Why there’s no guarantee that Musk’s Twitter will resemble Dorsey’s

KSC-20180206-PH_KLS03_0080 KSC-20180206-PH_KLS03_0080 by NASAKennedy is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

A lot of folks are saying they’re not going to leave Twitter, in the wake of Elon Musk’s acquisition of the social media platform, because Musk and its once and long-time CEO and cofounder Jack Dorsey aren’t very different: both are billionaires, tech-bros, libertarian and pro-cryptocurrencies. And they say that they did okay under Dorsey, so why wouldn’t we under Musk? I find this argument to only be partly acceptable. The other part is really two parts.

First, Twitter under Dorsey is significantly different because he cofounded the platform and nurtured through a few years of relative quiescence, followed by a middle period and finally to the decidedly popular platform that it is today. (I joined Twitter in the middle period, in 2008, when it was hard to say if the next person you were going meet in real-life was be on Twitter. Today the converse is true.)

Musk, however, is inheriting a more matured platform, and one whose potential he believes hasn’t been “fulfilled”. I’m not sure what that means, and the things Musk has said on Twitter itself haven’t inspired confidence. Both men may be evil billionaires but setting aside the sorts of things Dorsey supports for a moment, you’ve got to admit he doesn’t have nearly the persona, the reputation and the cult-following that Musk does. These differences distinguish these men in significant ways vis-à-vis a social media platform – a beast that’s nothing like EVs, spaceflight or renewables.

(In fact, if Musk were to adopt an engineer’s approach to ‘fixing’ whatever he believes he’s wrong with Twitter, there are many examples of the sort of problematic solutions that could emerge here.)

The second part of the “Musk and Dorsey are pretty much the same” misclaim is that a) Musk is taking the company private and b) Musk has called himself a “free-speech absolutist”. I’m not a free-speech absolutist, in fact most of the people who have championed free speech in my circles are not. Free-speech absolutism is the view that Twitter (in this context) should support everyone’s right to free speech without any limitations on what they’re allowed to say. To those like me who reject the left-right polarisation in society today in favour of the more accurate pro-anti democracy polarisation, Twitter adopting Musk’s stance as policy would effectively recast attempts to curtail abuse and harrassment directed at non-conservative voices as “silencing the right”, and potentially allow their acerbic drivel to spread unchecked on the platform.

Running Twitter famously affected Dorsey. Unless we can be sure that the platform and its users will have the same effect on Musk, and temper his characteristic mercuriality, Twitter will remain a place worth leaving.