Elon Musk tweeted this weekend that he is “giving serious thought” to building his own social media platform.
“Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy,” the billionaire serial entrepreneur who is CEO of Tesla and Space X tweeted. “What should be done?”
If your blood pressure spiked reading these tweets, you’re not alone. But let’s take a deep breath. We probably won’t see an app called DogeSociælX any time soon.
Musk has a history of tweeting absurd memes, thoughts and even material information about Tesla, then feigning shock when U.S. regulators react with more than a raised eyebrow. However, when it comes to Musk actually following through on his wacky Twitter ideas, his track record isn’t great.
This isn’t the first time that Musk has fantasized publicly about his dreams of being the next Jack Dorsey (though maybe he’s closer to a Zuck?).
After journalists criticized Musk for his questionable Tesla management choices in 2018, he vowed to launch a website called Pravda, the Russian word for “truth,” which is also the name of an historic Russian communist newspaper. Musk’s website would allow the public to rate journalists, editors and media outlets on their “core truth” and “credibility scores.” Thankfully, this idea did not come to fruition, but as all journalists know, Twitter already functions very well as a vehicle to make you aware when people don’t agree with you.
When Musk’s Twitter-borne ideas do get off the ground, they have traditionally fallen far short of becoming the next SpaceX.
Also in 2018 — a big year for his antics — Musk announced his “new intergalactic media empire,” a comedy company called Thud (punctuated with an optional exclamation point). After Elon Musk was tapped to host SNL last year, I embarked on a Sisyphean journalistic task: I contacted all 13 former employees of Thud, Musk’s forgotten foray into comedy media.
No one was willing to talk to me on the record. Powered by former editors of The Onion, Thud flopped, and was then reduced to a conversation starter on a resume (former Theranos employees can relate). It’s no wonder that these writers and designers didn’t want to revisit Thud, which its minimalist website now calls “short-lived” and “aptly named.”
Initially, Musk funneled $2 million into Thud, but he left the company abruptly, leaving its editors with no plan to monetize the project.
“Making a swift transition from being a billionaire-backed project to an independent media company is… You know,” editor Cole Bolton told The Verge at the time.
Given his history of making outlandish statements online for the fun of it, there’s little need to panic about Musk’s sudden interest in creating a social media empire (this one isn’t even intergalactic!). Plus, even when there’s a big name behind a new platform, there’s no guarantee it’ll take off. Donald Trump’s own new app, Truth Social, may feel like it’s poised to become a mainstream 4chan, but weeks after launch, we’re still 976,985th on the waitlist. And once you’re admitted, the party doesn’t appear to be too exciting (unless you’re into “hot chicks golfing“).
Even if Musk were to develop his own social media platform, he wouldn’t have the same level of reach he has on Twitter. He boasts 79.4 million followers, landing him solidly in the top 10 most-followed users on the site, beaten out only by figures like Barack Obama and Justin Bieber. But unlike Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, Musk leverages his following to make Hitler jokes and compare Twitter’s new CEO Parag Agrawal to Joseph Stalin. Notably, as Musk complains that he is not allowed to speak freely, these foul tweets were not removed by the platform; he deleted his Hitler meme himself, and the dig at Agrawal is still up.
This isn’t a free speech issue; it’s just Musk’s distaste for any form of regulation. It’s doubtful that Musk’s nearly 80 million followers would migrate over to his theoretical new platform, but even if they did, the SEC could still hold Musk accountable for whatever insider information he shares.
Musk’s most powerful tool has always been Twitter, and like Trump, he doesn’t seem to gain anything by trying to start a new company that the SEC would still monitor anyway.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the threat posed by egomaniacal men in power who are wealthy enough to make their fever dreams realities.
After all, Musk seems to be a bit better at business than Trump. But sometimes, Musk’s outbursts on Twitter do nothing but create polarizing, charged dialogue, and we forget that even though Musk’s tweets can move markets, sometimes, they simply just fall with a thud.