just asking questions

‘You Can’t Pin Him Down’

Kara Swisher knows Elon Musk and says judging him by tweets alone is a mistake.

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Elon Musk, the richest human on earth, purchased Twitter for $44 billion this week, promising to refine the product while loosening its guidelines in the name of “free speech.” The deal has yet to close, but, unsurprisingly, the idea of Musk suddenly becoming a media mogul has elicited strong reactions from just about everyone, including Twitter employees and the company’s founder. I asked Pivot co-host Kara Swisher about Musk’s long game, his naysayers, and Twitter’s profitability moving forward.

Why did Elon Musk buy Twitter? 

I think he sees it as an opportunity. I have not spoken to him about it, so I can’t say what his real motivation is. Twitter has underperformed since it went public, the product has underperformed, and the growth has underperformed compared to others. First, Facebook passed it by, then Snapchat and TikTok. It’s never really reached its potential. So I suspect he saw it as a business opportunity. If it works out, he could do really well, and he’s very good at working in industries that seem impossible — electric cars or changing the whole face of the rocket industry. It’s a challenging opportunity, just like those are challenging.

The second reason is basically he’s a big fan of the product. He has opinions about it. He’s someone who uses it both to market his products, whether it’s Tesla or rockets or whatever he’s doing, and as an escape valve for his personality. Sometimes it can be very cool. Sometimes it can be very funny. Sometimes it can be obnoxious and careless and really problematic. Sometimes he does things that violate SEC laws. He uses it really quite actively, not unlike Donald Trump. Although I don’t think he’s like Donald Trump. People like to equate him with Donald Trump. He’s not.

What is his version of Twitter?

I think he wants to change the business plan. Most or all of its revenue comes from advertising, and I think he wants to switch that around to be a subscription, which Twitter has tried but it’s never worked. He wants to try to figure out a way where people who disagree can argue, although he himself shuts people down, he has beefs with people, he hits low. He displays all the problems that we have on social media. I think that’ll be difficult. He wants to get rid of anonymous accounts, to clean up bots, which everyone’s tried to do. He wants to edit tweets, to innovate the product. Those are all good things. He wants to remove the gray area for content moderation and stick to the black-and-white areas. That’s going to be an issue as the world gets more complex. We’ll see if he has a new approach to it. I don’t know.

Other people do not agree that a free-for-all free-speech area is going to do very well given the history so far, but maybe he thinks he has a way of making it healthy. Jack Dorsey certainly tried. And so I think he thinks his version of it will be better. I don’t think it’s clear what his version is, but I don’t think it’s going to be just a free-for-all — that would be really problematic.

How important has Twitter been to Musk?

Just as important as it’s been for Donald Trump. It’s been critical. This is his medium of choice. He does interviews with people like me, he goes on TV, but this is his thing. Twitter is his jam.

He can be a real jerk on Twitter — his attacks on Bill Gates last week or the Elizabeth Warren thing where he called her Senator Karen. But she’s basically calling him a selfish demon. They’re both using the platform for their own advantage.

It’s when he gets into things like making fun of they/them — like, why? Why is he punching down? He’s a puncher-downer sometimes. It’s ridiculous, especially when he veers into areas that he just doesn’t need to. He thinks he’s funny on Twitter, but he’s not. I have kids that do that, by the way, so I am very familiar with that move, the Jackass humor.

You’ve spent time with him.

A lot. I’ve interviewed Elon a dozen times.

What do you see in him personally that other people don’t get from his Twitter feed?

What people don’t realize is that he’s quite complex and you can’t pin him down. Right now, the right wing is embracing him, and the left wing thinks he’s some kind of villain. You’d be surprised what he likes and doesn’t like, and you never know what it’s going to be. He liked some of Trump’s policies, for sure. But he doesn’t like Trump. I’ve heard him say not-so-nice things about Donald Trump as a person. At the same time, he doesn’t like Biden, who isn’t mentioning Tesla when he talks about electric cars. That’s kind of petty, but that’s why I think he got mad at him. He’s much more reasonable in person. And funny. You just never know where he’s going to come down on things, and that’s the issue. He’s not easily put in a box, and I think these days everybody wants to reduce people into partisan boxes where we can understand them. One of the reasons for that is Twitter. Twitter has made us all reductive cartoon characters, and this guy is not one. To reduce him down to that is a mistake.

He’s obviously a visionary. I prefer dealing with him to others because he gives you genuine answers. He will call you back. He will have a beef with you when others run away because they’re cowardly. If he disagrees, he’ll be in your face, but at least he’s in your face. I’m perfectly fine with that. In a world where everybody’s making a lot of silly stuff, he’s not. Cars, rockets, solar, these are important things. He can’t be as silly or as fascist as people make him out to be. Maybe he does act like a stupid tech bro sometimes, but maybe he’s a little more complex than that? Thomas Edison was not a nice man. Many inventors were very difficult, problematic people — Steve Jobs, for example. The times we live in are so reductive that it’s really hard to be able to get our minds around a truly complex human being. And that’s what he is.

Musk’s personality aside, what do you make of the doomsayers out there, people who are saying the richest man in the world shouldn’t just buy a powerful social-media platform on a whim? 

Well, one of Twitter’s big shareholders was Saudi Arabia. How do they feel about that? I don’t feel good about that, and I’ve written columns about it. Saudi Arabia’s got its thuggish hands around lots of companies in Silicon Valley. They’re murderers. You’re okay with that? You want to do a little roundup of who owns what? Media companies have always been owned by billionaires or very rich people. The Chandlers in Los Angeles, Colonel Robert McCormick in Chicago. I don’t like the concentration of power wherever it pops up in history. It’s always problematic, but it’s nothing new.

Let me just say, Twitter’s not that big. It’s only used by 20 percent of the U.S. population, which is small worldwide. Compared to Facebook, are you kidding? It’s nothing, and it’s not growing, not evolving, not innovating. The reason its power is outsize is because the media and politicians and loudmouths use it all the time and so it becomes seemingly more important than its actual impact.

Right, the “public square,” as Musk likes to say.

And I think he’s correct in saying that. But let’s be clear: It’s never been public. It’s always been owned by rich people capriciously, with its rules not enforced. You think it was a golden age of Twitter with the previous owners? It might do better as a private company, by the way. It’s gotten so partisan and ridiculous, from Marjorie Taylor Greene to AOC. You’re gonna get a lot of trouble when you throw a party with those people. There’s no way this company can’t avoid partisan trouble and hatred.

Senator Ed Markey said we need to protect “algorithmic justice” for children. What is he talking about?

The idea that algorithms are bent toward certain groups and hurt others. But Markey should be talking about all of them, not just Twitter. There should be transparency, but Musk is talking about that. I don’t know what Ed Markey’s problem is. Musk did say algorithms should be transparent. It might be bullshit, but he did say it.

Listen, Twitter is not run very well right now. I don’t know why everybody’s up in arms. They have rules they don’t enforce. It took forever to get Donald Trump off the platform after multiple problems. It’s not like the people who ran it before are any better at it.

One of the central criticisms of Jack Dorsey’s stewardship of Twitter was that he was never fully invested in the company because of Square. Won’t that problem just be magnified under Musk, who is CEO of three companies at last count?

That was a criticism as a public company CEO. So no, I don’t think it’s the same thing. The CEO has a duty to public shareholders. In this case, if banks are okay with it, then it’s fine. It’s not our business. He has a lot of other companies that he doesn’t run every day with competent executives.

Let’s be clear: He’s the one on the hook! This is a huge financial risk for Elon Musk. He’s putting his Tesla stock up for this. It’s a very big financial risk for him. Maybe he’ll get some partners so they can spread the risk around; I suspect he will. Maybe he’ll go public again someday.

Do you think he can make it profitable?

I don’t know. So far, nobody has really been able to, so it couldn’t hurt to have some fresh thinking, whether it’s Elon Musk or anybody else. Facebook’s really profitable. Snapchat’s doing great. TikTok is doing great. So someone can make it profitable. Maybe it will be him.

It sort of sounds like you’re optimistic about the future of Twitter? Or at the very least, not pessimistic.  

I think we should all wait and see and see what he does. He’s got problems in his other companies, including racial-harassment lawsuits, just like most businesses have something. But in general, he’s created some amazing products. That’s important. I don’t think that it’s in his interest to drive Twitter into a wall. That seems like a stupid thing for someone to do given all the financial risk he’s taking on.

Do you think there’s legitimacy to the concern that he’s going to take us back ten years in terms of moderation?

Moderation is not working right now. I don’t know where he’d take us back to. I think those people don’t know what they’re talking about. I think Twitter’s done a terrible job. They’ve tried. It’s not even like it’s not working; maybe it can’t be worked. That’s the problem. Are these systems architected incorrectly? Should there be a million Twitters where everybody gets to have various degrees of moderation? There’s also a business issue. Again, these are not public squares; these are private companies. I’m not sure that it’s the government’s role to solve these problems. The concentration of power among the very rich is really problematic, but guess who’s supposed to do something about that? The government. If Elizabeth Warren wants Elon Musk to pay more taxes, change the tax laws. He’s following the rules. Same thing with Facebook and the rest of them. If you don’t like that they’re stealing data or grabbing everyone’s data or leaving us unprotected, then pass some fucking laws that protect us, just like we do around water, cigarettes, or opiates. There’s been no laws governing the internet since it was created. Come on!

More on Elon Musk and Twitter

See All
Kara Swisher on Elon Musk: ‘You Can’t Pin Him Down’