Elon Musk actually pulled it off

Well, it’s actually happened. Elon Musk has bought Twitter. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” Musk said in a statement yesterday afternoon, “and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” We wish him well in his attempt to make that “digital town square” more open, less arbitrary, and better suited to the potential of the Web.

Almost to a man, critics of the purchase have begun warning about the “Wild West” that will result if Musk gets his way. But, as ever, their assumptions betray them. Nowhere has Musk said that Twitter will be entirely devoid of moderation. What he seems to be saying instead — what Twitter’s critics have demanded — is an end to the caprice. It is, of course, entirely possible for Twitter to construct a set of neutrally applicable rules that require people of all political viewpoints to engage with each other in a civil way. The problem has been that, in practice at least, Twitter’s rules were achieving no such thing and that, over time, users had noticed.

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Yesterday’s news should remind Americans that where there is a dynamic market economy, there will always be rapid change. Six months ago, those griping about the way in which Twitter was being run did not see this coming. Nobody did. The talk was about the government, and Section 230, and whether, if you squint a little, Twitter could be forced to look like a phone company. But where there is demand, there will eventually be supply, and, by buying Twitter from its previous owners, Musk has vowed to alter that supply and bring it into line with the preference of a large share of consumers. In business, at least, there are many second acts in American life.

The road ahead will not be easy. Many of Twitter’s employees will quit, while others will stay and resist Musk’s alterations. After the decision was announced, Bloomberg reported that executives were so nervous about the prospect of employees “going rogue” that they halted all software updates. Outside of Twitter, too, the pressure on Musk will be intense. For a good example of the double standard that obtains, consider that when Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, Business Insider described the acquisition as “a fascinating cultural transition in America,” whereas when Elon Musk bought Twitter, the outlet described it as “a chilling new threat.” Musk, as ever, is Schrödinger’s billionaire.

Were we designing the web from scratch, we would never choose to put Twitter in its current position. Twitter’s format destroys nuance, encourages hyperbole, and all but begs its users to form mobs. That it has become as popular as it has among the opinion-making class cannot be a good thing in the long run. But it is here now, and the important question is whether it can be made better than it currently is. Elon Musk clearly believes that it can, and says that he looks “forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock” its potential. Godspeed.

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