In many ways, Elon Musk uses Twitter like the rest of us. He likes to joke around, but isn’t as funny as he thinks he is; he overshares and loves memes; he occasionally goes too far, and gets himself in trouble; he seems to think the platform is unfairly suppressing the views of people with whom he identifies. Thanks to the flattening effects of Twitter, the only real difference between the site’s median user and Musk is about $257 billion and 85.4 million followers. He has more followers than Narendra Modi, the prime minister of the largest democracy on Earth, and fewer than Taylor Swift. No one in the history of the modern world has ever been as wealthy as he is. He also thinks the number 420 is so funny that he seems to have determined the final value of his offer ($54.20 per share) to accommodate its inclusion.
It’s surprising that Musk would stake so much of his wealth on a site that so many of its users profess to hate. According to filings made with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Musk will personally supply as much as $21 billion in cash to close out the deal, representing about 8 percent of his net worth. If he took that money and set it on fire, he would still be the richest person on the planet. And yet, if you turned the clock back to just 2018, $21 billion would represent 100 percent of Musk’s net worth. The rapid growth of his wealth has coincided with his embrace of the platform as a chaotic communication tool, making the acquisition almost painfully recursive — his billions are tied up with his eccentric persona, and now he is using the billions to wholly own the arena that allows him to bring his unvarnished self to the masses.
It is in one sense simply another instance of a familiar story: Billionaire buys important vector for public discourse. Perhaps you’ve noticed that it’s been happening a lot lately. In 2013, Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for the comparatively minuscule sum of $250 million. Five years later, the investment firm controlled by Patrick Soon-Shiong — like Musk, a billionaire businessman from South Africa — bought The Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune for around $500 million. All the while, Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire widow of Steve Jobs, has been making media investments of her own, most prominently The Atlantic.
Whatever you make of all this, each of these publications has an editorial staff with a great degree of independence, constrained by journalistic norms created over decades — and often enforced on Twitter. Twitter, by contrast, is a site where you can log on and say more or less whatever you want, and Musk has said he would like to make it even more that way. He has stated that he disagrees with the current content-moderation policies, which has led to yet another round of the sort of mind-numbing culture-war discourse the site so effectively fosters: Will Musk allow any sort of speech — even Nazis? Why are liberals so afraid of free speech? Back and forth all day like this. But either way, the same fact delights one side and terrifies the other: One guy will get to radically reshape this platform in his own image, and he seems to be doing so mostly for fun, and possibly for profit. The conservative cartoonist Ben Garrison depicted the acquisition like this: Musk as a half-man, half-cat, breaking into Twitter’s bird cage, stroking the bird’s head menacingly and purring: “Pretty bird! I’m gonna teach you to say ‘free speech!’” This is meant to be a positive take on the story.
Musk’s acquisition has been more than a little crazy-making on a platform where many users’ chief obsession is the site itself. The text box of Twitter still prompts every user with “What’s happening?” What’s happening, invariably, is that they are looking at Twitter. This simple fact accounts for perhaps 99 percent of the acrimony on there, which is rarely about events in the outside world and frequently about the content of other tweets. Just about everyone who uses Twitter feels that he is being wronged by it somehow, but he can’t stop looking. And one of the perverse facts about it is that the more power and followers one accumulates, the more one risks becoming held forth as an example of all that’s wrong in the world — none more so than the winner of the entire game of global capitalism. No wonder Musk thinks there’s still value to be unlocked: He loves the site, even though his experience with it is most likely horrible.
And because Musk is the single wealthiest person on the planet, it’s easy for many to believe that the deal is not about a desire to refurbish and renew “the digital town square” but something more nefarious or stupid. Some — including the second wealthiest man on the planet, Jeff Bezos — have speculated that Tesla’s exposure to the Chinese market will in fact make it more susceptible to censorship under Musk’s ownership. Others have fretted about his now owning journalists’ D.M.s; some think that’s hilarious. There are some who fear that he’s going to bring back former President Donald Trump, another billionaire power user of the platform; plenty of others find that idea exhilarating. He’s stated a desire to rein in bot accounts, which probably seem like a bigger problem to you when you have 85.4 million followers and tweet about crypto and stock prices and the numbers 420 and 69. On Monday, people kept posting unflattering pictures of him — from his PayPal days, or standing next to Ghislaine Maxwell — joking it’ll be the last day they can get away with it.
And this is what’s so unsettling about his acquisition: the strong sense that — even at its most anodyne — it’s an act of vanity, a means of improving the personal experience of one user of the agora. And there’s something to it. Musk oozes with a desperation to be thought of as funny, an ailment no amount of money can fix and perhaps his most relatable quality. His outing on “Saturday Night Live” was borderline painful to watch, even by contemporary “S.N.L.” standards — in particular his monologue, which was full of fascinating be-nice-to-me defense mechanisms: an announcement that he was the first host with Asperger’s syndrome; an appearance by his mother, who hugged him and told him she loved him; and a declaration of his vision for the future: “I believe in a renewable-energy future; I believe that humanity must become a multiplanetary, spacefaring civilization.”
He paused after that part: “Those seem like exciting goals, don’t they? Now I think if I just posted that on Twitter, I’d be fine. But I also write things like ‘69 days after 4/20 again haha’ ” — an actual post from June 28, 2020, which was indeed 69 days after April 20 — “I don’t know, I thought it was funny. That’s why I wrote ‘haha’ at the end. Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things, but that’s just how my brain works. To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say: I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”
Never before has the Twitter-user mentality been so neatly summarized: I know you may not like my jokes, but what you have to understand is that I’m actually cool. The capital markets have rewarded Musk richly for all of that; Twitter, home of the guillotine meme, has not — or at least not uniformly. But because of the former, any frustration Musk may have with the latter can potentially reshape the closest thing we have to a digital town square. It’s not clear that there’s anything to mourn in this changing of the guard, except perhaps for the fact that it can happen at all.
This is what’s so dizzying about living in a society with individuals who control so much wealth: Their whims can be made into reality with startling ease — and their whims can be shaped by the same dumb websites we all use to waste company time. It’s not as if Twitter was run like a kibbutz beforehand, but it responded to a diverse web of stakeholders: Wall Street, customers, users, the press, governments, etc. And now, one $44 billion lark later, it will respond to one man whose frankly complex relationship to the site’s services is apparent to anyone who cares to look.
If his experiences as a user should presumably shape his approach to governing the platform, his experience as the visionary behind enormous real-world projects may not prepare him for the complexities of managing something as amorphous as Twitter: a pulsating and frequently unpleasant conversation among hundreds of millions of people who have no real reason to be talking to one another; a place for screwing around that has also helped reshape several industries and institutions; a for-profit platform that makes its money selling ads, but that is mostly experienced as a way to tell jokes and share links; and above all, a service that a small but influential subset of humanity has allowed to colonize their free time and minds to a great degree over the last decade, with profound and unpredictable results. He may soon discover that Twitter is not rocket science — it’s harder.
Willy Staley is a story editor for The New York Times Magazine who recently edited a special issue about billionaires.