Terminal Main Character Syndrome

Elon Musk is obsessed with Twitter. Why?
Illustration by Ben Ruby

What does Elon Musk want?

Today, it seems, the richest man in the world and the CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX wants to own Twitter. On Thursday, Musk filed paperwork with the SEC to buy the social network where he posts constantly to millions of fans for $43 billion. The surprise move comes after Musk bought 9.2 percent of the company, becoming its largest shareholder, and announced he would be joining the company's board, before doing a 180. CEO Parag Agrawal said the course reversal was "for the best."


One might argue that Musk should simply focus on his other, generally serious pursuits such as colonizing Mars, creating a space-based internet service, selling electric cars, implementing driverless car technology, and greening the electrical grid. Or that, if he's bored, he could even focus on his second-order, more dubious interests, like building giant tunnels, inventing brain implants, developing/protecting us from superintelligent AI, creating the hyperloop, or making an electric private jet. But Musk's obsession of the last few months is Twitter, a space best known for documenting breaking news and mental breakdowns. 

But Twitter isn't a new obsession for Musk, and, like many others who are chronically online, seems to have a psychological hold over him. Twitter has been crucially important for Musk in ways both good and bad. Twitter is where Musk met Grimes, his ex-wife and the mother of two of his children. His tweets spur endless news cycles and move the stock market, no matter their inanity. They have gotten him sued, and sanctioned by regulators, and they’ve also helped him bolster his status as a modern-day capitalist hero among his fans: a billionaire, a memelord and shitposter, and someone who can leverage the platform to harass his enemies, naysayers, and short-sellers. 


Since Trump was banned by Twitter, Musk often seems to be its most powerful and polarizing user; its main character in perpetuity. 

The odd thing is that Musk doesn't seem to like Twitter very much, despite having 8 million followers, and despite all the time he spends there. His SEC filing contains an email to Twitter board chairman Bret Taylor in which he says that "the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company." After he announced his 9.2 percent stake, Musk tweeted that Twitter would get an edit button, a hypothetical change that has long been contentious among Twitter users because it would defeat the site's purpose as a live record of what people—powerful or not—are saying. 

One can think of a few reasons why Musk thinks Twitter needs to change dramatically, and in particular have an edit button. A big one is his own Twitter use, which has gotten him into trouble in the past and long attracted criticism from other users. 

In one infamous example, Musk tweeted that he was "considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured," which prompted an SEC fraud charge that Musk eventually settled. Another tweet, in which he called a British caver who helped rescue trapped Thai schoolboys "pedo guy" after he criticized Musk's self-insert into the operation as a "PR stunt," landed Musk in court although he eventually won that defamation suit. 


Although Musk has self-styled as a defender of free speech as of late, he has often aired his complaints with journalists and the media, in particular when it comes to critical coverage of his companies. He once floated a plan to start a new website to "track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication" to be called Pravda, but that plan didn't work out. "Tried to buy, but Russia said no. Turns out they already use it," he tweeted at the time, seemingly unaware that is in fact owned by a Ukrainian news outlet, correcting himself shortly after. 

It's an idea that Musk hasn't let go. "Fake news purveyors would have hysterics, but a ratings system would improve quality of news greatly," he tweeted on April 9, in a thread where he posted a chart showing people's reported trust in media outlets based on their political leanings.

So what does Musk want? And what is this all about? 

It's easy to imagine a world in which Musk buys Twitter and simply shuts it down or makes it unrecognizable in some way, a less litigious tactic than Peter Thiel used to destroy Gawker. Fellow billionaire Mark Cuban has already referenced the idea of Thiel and Musk teaming up. Musk could buy Twitter, declare it a free-speech zone, and become a warrior against "cancel culture" and the woke liberal media. Or maybe Twitter putters on more-or-less as usual, but with greater protections for corporations including Musk's, which are often the subject of intense criticism. Perhaps Musk will earnestly try to run Twitter, a company that has many well-documented problems, and tries to make it better with a staff that is seemingly very concerned about any involvement from him. 

Just as likely is the possibility that this whole thing is a troll and he has no intention of buying Twitter at all. Musk hasn't yet secured funding, according to the SEC filing, and the offer is non-binding. The announcement sent the stock price up, which benefits Musk, who is already the company's largest shareholder. 

Musk is often said to be a real-life superhero similar to Iron Man, and his superpower is directing vast amounts of capital to make his whims a reality. Some of them are successful, while some of them are absurd farces. Either way, we’re all along for the ride whether we like it or not.