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Elon Musk, Twitter and the Attention Economy

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Elon Musk wants to buy Twitter for $44 billion and Twitter’s board is going along with it.

It’s a remarkable move for the 50-year-old Musk, the rare CEO who already has his hands full running both Tesla Inc. and SpaceX, as well as the Boring Company and Neuralink.

Musk is a bona fide cultural icon, one who spent two decades steeped in Los Angeles celebrity culture before moving to Texas, where his empire is ever expanding. He is seemingly everywhere: guest hosting Saturday Night Live, speaking at the TED conference in Vancouver, rubbing shoulders with world leaders.

His favorite platform, of course, is Twitter, where he’s amassed roughly 90 million followers. Several employees at his companies have told me they follow him on the platform as it’s the quickest way to find out about business decisions or where his private plane is headed. Musk’s Twitter account is part of how Tesla disseminates information, a point the electric automaker regularly makes in regulatory filings.

Twitter has about 229 million monetizable daily active users, the vast majority of whom live outside of the United States. Twitter said that its first quarter growth and increased usage was largely “due to the war in Ukraine as people turned to Twitter to organize, share news, find sources of support and stay connected.”

In an attention economy, much of our value as consumers is measured by the time we spend on the site — liking memes, signal boosting information, clicking on links. During times of crisis and fast-moving world events, it’s an invaluable resource.

Over 90% of Twitter’s revenue comes from advertising. Tesla doesn’t spend any money on traditional advertising. The Austin, Texas-based company does spend on marketing — lavish parties for customers and fans, like the recent Cyber Rodeo, do an enormous amount to spread the brand. User generated content — photos from the parties, fan videos on YouTube, a constant stream of Tesla chatter on Twitter — does the rest.

Assuming Musk can complete the ‘funding secured’ part of the deal, he’s poised to buy the platform where he’s a Super User. Musk says that Twitter will always be free for casual users, but there might be a “slight cost” for commercial and government users. So will Tesla have to start paying for its corporate tweets?

Musk also wants to grow Twitter’s user base. If he gets his wish, then more of us will be paying attention to him and his companies.

“Right now, it’s sort of niche,” Musk said of Twitter on Monday night at the Met Gala. “I want a much bigger percentage of the country to be on it, engaging in dialogue.”

There was a period when President Donald Trump was the loudest voice on Twitter. News organizations hung on his every word, and his tweets had the ability to move markets. Journalists struggled over what was actual news and what was just Trump being Trump. If the President tweets, is it automatically worthy of coverage? If Elon Musk makes a joke about buying Coca-Cola and cocaine, does that merit a news story? (Alas, several news organizations, including Bloomberg, wrote about it).

In Trump’s absence, Musk is the one that we all seem to be paying attention to. The richest man on the planet, the guy who builds electric cars and lands reusable rockets and flies astronauts to the International Space Station, is now planning to buy a social media platform. And nearly everyone who uses Twitter has feelings about him getting the keys to the kingdom.

I love Twitter, mostly for the climate scientists, activists, epidemiologists and scholars who have expertise. I’ll leave you with one thought from Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University who is an expert on fascism, authoritarianism, war, propaganda and Donald Trump.

“Advice from a historian of propaganda: Don’t fall for it! Musk is filling a space Trump used to occupy,” tweeted Ben-Ghiat. “His role/job is diff, but creation of more strife/garbage & swirling attention around himself, getting you to waste your time reacting to his ignorant opinions, is the same.”

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