Of course, Musk has more urgent business to attend to after he finally closed the rocky $44 billion Twitter deal this week. For starters, the billionaire needs to install a new C-suite, after Musk immediately fired Twitter’s CEO, CFO, top policy exec and general counsel.
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He’s also wrestling with major concerns that he’ll allow Twitter to devolve into a fetid swamp of right-wing misinformation and hate speech — and the question of whether Donald Trump will rear his head on Twitter again. Musk has alleged Twitter censors conservatives and has waved the banner of “free speech” principles. But for all his chest-thumping, Musk would be foolish to do anything that would destroy the value of the (overpriced) company he just bought by putting Twitter’s primary revenue stream in jeopardy.
GM has already said it will “pause” ad spending on Twitter as the auto-maker waits to see what happens under the Musk regime. Musk, aware of the perception problem, promised advertisers in an open letter that Twitter won’t become “a free-for-all hellscape.” He followed that up Friday by claiming the company will form a content-moderation council with “widely diverse viewpoints” and that Twitter won’t enact major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before then. Musk underscored the point later in the day: “To be super clear, we have not yet made any changes to Twitter’s content moderation policies.”
To be super clear, we have not yet made any changes to Twitter’s content moderation policies https://t.co/k4guTsXOIu
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 29, 2022
Beyond these front-burner issues, what else will Musk do with Twitter? Short-form video clearly should be on the road map.
Indeed, Musk has already suggested Twitter needs to embrace TikTok-style functionality. TikTok’s rapid ascent — it has somewhere around 1.6 billion monthly active users, according to estimates by research firm data.ai — has prompted Meta and YouTube to roll out copycats. During a Q&A with Twitter employees in June, Musk said it was key that Twitter users not see “boring” content and he opined that TikTok does a great job of keeping people “entertained.”
Twitter bought startup Vine in 2012, and it quickly became a hit after it debuted in 2013. But the social network never figured out to make money on the format and shut it down in January 2017. Twitter was facing other capital-intensive demands, namely the need to invest in making its core platform and ad-serving infrastructure more robust while also bulking up content-moderation operations. At the same time, Twitter has long wrestled with high stock-compensation costs, which have burned a big hole in its cash flows and weighed on its bottom line for years. (For the first six months of 2022, Twitter reported $459 million in stock-based comp expense.)
As owner of the newly private Twitter, Musk can invest in a Vine-like product without concern about the implications for stock price or market cap from the impact of such an investment on quarterly earnings. That said, a notable challenge Musk will have in running Twitter as a private company is attracting and retaining Silicon Valley talent without the lure of stock options, as the New York Times’ Kate Conger pointed out. Plus, he’ll need to pay back the $13 billion in debt financing he raised to swing the Twitter buyout.
Whereas Vine never developed a way to generate revenue, today there’s a proven ad model for short-form video, with interstitial ads running between a vertical (endless!) feed. At Meta, Reels across Facebook and Instagram now represents a $3 billion annual revenue run rate, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told investors this week. YouTube just officially began selling Shorts ads in September and plans to intro a creator revenue-sharing program in 2023 (offering a 45% share, versus 55%.
Vine’s popularity endured even after its death, and today thousands of Vine-video compilations remain on YouTube. The six-second app gave a crop of rising digital creators their start, including Shawn Mendes, Lele Pons, King Bach, Nash Grier, Cameron Dallas, Rudy Mancuso, Brittany Furlan and (love him or hate him) Logan Paul. Not all of them have gone on to bigger and better things but Vine undoubtedly had as much star-making power as YouTube.
In the throes of Trump’s threats to ban TikTok in 2020 over its Chinese ownership, TikTok and Twitter had reportedly explored a potential merger. That shotgun wedding, of course, never happened. But you wonder what such a mashup would have looked like.
Yes, there’s a built-in resistance among many users whenever apps introduce adjacent features. For example, not everyone is a fan of Instagram Reels, including celeb sisters Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner. What Twitter’s push into short-form entertainment looks like remains to be seen, but Musk has plenty of evidence that it’s a place the Twitterverse needs to go.
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