Commentary on Elon Musk’s grab for Twitter has ranged from its potential impact on the simmering tension between big tech and society at large to the possibility of the elusive ‘edit button’ finally being added to the app, but the reputational impact of the deal on both Twitter and its major new shareholder is equally intriguing.
Twitter has played a significant role in Elon Musk’s ascension to fame and influence over the past decade. Despite his protestations that his Tweets are simply stream-of-consciousness small talk and not business or brand strategy, a significant minority of his 80M+ followers have formed a kind of protective cult around him, leaping to his defence even on the pretty regular occasions that he engages keyboard before mouth.
In the past eighteen months he’s also seen another contender for the title of Twitter’s biggest influencer-demagogue, Donald Trump, excommunicated from the platform, and the impact that has had on the ex-president’s public visibility and influence. So, he knows Twitter’s value to his personal brand, and his position on Twitter’s board may enable him to weaponise the platform itself to his own (further) advantage.
When it comes to communications Musk seems to thrive on unfiltered chaos, a style that would benefit from a Twitter with a more absolutist view on free speech and a less ‘curated’ algorithm, both of which Musk and his minions have previously pushed for.
Although there is a modicum of business savvy underpinning Musk’s relationship with Twitter, most commentators agree that, above all, he simply loves attention and fame for its own sake. Chris Stokel-Walker’s excellent WIRED article on the motivations for and ramifications of the deal contains a segment pointing out that Musk joining Twitter is a massive story and that, in itself, might be a significant motivator for him.
Of course, with all this comes risk of controversy and conflict-of-interest. So, what’s in it for Twitter?
Well Musk’s box office status benefits them too; it’s already driven up their share price and the incumbent leadership has reportedly included in the deal a number of fail-safes aimed at preventing Musk from ‘pumping and dumping’ his stock. The attention from outside of the platform will also benefit Twitter, potentially attracting users longing to see a meta-soap opera unfold, and simply reminding the less scandal-obsessed among us that it still exists.
As well as perception of the company’s value Musk’s fame makes him a useful figurehead. In much the same way as Facebook/Meta might have hoped that Nick Clegg’s experience outside of Silicon Valley would make him an ‘outsider-insider’ voice of reason, the fact that Musk’s fame is not connected to Twitter will lend any spokesperson duties he takes up an air of independent authority (within reason of course, depending what he says) and it should go without saying that Elon Musk is much more famous and influential than Nick Clegg.
Even Musk’s demagoguery could make him a useful lightning rod to help insulate Twitter from controversy. The next ‘Trump ban’ brouhaha is just around the corner and as long as he’s not slinging mud inside his own living room (which he’s quite capable of doing) then a deranged Musk hot take might be a handy distraction while the rest of Twitter’s leadership quietly gets on with the busywork.
Musk’s unpredictability adds an undeniable entertainment factor to this story, from which he and Twitter are already reaping short term mutual PR benefit. When the honeymoon is over, there is still every chance this could be a reciprocally profitable relationship, but a lot of that depends on Twitter’s ability to avoid any dystopian big tech scandals, and Musk’s ability to keep all his toys in his pram and count to ten before reaching for the keyboard. Both scenarios are far from guaranteed, but one thing we can be reasonably sure of is that we’re in for one hell of a ride.