Elon Musk Is Realizing He Should Have Bought TikTok
January 15, 2024

Elon Musk Is Realizing He Should Have Bought TikTok

Elon Musk’s original sin with Twitter is that he forgot how expensive an ideological conquest can be. When Musk first agreed to buy the company for $44 billion back in the spring of 2022, he professed that he did not “care about the economics at all.” But he pivoted to caring about them very quickly—so quickly that he was trying to back out of the deal by that summer. Ever since Twitter’s old board of directors forced him to close that fall, Musk has been in a push-and-pull between two areas of his brain: One part has told him to save Twitter from the woke mind virus and protect free speech for all mankind (or whatever). The other part remembers that he spent 44 billion dollars on something that wasn’t worth that in the first place and has shrunk in valuation by roughly two-thirds as he has flailed around.

That’s how Twitter has gone from “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated” (Musk’s words when he first made the deal) to X, “now a video-first platform,” apparently, as the company explicitly describes itself as of this week. These two things are in direct conflict, as videos are not a nexus for high-minded Lincoln-Douglas discussion on the future of humanity. Video is an engagement fire hose that people try to drink from, which is why the most valuable social media companies right now are either already short-form vertical video apps or trying to become them (TikTok, Instagram via Reels, YouTube via Shorts). Twitter was never one of those companies in either character or valuation, but Musk bought it anyway because he wanted to get retweets for his weed jokes and conservative edgelording. He ended up paying for a communication platform for elites, one that conferred a lot of status but not a relative ton of money. And he has decided it should now be TikTok, but worse, so that maybe he can make some money back.

Musk has been gesturing in this direction for quite a while. It had become apparent to him, even before he closed the deal, that Twitter would need to transform in order to justify a price tag that he acknowledged was an overpayment. Twitter, for all its prior problems, really was a good place to argue on the internet. But the debates those limited-character missives created also weren’t addictive in the ways that juice engagement and make social media companies valuable. It wasn’t that hard for people—not Twitter’s relatively few power users, but normal people—to read a few tweets, then put the phone down. So Musk tried to make it harder, first by emphasizing an algorithmic For You feed that served people posts the app thought they’d want to see instead of the ones they literally signed up to see. That feed has gotten much sharper over the past year, but it still has limitations: It dilutes Twitter’s real-time component, a big shortcoming for sports and news. And it is still based mostly on text, a format that fundamentally has a harder time gripping our eyeballs than video.

So Musk made Twitter into a video app. The company’s old management was already moving in this direction, unveiling “immersive” viewing that turned a user’s screen into a scrollable stream of videos if they clicked on one. That was in late 2022. Now the platform’s algorithmic offerings serve up tons of videos, at least in the experience of everyone I know, as Musk’s company throws out as much chum as possible in the hopes that we’ll click ourselves into a trance. It’s taken the site quite a distance away from being a place interested in the highest ideals of free speech, debate, and an informed citizenry. I mean, everyone’s algorithmic feed is different, but I feel reasonably confident that the videos making it onto most people’s feeds are not, like, sober analyses of legislation and foreign policy. I follow lots of political news on Twitter, and as I scrolled while typing this paragraph, the only newsy video I got was a CNN breakdown of Aaron Rodgers’ falsely insinuating that Jimmy Kimmel would turn up as an associate of Jeffrey Epstein’s.

In other words, X’s pivot to video does not seem to be focused on substantive argument or even hard news. In fact, just about everything Musk has done with the company has made it a worse place to get accurate information on important things and debate those topics with others, from the blue-check-mark debacle to the changes to the algorithmic feed. My theory of why Musk recently removed headlines from links (a hostile choice that he has since jankily reverted) is that he wanted to make links look like not links, so that people wouldn’t click on them and be taken away from the platform.

None of this had to happen. No one wanted Twitter stripped down to a dilapidated Instagram Reels feed. It happened only because Musk was lying when he claimed he didn’t care about the economics. Twitter always lacked a path to being worth anything near what Instagram or TikTok was worth. Twitter was simply great at one thing: short text blasts that arrived in perfectly curated feeds exactly when people sent them. There was value in that—not $44 billion of value, but people liked it.

Nothing will solve the core problem with X at this point: Musk simply dramatically overpaid for something and decided only later that he cared about the bottom line. The outcome is turning the site into something that is not only not profitable but also not well liked or, apparently, widely used. I think he’ll eventually let the platform die or sell it for parts, as long as he finds a face-saving way to explain that he’s doing it for the good of humanity. Until then, X will try to be the viral video app that almost no one asked for and even fewer people need.

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