Elon Musk Is a Digital Citizen Kane

What if one of the world’s most important information tools is owned by a billionaire who can do whatever he wants with it?

Yes, I’m talking about Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter for himself, which he revealed on Thursday. His offer is over $ 43 billion, which is a lot of money for Musk, Tesla’s chief executive and owner of SpaceX. (Musk’s letter to Twitter offering to buy said his purchase would be conditional on finding help paying for the acquisition. It did not say where the money would come from.)

Will Musk really have a period of cash and attention to follow his proposed acquisition, and will Twitter say yes? who knows? The word “unexpected” does not do justice to the moment. We’re already in Week 2 of Musk and Twitter’s very public and rocky romance, and there could be more weirdness.

But imagine that Musk finally buys Twitter from stockholders who own it today. The closest comparisons can be made with 19th century newspapers such as William Randolph Hurst, Joseph Pulitzer, and fictional Charles Foster Kane, who used their papers to advance their personal agendas, sensationalize world events, and annoy their enemies.

We don’t really have the digital age citizen can, but musk can be that. And Twitter’s global influence is arguably bigger and more powerful than any Hurst newspaper of its day.

Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post and Rupert Murdoch’s news media empire are close, perhaps, but this will be a landmark: the purchase of a globally important digital platform by 21st century tech barons, with the aim of reproducing its image.

Eric Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School, told me, “They will be a throwback to using their newspapers to advance their favorite cause for the press barons of the ‘Citizen Cane’ days.”

Musk’s favorite idea is Twitter, which operates the way he uses Twitter: no holdings are restricted. It envisions a social network transformed by it into a replica of expression without theoretical limitations.

It’s basically the same pitch as former President Donald J. Trump has his app, Truth Social. Some other social media sites also promised to create Internet gatherings without arbitrary rules imposed by companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook. But those sites remain relatively small and unimportant compared to Twitter.

Musk’s proposed purchase of Twitter, then, would be akin to a real-world experiment in a parallel social media app without restrictions on what people can do or say. I don’t know what this will look like when applied.

Satya Samaj does not allow complete free expression. Very few people want to fill their social media feeds with cryptocurrencies, terrorist recruitment pitches or spam ads for child molestation. No one is sure what Twitter would be like without Musk. (An interesting question: will Musk restore Trump’s Twitter account?)

I also wonder if Musk really wants that To own Twitter. It’s fun to imagine what you would do if you were the boss of Twitter, but it’s not really fun to be the boss of Twitter. Check out Mark Zuckerberg running Facebook. That person doesn’t seem to be joking.

“My guess is that Musk is happy to be able to tell Twitter what to do and doesn’t really care about what is actually being done,” Bloomberg opinion writer Matt Levine said in a stunning column on Tuesday.

If Twitter were wholly owned by Musk, he wouldn’t have to worry about share price volatility or shareholder demand like Zuckerberg did. But that doesn’t mean the musk will be immune to inflammation.

When you have a powerful internet site, you may be receiving threats from the Russian government to imprison your employees for posts they do not like, or a family member may ask why a stalker is allowed to harass them in their private messages. Musk may not want to deal with the ugly details of owning a tool of global influence, but he would not have had a choice if he were the sole owner of Twitter.

I wish we could save a small measure of compassion for Twitter executives and directors. They are in an impossible situation. (The company said its board would “carefully review” Musk’s proposal and determine what it believes is in the best interests of Twitter and its shareholders.)

Twitter’s board of directors may agree to Musk’s offer, and may decide that finding cash to buy Twitter and turning it into a fictional free-speech haven is not a big use of its money, time and energy. Then, Twitter will have a useless acquisition offer, the company’s share price will be heavily cited and angry stockholders will sue the board.

Twitter’s board can’t tell Musk on the principle that the company has a long-term plan that will make it more valuable than what Musk is offering. In that case, Musk said, he could sell billions of dollars worth of Twitter shares he recently bought. Twitter’s share price could largely quote, and angry shareholders will probably sue the board.

Twitter’s relatively new chief executive, Parag Agarwal, may prefer to have Musk pull out his toenails rather than face the week’s chaotic drama. Continuing to engage in awkward drama on Twitter may not be good for Musk – however … well, he does just that in his spare time.

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

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