Few things have seized the social media world’s attention as quickly and completely as Elon Musk‘s takeover of Twitter. Within a matter of just a few weeks, Musk has implemented changes at breakneck speed, from removing top executives to starting a new verification system, stirring up controversy in the process and leaving many publicly speculating as to whether he will truly turn Twitter into a “super app” or make it devolve into a “free-for-all hellscape.”
The truth is that both extremes are possible, as are a range of possibilities somewhere in between. No one really knows which of these will actually happen and it all depends on what Musk and his team do in the coming weeks and months. What we can know for sure at this point is which handful of factors will be key in determining the outcome.
The Ideas Themselves Are Sound
Whether you are for or against the Musk takeover, and there are definitely arguments for both, the ideas he has been proposing are in themselves quite sound. Take the subscription-based verification model, for example. Although there have been a lot of protests against this, many of them from celebrities, some form of the model actually makes sense.
Celebrities and public figures who have followers in the hundreds of thousands or even millions undeniably benefit from their use of the platform, whether directly through sponsored posts or indirectly from selling books, albums, keynotes and so forth. Perhaps even a tiered monthly price based on the number of followers makes more sense than a flat $8.
For example, a celebrity like Kevin Hart who makes millions of dollars on sponsored tweets would likely shell out a thousand dollars a month to simply use the service. If PR firms that basically perform the same function charge fees for their services, why shouldn’t Twitter?
The challenge with this and any of Musk’s ideas will be the execution. The reason for the unpopularity of the new blue check system is arguably not the validity of the idea itself but the way it was being unrolled — too abruptly and without effectively communicating the positioning of the changes.
New ideas by themselves don’t always determine how receptive people will be to them; the way those ideas are presented and rolled out is just as important. Just ask McDonald’s about the history of the McRib, which was lukewarmly received at first until a smart marketing campaign made it the popular menu item it became.
Choosing the Right Face for the Brand
It might also be that Elon Musk just isn’t the right face for Twitter due to his controversial persona and attention-seeking behavior. Of course, he has always been the face of Tesla, and Tesla is extremely successful, but that is a different situation in the sense that Tesla owners are not necessarily Twitter users, and Twitter is where Musk’s attention-seeking is the most obvious.
“Don’t soil your own nest,” a saying goes, and this might be exactly what Musk is doing right now with Twitter. With Tesla, he could get away with his online antics. With Twitter, it’s too close to home.
However, whatever you may personally think about Musk, with a resume like his — PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and others — it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t know how to build a successful and innovative company. When people say he doesn’t know what he’s doing with Twitter, they might be right. He may be one of the best product disruption businesspeople of all time, but a media company is different.
But if he’s not the right public face for Twitter, he will find someone else to serve that role. He has already publicly suggested as much. What we might eventually see is a Washington Post-type situation in which, like with Jeff Bezos, Musk owns Twitter but does not directly manage the day-to-day operations.
It’s All About the Content and User Experience
There’s no doubt that many people are not big fans of Elon Musk at the moment. But the modern histories of media, business and marketing are full of case studies of individuals who were unpopular but who were able to eventually shed their negative image by providing people with a certain kind of positive experience.
Bill Gates used to be widely seen as the Darth Vader of the tech world but through his philanthropy and contributions to climate change and vaccine-related research, he, too, has come to be widely admired. This doesn’t mean the same thing will happen to Musk but, in general, the public can be forgiving of past missteps in light of recent successes.
So what would success for Twitter mean?
From the perspective of the user base, which is clearly key, success would mean providing a platform that helps creators to share the best content they can and maybe even get paid for it (as they do on platforms like Patreon and OnlyFans). This would keep both creators and their legions of fans coming back.
Success would also mean using mass verification to cut down on the platform’s most problematic parts such as bots and fake accounts, misinformation, and hate speech. In theory, this could break the toxic culture found in most other social media comment sections.
Finally, success would also mean creating a more “TikTok-style” algorithm that attracts attention while limiting the mental health challenges, such as depression and low self-esteem, which Instagram causes among teen girls. While a “super app” is a grand vision and could be amazing if it happens, it wouldn’t even be necessary to make Twitter a success.
If Musk and Twitter can just deliver excellent content creation and user experiences, through whatever combination of methods, then current users will stay on Twitter, new ones will sign up and even past users who left for other platforms such as Discord or Mastodon will come back.
While Musk has been suspected of having political motives for buying Twitter, a recent open note that he directed at advertisers expresses good faith. Time will tell if his words are genuine or not, but if he is serious about having “a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner,” then one way or another he will need to address the trolls, bots and toxicity that has prevented Twitter from reaching that potential.
But love him or hate him, so long as the intentions he’s expressed are sincere, there’s no question that Musk has the business and innovative acumen to make the right decisions, as long as his personal tweets don’t dig himself into too large a hole that he can’t get out of.
(Dustin York is an associate professor of communication at Maryville University.)