Will Elon Musk Go Full Future-of-Civilization on Twitter?

Of all the things Musk says are good for humanity, this one is not like the others.

A black-and-white photo of Elon Musk with a bandana around his neck
Patrick Pleul / Getty

Elon Musk, when he wants to, can be quite philosophical—as in February,  when he gave a long speech about his vision for the future from his growing SpaceX spaceport in South Texas. “It is very important—essential—that, over the long term, we become a multi-planet species, and ultimately even go beyond the solar system, and bring life with us,” Musk said, standing in front of a prototype of a giant, gleaming rocket meant to one day travel to the moon and Mars. “The creatures that we love [can’t] build spaceships, but we can, and we can bring them with us.” And the thought of turning science fiction into reality? Musk loves it. “That’s what fires me up the most, is like, Let’s go out there and find out what this universe is all about,” he said. “How did we get here? What is the meaning of life?”

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He also can be a gleeful agitator. Last week, while NASA astronauts prepared for their ride on a SpaceX rocket, Musk—fresh off of becoming Twitter’s largest shareholder—asked his followers whether the company should drop the W from its name. (It’s a boob joke.) Today, during an interview at a TED event, Musk said he didn’t have some master plan for Twitter and usually just tweeted whatever he found funny while sitting on the toilet. But he stands ready to plonk down $43 billion to buy the whole thing and take the company private. “Since making my investment I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form,” he wrote in a letter announcing his intentions to acquire the company. “Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.”

Which Musk is showing up here—the philosopher, or the agitator? In some ways, Musk’s Twitter pitch is classic Musk: He has identified an industry in which he believes people aren’t doing things right; he believes he can do it better; he’s going to throw some money at it and get to work. This is precisely why Musk founded SpaceX and invested in Tesla nearly two decades ago, after he made millions from early internet start-ups. In the case of Twitter, Musk wants to change the company’s approach to free speech. And just as he has done with his other companies, he is manifesting “I alone can fix it” energy and elevating that goal to the level of civilizational importance. “My strong, intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization,” Musk said in the TED interview, in his first public explanation of his desire to buy Twitter.

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Or Musk could just be aiming to make money off of his existing Twitter shares, or simply trying to annoy those users who vowed to quit Twitter entirely if Musk started calling the shots. But if he’s really serious about it, this will be the tell: if Musk starts talking about the future of social media way more often, and with the same spark that he uses for his biggest dreams.

It is unclear exactly how Musk is planning to come up with the money; he has a few options, including selling some Tesla stock. Earlier in his career, Musk poured millions of his own money into his companies, including $100 million into SpaceX and $70 million into Tesla. “Short of building an actual money-crushing machine, Musk could not have picked a faster way to destroy his fortune,” the journalist Ashlee Vance wrote in his 2015 biography of Musk. Obviously, he did not; he’s now worth many, many more billions of dollars. Still, he seems to have set limits on the amount of personal money he’s willing to put into those ventures. Last year, the day after Thanksgiving, Musk sent a company-wide email criticizing SpaceX staff for not moving fast enough to produce rocket engines for the Starship program. “We face genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year,” he wrote. He didn’t seem to be eager to use his personal fortune then.

When high-profile billionaires decide to spend a bunch of their money on something that seems frivolous to the rest of us, like a mega-yacht or trip to space, it is common for people to ask, “Well, why not spend that money on [insert pressing earthly problem here] instead?” Even SpaceX’s arguably noble ambitions will sometimes prompt grumbles that Musk seems indifferent to earthly problems that could make Earth unlivable sooner than some other cosmic calamity. But for those who see Tesla as an important player in the fight against climate change, and for those who believe that SpaceX is the future of space travel, Musk’s new fascination with Twitter seems like a baffling distraction. In the space community, eyes have probably popped at the price Musk is willing to pay for Twitter: $43 billion is nearly double NASA’s annual budget. And yet Musk is the future of American space travel: NASA has given SpaceX billions in funding to develop the technology that the United States uses to send astronauts to the International Space Station. It is also paying SpaceX to develop the special landing gear to put Americans back on the moon. The storied space agency created a future in which Musk is indispensable, and there’s no question that if and when astronauts go to Mars, SpaceX will play a big part in their journey.

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And Musk seems to genuinely care about space travel: I remember watching him choke up at a NASA press conference in 2019 while he talked about the Apollo moon missions. “Humanity landing on the moon, man, that was maybe the greatest thing ever,” he said then. And when that emotional moment passed, Musk spoke with urgency: “We should have a base on the moon, like a permanently occupied human base on the moon. And send people to Mars, and build a city on Mars. That’s what we should do.” Why spend all that money on Twitter?

Perhaps Musk has some extra time on his hands. His Starship effort is currently tangled up in regulatory matters that may take months or even years to resolve, preventing SpaceX from conducting the launch tests at its South Texas spaceport that Musk had envisioned would begin soon. Expending that extra bandwidth on Twitter wouldn’t just be passing the time; it could have a real cost to his existing enterprises. Any financing deal would have to rely in some way on his holdings in his other firms, where much of his value is wrapped up. He also would have a whole new business to run: How much time would Musk devote to his new project? Would Musk, a notorious workaholic, dedicate himself to learning the ins and outs of a social-media network as he did an electric car or a rocket engine?

Twitter is a far less concrete project than Tesla and SpaceX. A Musk-run Twitter might have more in common with one of his less-known ventures, Neuralink, which Musk hopes will, in the short term, build devices to help people with brain disorders and, in the long run, connect human brains to computers. Social media, especially Twitter, has already done a commendable job of getting our brains hooked on computers. By buying Twitter, Musk could exert more control over the less-physical realities of our world—over what we know and how we think. If Musk were in charge of Twitter, he would have a tremendous amount of influence over the way people consume information online. His role would make Jeff Bezos’s ownership of The Washington Post seem almost quaint. Maybe that kind of control over Twitter, which Musk describes as “the de facto public square,” is worth it for him.

Watching Musk in the TED interview today, it struck me how haltingly he spoke about his rationale for acquiring Twitter compared with the way he talks about rocket science. Or cars: “I think I know more about manufacturing than anyone currently alive on Earth,” Musk said today, referring to how much time he’s spent on Tesla’s factory floor, with his characteristic modesty. One could argue that Musk is watching what he says in order to avoid making some regulatory faux pas, but that seems like a generous interpretation for a man who today referred to the staff at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s San Francisco office as “those bastards.” It is more likely that he is on less-sure footing. With SpaceX and Tesla, Musk is in the business of building physical things. At Twitter, he would have an opportunity to shape the world in a more ethereal way. This is new territory for Musk—and, if the sale actually goes through—for the rest of us too.

Marina Koren is a staff writer at The Atlantic.
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