Being a Twitter star with 80 million followers was therefore not enough. The tech scene was surprised to discover on April 4 and 5 that billionaire Elon Musk had bought 9.2% of the capital of his favorite toy and communication tool and now had his seat on the network’s board of directors. The equity stake instantly propelled him to the rank of Twitter’s largest shareholder, ahead of the Vanguard investment fund and the Morgan Stanley bank.
Elon Musk dramatized the announcement on Twitter in the inimitable vein that is his: after buying shares in all discretion, he asked, deceptively ingenuous, Twitter users if they found that the network sufficiently respected the freedom of expression and suggested that he was seriously considering launching his own platform. The day his purchase was unveiled to the public, he let out a terse “oh hey, hello lol”, before teasing Twitter about creating an Edit button to edit a message after posting (a snake of sea which has always divided the Twitter community and has become the subject of recurring jokes).
“There is a place to take in social networks”
Schoolboy humor, trompe-l’oeil and spectacular announcements, the show is devilishly “muskian”. But make no mistake about it: it’s not a stupid billionaire who wants to customize his favorite toy (even if he would have the fortune to buy all of Twitter). “Elon Musk seeks to radically transform the world with the projects he launches,” said Jean-Christophe Liaubet, partner at Fabernovel, a company creating digital products and services. Whether we look at Tesla (which has managed the feat of making electric vehicles sexy), SpaceX (which has turned space upside down) or Neuralink (which is trying to do so in the field of brain implants), the common thread is obvious: when Musk invests in a sector, it is in the hope of completely revolutionizing it. And being interested in Twitter is a very smart idea. “The company is a sleeping beauty,” confides Nicolas Bordas, vice-president of the communication agency TBWA International.
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The platform is unquestionably a social media heavyweight. It is not the one with the most users (436 million users against 2 billion at Facebook). “But it has a very strong influence on the global conversation, a host of topics emerge on Twitter before they hit the media. Billionaires are often tempted at some point to invest in the media, but even a newspaper like the New York Times does not have the weight of a Twitter”, underlines Nicolas Bordas.
Despite its real assets, the network has not succeeded in monetizing itself effectively and changing dimensions like Facebook did (with all the abuses that this may have entailed). “The leaders of Twitter were afraid of displeasing their community and did not dare to transform their product much” analyzes the vice-president of TBWA International. Result: while the market capitalization of Meta exceeds 600 billion dollars, that of a Twitter is around 40 billion dollars. “Elon Musk sees in this company an untapped potential for innovation. He will force it to innovate” , believes Nicolas Bordas.
And the moment chosen to embark on this adventure is propitious because the social media sector is reconfiguring itself at the moment. “TikTok is overshadowing Meta, which is running out of steam, even if it remains huge. There is a place to take on social networks,” said Jean-Christophe Liaubet. At the same time, the dream of a possible new web, baptized “Web3”, titillates more and more Internet users and companies. Blockchain technologies make it possible to exchange money in the form of cryptocurrencies without intermediaries. Some are betting that this will reshape the web more broadly and challenge its centralization around large platforms. We are already seeing Internet users forming decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), which are sorts of communities gathered around a project (buying a rare object, supporting scientific research, etc.) in which blockchain technology is used to guarantee respect everyone’s votes. “The communities that form DAOs, the companies that launch NFTs, all these groups often use social media like Discord to exchange and Twitter to promote their project”, underlines Jean-Christophe Liaubet.
Succeed where Facebook failed
Web3 is currently more a concept than a concrete reality. And like any popular concept, such as the metaverse, it is the subject of a lot of fabrications. Elon Musk, who closely studies the possibilities offered by the blockchain, knows this well, and does not hesitate to make fun of those who make too many false promises on the subject. His interest in these innovations is, however, marked: he has invested part of his personal fortune in bitcoin and ether and has indicated that he wishes, in the long term, to allow payments from Tesla in bitcoin. “I think he will try to transform Twitter into an emblematic messaging service for decentralization”, analyzes Jean-Christophe Liaubet. Does this mean that Elon Musk will try to succeed where Meta failed with Libra/Diem by driving the development of a digital currency specific to Twitter? “It’s too early to tell, but the network would have fewer handicaps than a Meta whose size and excesses have scared off regulators. And Elon Musk would no doubt greatly appreciate being the first to pull off such a stunt. poker…”
It remains to be seen now how the leaders of Twitter and Elon Musk will collaborate. The troublemaker is probably not always easy to manage. And given the workload that his other companies already represent, it is not impossible that the billionaire continues to give his suggestions in a very direct and public way on Twitter, instead of sharing them in hushed office discussions.
The controversy debates moderation
Elon Musk has a different vision of the direction of Twitter on the thorny issue of moderation. In which case can a message constitute an incitement to violence or hatred? And if it is, should it be removed? These complex questions were brought to the fore when Donald Trump questioned the legitimacy of the 2021 US presidential elections, and some of his supporters invaded the Capitol. At a time when Russia is using disinformation to legitimize its invasion of Ukraine, these debates are more important than ever. “Elon Musk is in favor of letting everything be said, in the name of freedom of expression, a point on which he disagrees with the management of Twitter”, indicates Alexandre Baradez, financial analyst at IG France.
The arrival of this innovation enthusiast is nevertheless good news for Twitter. “During our conversations with Elon over the past few weeks, it has become clear to us that he will bring great value to our board. He is both a passionate and fierce critic of our service, which is exactly what we we need to become stronger in the long term”, declared Parag Agrawal, the CEO of Twitter, this Tuesday April 5.
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Elon Musk has opted for the soft method. “He could have launched a much more aggressive movement vis-à-vis Twitter. By only taking 9.2%, he shows that he is seeking to establish a dialogue with management” indicates Jean-Christophe Liaubet. The popularity of the character finally increases the aura of the society. “Everyone wants to work with him, Twitter will find it easier to attract sought-after talent to carry out innovative projects”, underlines Alexandre Baradez of IG France. After the announcement of Elon Musk’s stake, the company’s rating also climbed spectacularly on Monday (+27%).