Elon Musk is a digital citizen of Kane

What if one of the world’s important information tools was owned by a colorful billionaire who could do whatever he wanted with it?

Yes, I’m talking about Elon Musk’s proposal to buy Twitter for himself, which he unveiled on Thursday. His offer is more than $ 43 billion, which is a lot of money, even for Mask, the CEO of Tesla and the owner of SpaceX. (Musk’s letter offering to buy Twitter states that his purchase will be conditional on finding help paying for the purchase. It is not specified where the money might come from.)

Will Musk really have enough money and attention to follow his proposed acquisition, and will Twitter say yes? Who knows? The word “unpredictable” does not fit this moment. We are already in the 2nd week of Musk and Twitter’s very public and stony romances, and maybe more weirdness will come.

But imagine Musk eventually buying Twitter from the shareholders who own it today. The closest comparison to this could be 19th-century newspaper barons such as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and the fictional Charles Foster Kane, who used their newspapers to follow their personal plans, sensationalize world events and harass their enemies.

We didn’t really have a citizen of Kane in the digital age, but Musk could be. And Twitter’s global influence is arguably greater and more powerful than any Hearst newspaper of the time.

Jeff Bezos ’purchase of the Washington Post and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire may be close, but this would be a turning point: the 21st century technology baron is buying a digital platform of global importance, with the intent of reshaping it into his image.

“It would be a return to the days of ‘Citizen Kane’ when journalists used their newspapers to advance their favorite goals,” Eric Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School, told me.

Musk’s favorite idea is Twitter that works the way he uses Twitter: there are no limits. He imagines a social network that he has transformed into a model of expression without theoretical limitations.

It’s basically the same idea that former President Donald J. Trump has for his app, Truth Social. Several other social networks have also promised to build internet gatherings without arbitrary rules imposed by companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook. But those pages remain relatively small and irrelevant compared to Twitter.

Musk’s proposed purchase of Twitter, therefore, would represent a real-world experiment in a parallel social media application with no limitations on what people can do or say. I don’t know what this would look like when applied.

Truth Social does not allow absolutely free expression. Few people want their social media feeds to be clogged with unsolicited cryptocurrency ads, terrorist recruitment ads, or child harassment. No one is sure what Twitter would be like that is not responsible to anyone except Musk. (One intriguing question: would Musk renew Trump’s Twitter account?)

I also wonder if Musk really wants to that you own Twitter. It’s fun to imagine what you would do if you were the boss of Twitter, but it’s not exactly fun to be the boss of Twitter. Check out Mark Zuckerberg running Facebook. That guy doesn’t look like he’s having fun.

“I guess Musk enjoys being able to tell Twitter what to do and doesn’t worry much about it really being done,” Bloomberg Opinion writer Matt Levine said in a terribly predictable column on Tuesday.

If Twitter were solely owned by Musk, he wouldn’t have to worry about stock price whims or shareholder demands, as Zuckerberg does. But that doesn’t mean Musk would be free of irritation.

When you own a powerful website, you may be hit by threats from the Russian government to shut down your employees because of posts they don’t like or because a family member asks why the persecutor is allowed to harass them in their private messages. Musk may not want to deal with the ugly details of owning a tool of global influence, but he would have no choice if he were the sole owner of Twitter.

I want to spare a small amount of pity for the CEOs and Twitter directors. They are in an impossible situation. (The company said its board would “carefully consider” Musk’s proposal and decide what it believes is in the best interests of Twitter and its shareholders.)

Twitter’s board of directors could agree to Musk’s offer, and he could decide that finding money to buy Twitter and turning it into an imaginary haven of free speech is not a good use of his money, time and energy. Then Twitter would have a worthless buy offer, the company’s stock price would most likely fall, and angry shareholders would likely sue the board.

Twitter’s board of directors could say no to Musk in theory that the company has a long-term plan that would make it much more valuable than what Musk offers. In that case, Musk said, he could sell billions of dollars of Twitter stock he recently bought. Twitter’s stock price would most likely fall, and angry shareholders would likely sue the board.

Twitter’s relatively new CEO, Parag Agrawal, might have preferred to pluck toenails rather than deal with weeks of messy drama around Mask. Maybe it’s not great for Musk either to continue to engage in messy drama via Twitter – although… OK, that’s what he does in his spare time.

What if Musk achieves what he thinks he wants? I won’t spoil the movie “Citizen Kane” if you haven’t seen it, but here’s a short version: Kane made his wildest dreams come true and was miserable.

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