Musk’s Twitter Gambit Has Never Been About the Town Square

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Employees at tables inside Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, California.

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David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

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About the author: Zizi Papacharissi is professor of communication and political science at the University of Illinois Chicago. Her most recent book, After Democracy: Imagining our Political Futureis out now on Yale University Press.

The world is watching as Elon Musk unveils his plans about Twitter,
Attention is a prized commodity for Musk, who teased at purchasing the platform for several months before striking the deal that will place him at the helm of the company. Since then, sometimes cryptic and often direct proclamations from Musk have invited massive speculation about what he plans to do with the platform. The news that he may let former President Donald Trump back into the space resulted in shock from many of those watching and a blasé shrug from Trump. The most recent announcement even suggests that the deal may be on hold. What is really going on?

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To knock the elephant out of the room, the chances that Trump will turn to Twitter to ramp up support look slim, The former president is not known for making any move that does not generate financial gain for him, and he is presently in the middle of an economically and legally complex chess game with few winning moves for him left. Moreover, Trump never used Twitter to amplify his support. He used Twitter to distract the media, set the narrative, and irritate nonsupporters. His supporters hang out in spaces other than Twitter, and few of these spaces are digital ones. Finally, the world is a different place. People no longer turn to Twitter with the naïveté and optimization they once did.

So, what is all the fuss about? To understand that, it is important to dig into the context of the Twitter acquisition and the nature of the platform’s value. Remember that Twitter was in the midst of a prolonged nosedive, in terms of its stock value and user base, before Trump took to it as his platform of choice to promote his politics. Users were flocking to Instagram and others. There was much uncertainty about Twitter’s future. The company increased its iconic character limit from 140 to 280 characters, in the hope of attracting the interest of public relations firms and self-proclaimed influencers, who might use it for promotional and marketing purposes.

Trump’s antics breathed new life into the platform. They drew in new users, gathering in disbelief and later in dismay, as the president tweeted controversial opinions. Media flocked to Twitter to connect to a president who often refused to communicate with them via more traditional avenues. Twitter became the primary channel for communicating with the US president. This unexpected lifeline supported the platform, until public outrage no longer made it profitable or viable to do so.

But what could Twitter be without Trump? Controversy generated attention, and attention generated financial value for the company. That worked, until it did not. And thus, Twitter gradually went from being the conduit that gave voice to the Arab Spring and Occupy movements to a bot-filled space that regurgitated manufactured narratives.

This point was not lost on Musk, and those enabling the substantial funds required for the acquisition. The public generally sees Elon Musk as the face of a number of ventures supported by complex infrastructure. This tendency, propagated by Musk himself, furthers the cult of personality politics that much of his economic prowess rests on. His companies and assets may be overvalued. Yet his ability to spin and generate public excitement about his endeavors elevates stock prices. To us, Twitter looks like an expensive deal Musk could not afford without leveraging most of his assets.

It’s not. It’s not expensive, because Musk engaged in much public fanfare preceding the deal aimed at generating favorable terms for him. What would have been an unaffordable move for him suddenly became affordable. And he is presently engaging in much public fanfare aimed at sustaining and increasing high performance expectations for the company. A radical new future for democracy. A reform of civic conversation. Rampant use of metaphors aimed at grabbing and maintaining our attention. Drama associated with whether the deal may actually go through.

Musk is buying himself a platform that would allow him to set and control the narrative, should this move forward. He would get a media channel at a bargain price. Unlike other media channels, Twitter and platforms like it, rely on content produced by users who work for free. The cost of content production is minimal, especially when compared to potential impact, which appears maximal. Controlling the narrative means controlling expectations. In an attention economy, influencing expectations is everything. Musk presents as a cult messiah of technology, and this infuses his companies with value that would otherwise not be there. But he plateaued. So put plainly, Twitter is a way for him to take all of this to the next level.

The next level is meme stocks. Meme stocks of course do not live on Twitter. It is much too mainstream a forum. But the internet is an interconnected conduit that runs its own feedback loops. What gains prominence on Twitter is frequently content generated in popular meme stock forums on Reddit, like the often-referenced Wall Street Sets. If one were to take the meme stock game mainstream, Twitter would be the way to do it.

So forget messiahs and do not fall for the town square line. Twitter has never been a town square and never will be. When it started, it was a place where people tweeted about the mundane, including what they had for breakfast, much to everyone’s bewilderment. As it evolved, it became an ambient, always on home for micro-communities. It has now become a slow-burning dumpster. Musk is buying himself a platform, not a town square. Put more accurately, Musk and associates are purchasing a content farm.

Town squares are not for purchase, by definition. They are publicly cared for. The minute a space is privately owned it stops being a town square. So does a town square that is not curated, monitored, or policed.

Elon Musk is not democracy’s messiah. He is a plutocrat running the long game and fending off other plutocrats who are betting against him, who are betting that his long game will not last. Twitter is the latest weapon in his arsenal in doing so, and it can be a powerful one, if we let it.

In an attention economy, our most valuable path to power is our gaze. What we choose to pay attention to matters. We afford value to the things we choose to pay attention to. We minimize the value of the things we choose to ignore. Attention is the commodity at stake here and it is up to the publics that populate town squares to place a high premium on it. By all means, do not ignore what is happening here. But do not afford it more attention than it deserves.

Guest commentaries like this one are written by authors outside the Barron’s and MarketWatch newsroom. They reflect the perspective and opinions of the authors. Submit commentary proposals and other feedback to [email protected]

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