Elon Musk has long said he didn’t want to buy Twitter.
In July 2022, three months into his $44bn takeover attempt, he got his lawyers to draft a letter trying to wriggle out of the deal. Twitter, by then was well on the way to preparing for life under Musk’s rule, took the entrepreneur to court, compelling him to go through with his daring purchase.
But in a hastily-arranged livestreamed interview with the BBC this week, where Musk ran roughshod by ignoring questions and playing to his 134 million-strong following on the platform, Musk reiterated that he wouldn’t have gone through with the deal had he not been forced to by the likelihood of losing in court.
Running Twitter has been “quite painful”, Musk admitted, and “really quite a stressful situation over the last several months”. The entrepreneur said he will sometimes sleep in the company’s offices to try and keep the site going, and has struggled to maintain standards while cutting staffing levels from 8,000 when he took over to around 1,500 now.
The entrepreneur was quick to downplay issues with the site, which have seen users unable to tweet at critical moments, and the incorrect displaying of content, as temporary problems that were quickly solved when they arrived. The site was currently working fine, he said, not entirely convincingly.
Musk even admitted to being sold a pup, responding to questions about claims he made in December that he would step down as Twitter CEO once he found a suitable replacement by saying that his dog was now leading Twitter.
It was an interview that demonstrated the challenges ahead Musk faces. Musk seemed burdened with the responsibility of running a platform just one year ago he called the “de facto public town square” – which begs the question of what happens next?
“We saw a more human side [to Musk],” said Bruce Daisley, a former Twitter executive in Europe who left the company long before Musk’s takeover bid was launched. Musk was also “more fallible,” Daisley said, admitting that he bought the company because he was essentially compelled to by court, but was “still as inconsistent as ever”.
Given all that, there is an uphill battle to turn the site around, reckons Dan Ives, managing director and senior equity analyst at Wedbush Securities.
“Musk at this point holds the bag with Twitter, with a valuation we believe is closer to a $15 billion number compared to the $44bn purchase price,” he said. “It’s buyer’s remorse, but now Musk must try to turn around this troubled asset which is starting to happen with cashflow breakeven on the horizon.” (Musk claimed, without evidence, in the interview with the BBC that Twitter is “roughly breaking even” after advertisers that deserted the platform early in his tenure are now returning.)
Ives believes that the travails involved in running Twitter are still worth it for the entrepreneur. “Although Musk complains about Twitter, it’s become a pet project for him and gives him a loud voice at the global table which he likes,” he said.
Still, there doesn’t appear to be a grand plan for how to get Twitter back onto an even keel. Musk chose to duck difficult questions about the rise of hate speech on the platform and glitches with the underlying computer code – which most recently leaked messages meant to be sent to a select circle of users into random users’ feeds. He reversed his strongman approach to calling the BBC a state-funded broadcaster in the face of evidence that it isn’t, indicating quite how quickly he bends in the wind of criticism.
A year on from first appearing over the horizon as Twitter’s suitor, Musk appears as disorganised as ever – all while Twitter continues to drift into ever more choppy waters.
His takeover was always described as more chaos than theory. But with scrutiny of the social media platform more stringent than ever given the direction it has taken, and the central role it plays in our society, the stress is beginning to show. If Musk thought that running a big tech platform would be fun, he’s quickly realising that’s far from the truth.
And worst, he appears stuck with it. We should expect “months more indecision and flip flopping,” said Daisley. “No one wants to buy it off him. He’s stuck with it.”
“It’s been quite a rollercoaster,” Musk admitted to the BBC in the late-night interview this week. Whether he can steer the cart safely into the station – or comes crashing off the rails – is an outcome that is still, only just, in his hands.