Column: Dear Elon, I can save Twitter for you. Here are my terms
You don’t know me, though we met once, at a group interview at SpaceX headquarters in 2016. You wanted to talk about your plan to colonize Mars, but aside from that, you projected the air of a serious, thoughtful corporate leader.
You and I don’t share much, but one thing we do share is a devotion to Twitter, although I beat you to enrollment in the platform by two months — me in April 2009, you in June of that year.
Twitter needs to be de-Musked if it is to survive.
It’s true that we use Twitter for different purposes. You tweet to crack jokes (the more crass the better), to strike back at your adversaries (real or imagined), to float passing fancies and to inject yourself into political controversies.
I use Twitter for information. Twitter is the first application I check at the beginning of the day and the last before drifting off to sleep.
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I get column ideas, promote my work and weigh in on others’ efforts. The accounts I follow point me to interesting books and can’t-miss movies. It’s my early-warning system of developing events and a reliable gauge of what pundits and sages are thinking. There are also dog pictures.
No matter, no matter. Plainly we both love Twitter, despite its faults and flaws. I don’t think either of us wants to see it fail. It seems to be heading in that direction, but I think it can be saved.
Consequently, I’m making this one-time-only offer to save Twitter. I’ll take a shot at it, but only if you’re willing to meet my terms.
First, some context. Twitter’s problem is obvious. It’s not that it has too many employees, or too much operating software, or too much content moderation, or too many fake accounts of bots or any of the other things you say are its problems.
The problem is you.
Already, people are wondering whether your intention is to destroy the platform; all I can say about that is that your actions thus far are indistinguishable from what you would do if you deliberately set out to wreck it.
You’ve made the mistake common among people of your economic class who have become accustomed to having their whims accepted, no matter how self-destructive: You think the whole world lives on your street.
The vast majority of Twitter users don’t think of it the same way you do. They want it to be a platform that’s useful, not obnoxious, and certainly not an arena for displaying obnoxious behavior.
You have established the tone of discourse on the platform, and your tone is odious. Your personal account had become renowned for promoting an ugly conspiracy theory about the attack on Paul Pelosi, retweeting Nazi imagery and insulting a U.S. senator who could have significant influence over Twitter’s future.
Your companies Tesla and SpaceX have been treated indulgently by government regulators and funding agencies. You must now recognize that the landscape has shifted under your feet.
The current federal administration has signaled that it will be taking a harder line on enforcement. That includes the Federal Trade Commission, which has made clear that it intends to hold Twitter to its commitments on user privacy protection — and fined the company $150 million in May for violating its precious promises.
Your customary approach to management, as summarized by my colleague Russ Mitchell — personal insults, insensitivity to racial and gender issues, carelessness about workplace safety — doesn’t work for employees for whom these issues are important and who can walk out the door at any time and be recruited for their skills by other local employers.
You’re not a trained engineer, although you’ve given yourself that title at SpaceX, and when your snap judgments about operating technology are contradicted by experts on your staff, firing them doesn’t get you where you and Twitter need to go.
Nor does discarding policies aimed at protecting advertisers from becoming identified with racism and Nazism. Your failure to respond promptly to Eli Lilly’s complaints about a parody account on Twitter may cost Twitter millions in advertising dollars.
How does Elon Musk get away with his shenanigans? Because regulators are intimidated.
For these and other reasons, Twitter needs to be de-Musked if it is to survive. Much is at stake, not least your own investment of $44 billion in cash and debt incurred in your takeover of the company.
That means you have to step away from the platform by turning it over to a new, independent management team. Your cronies, who have been ransacking the place, disrupting the workforce and displaying their ignorance at every turn of how to run a social internet platform, need to be gone. Fired employees with mission-critical knowledge and skills need to be lured back.
Most important, you have to absent yourself from Twitter.
I’d be willing to step in, but with conditions.
Here they are.
A: To begin with, I require a five-year contract at $10 million a year. The contract can be terminated only at my initiative. The entire five-year sum is to be placed in escrow, upon signing of this contract, in an interest-bearing account under the control of a neutral party and disbursed quarterly. This is necessary to immunize myself and my team from your impulsive and precipitate decision-making.
All hiring and firing decisions will be subject to my authority alone, though they can be delegated at my discretion. You will have no authority to override my decisions on technology, human resources, capital expenditures, moderation policies — including decisions to suspend, terminate or restore accounts — marketing and other operational aspects of running the business.
B: You will immediately cease tweeting, subject to the following exception:
Twitter can be a funnel of valuable information, or a pipeline for a Niagara of verbal sewage. An absolutist approach to free speech means, well, more sewage.
All your tweets must be approved by me, in writing, before posted. There will be zero tolerance for violations of this provision. You may seek approval for no more than four tweets per calendar month.
There will be no subscription charge for Twitter. There will be no charge for validating identity (i.e., the blue checkmark). Those fees work against the development of Twitter as a safe posting environment.
These terms reflect the necessity of your accepting some home truths and tough love. If Twitter is to survive, it can’t continue to alienate advertisers and users.
The platform must become a place where consumer companies feel confident that their brands won’t become associated with racism, antisemitism, hatefulness and the other negative expressions of the American id. The platform doesn’t need to be a sedative — it can still be edgy, just not offensive.
That means that its terms of service must be clear, explicit and enforceable. They aren’t now, in part because of you.
You have had your fun; now the only way Twitter can survive is if advertisers and users are confident that you have no say in how it operates. Twitter needs a truly independent CEO who doesn’t report to you in any way and isn’t subject to your oversight.
I should have mentioned that to enforce these terms, you will have to place $50 million in the same escrow account mentioned above, to be disbursed upon any violation of terms, including unauthorized tweeting, unsolicited advice on policies or personnel, or any denigration of Twitter or its employees or executives in any forum. Disbursement will also be triggered if you file any litigation in any court to abrogate this contract.
Twitter may, in the end, not be salvageable. It may not turn a profit in the next five years. Its annual losses may not shrink, and may even grow larger. But it’s absolutely clear that the longer you have any authority at Twitter, the worse things will get.
It behooves me to acknowledge that almost certainly, I am the wrong person to assume this responsibility. After all, I’ve never been a CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation. Feel free to choose someone else. But any candidate capable of turning Twitter around will make the same demands to establish his or her credibility, or else won’t be worth hiring.
You can bet on it.