweet-happy days; he influenced policy or provoked rivals in Twitter space. Twitter’s ease of access, its easy-to-use content format, its agora-type halo and its influential pool of users should have turned it into a marketplace of news and views or tweets and super-tweets. The argument goes: Whatever the market decides cannot be completely wrong. After all, threaded conversations ensure a continuous flow of diverse opinions. So what stops Twitter?

Musk highlights his own grouses in these tweets. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential - I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.

“If our twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!

“Most of these “top” accounts tweet rarely and post very little content. Is Twitter dying?

@BarackObama 131.4M

@justinbieber 114.3M

@katyperry 108.8M

“For example, @taylorswift13 hasn’t posted anything in 3 months…”

In a few tweets, laser-focused Musk has laid out Twitter’s problems. What is he trying to say, broadly? Answers: We need to elevate the platform to a public discourse. Product innovation is the key. We need open-source algorithms. No spam bots, please. Let’s authenticate all humans. Be in synch with the laws of the land. Free speech is the key.

One of Musk’s popular quotes: “Make sure you understand the fundamental principles of what you’re trying to do before you get into the details, otherwise you could be building on faulty ground.”

If we apply that logic to Musk’s Twitter buy, he should know how to unlock Twitter’s potential. But it’s complicated. You cannot easily define or control free speech. Mega advertising platforms Google and Facebook are unlikely to cede space to Twitter.

Still, a public forum that respects free speech, feels safe, stimulates ideas, creates thought leaders and provides solutions for the future will be a coveted agora and vibrant marketplace. Paid membership is too small a price for such a sustainable ecosystem.

In March this year, Musk tweeted this conversation from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: “Sam: It’s like in the great stories, Mr Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were… Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr Frodo, I do understand… There’s some good in this world, Mr Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

Free speech could be Musk’s purpose. If he succeeds, he’ll change the tenets of social media and journalism. At the time of their births, both SpaceX and Tesla appeared fanciful. Twitter is better off; it is still a prototype of Musk’s ultimate version.

With Twitter, Musk is not reinventing an industry as he did with Tesla or SpaceX. He’s just improving a product. He’s taking the broom to sweep the square. It’s worth fighting for.


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