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.