Incoming Twitter overlord Elon Musk believes that the service he plans to buy for $44 billion should open-source its algorithm. Good! Even if most of us aren’t in a position to assess how Twitter thinks for ourselves—even if the computer scientists at the company may not fully understand what they have wrought—transparency is better than secrecy when it comes to a critical piece of modern infrastructure like Twitter.
But here’s what I’d also like: a little more transparency from the endlessly intricate and ambitious human algorithm known as Elon Musk.
For now, lots of people are confidently declaring what Twitter will be like in the age of Musk. Whether their takes are upbeat, dystopian, or just plain “meh,” they’re all jumping the gun, because Musk has not spelled out his game plan in any substantive way. The exultant free speech advocates might end up disappointed; the gloom-and-doomers could find themselves pleasantly surprised, or at least grudgingly accepting of what he does with the service. And those who have predicted that nothing much will change could be forced to eat their tweets.
In a perfect world, it would be possible to divine an incoming Twitter CEO’s strategy and tactics from that person’s own tweets. Prolific though he is on the service, Musk doesn’t provide that much to work with. While he recently voiced support for long-form tweeting, he doesn’t seem to need it himself; actually, his own tweets tend to be terse, be they inspiring, newsy, or childish. On Monday, when he did tweet an image of his official 81-word statement about the future of Twitter, it consisted of platitudes about free speech and Twitter’s potential, accompanied by a few points he’d already outlined: opening up the algorithm, verifying human members, and stomping out bots.
????????♥️ Yesss!!! ♥️???????? pic.twitter.com/0T9HzUHuh6
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
But it’s not just on Twitter where Musk isn’t too forthcoming about his vision for the service. On April 14, shortly after he announced his bid for the company, he sat for an interview at the TED conference and didn’t provide a significantly meatier account of what he’d like to do with the company.
It’s not that Musk hasn’t said anything—just that he’s usually painted with the same broad brush strokes. That’s easy to do when you’re just another Twitter user letting off steam (albeit one with 84.6 million followers). But unless this story takes yet another unexpected turn, he’s about to be in a position to actually mold the service as he sees fit. The devil will be in the details.
For example, Musk has declared himself to be a free speech absolutist. If he’s truly an absolutist about being an absolutist, that might make for a Twitter where hate speech isn’t seen as a problem to be solved and misinformation is allowed to careen around the world without guardrails. On the other hand, if he actually thinks that certain limitations on what’s permissible should remain in place, it would be reassuring to know what they are.
If he hasn’t done this because he hasn’t fully thought through the implications, he’d just be repeating Twitter history. Back in 2018, my colleague Austin Carr and I wrote a Fast Company cover story on Twitter’s safety woes at the time. It included a quote from an anonymous former Twitter executive that Musk pessimists may find haunting, given his tendency to pay tribute to free speech without getting into the weeds: “Twitter became so convinced of the virtue of its commitment to free speech that the leadership utterly misunderstood how it was being hijacked and weaponized.”
Maybe Musk doesn’t care what anyone thinks, and therefore has little incentive to explain himself.
Now, it’s possible that Musk hasn’t gotten into many specifics about where Twitter should go because he believes that he needs to assemble a new executive team and give it time to assess the situation before making any rash decisions. There’s another possibility, though: Maybe Musk, who plans to take Twitter private, doesn’t care what anyone thinks, and therefore has little incentive to explain himself. Little about his career in business has suggested he worries much about securing the approval of others. While that has deeply problematic repercussions, I don’t mean it as unalloyed criticism: If he did, he probably wouldn’t have tackled improbable challenges such as making electric cars great and privatizing space exploration, and the world would be worse off for it.
Still, even Musk might conclude that it’s in his best interest to be more forthcoming with Twitter’s 217 million daily active users. During that TED interview, he declared that ensuring that Twitter is “maximally trusted . . . is extremely important to the future of civilization.” He could be right. And without transparency, there can be no trust—whether you’re talking about a computer algorithm or the intentions of the Twitter user who cared so much about the service that he bought the company.