Wanted: a CEO for Twitter

Vox populi, vox dei: Elon Musk, professional loudmouth, the world’s second richest man and — for now at least — Twitter’s chief executive, invoked the Latin phrase last month when polling the platform’s users over whether he should reinstate Donald Trump’s account. A slim majority voted in favour, and Musk bowed to their decision. Another week, and another Musk poll on consequential decisions for Twitter: should he step down as CEO? The people spoke, and 57.5 per cent agreed he should. He said on Tuesday he would honour the poll, in which 17.5mn people voted. It is the right decision — for Musk, for his businesses and for Twitter’s 238mn “monetizable” daily users.

For Musk, relinquishing some day-to-day control of Twitter would free up much-needed time for him to concentrate on the rest of his significant corporate portfolio. If the mercurial businessman can spend more time and attention on perfecting electric vehicles, commercial space flight and brain implants, and less on tweets, this is surely a net gain for humanity. 

SpaceX is preparing for its first orbital test launch of its Starship rocket system that Musk hopes could one day travel to Mars. Meanwhile, restive Tesla shareholders have already sued Musk over concerns that the company has enriched him to the tune of $56bn in share options at their expense. He has promised to spend more time on the electric car maker, which has suffered since he bought Twitter; its share price has plummeted 60 per cent since late October, when Musk closed his $44bn takeover. He sold another $3.6bn worth of his Tesla shares last week, the fourth tranche since he announced his Twitter bid in April.

That sale could be used to buy back some of Twitter debt (which has ballooned to $12.5bn since his takeover), easing the strain of interest payments on the company and protecting his equity investment. The self-styled “chief twit” is also trying to market equity in Twitter — another demand on his time and attention — hoping to achieve the same $54.20 per share that he paid to take the company private. Having publicly admitted that he overpaid for Twitter, asking others to do likewise is a tall order. But Musk should not be written off: he is after all one of the world’s most successful fundraisers. 

There is of course a risk for Twitter in replacing a capricious billionaire CEO with a CEO who must second-guess the whims of a capricious billionaire who remains its owner. Ideally, Musk will give his successor autonomy. But even if he does not (as seems likely), a new CEO will at least provide a buffer between Musk and Twitter’s employees and users. The former have been brutally reduced since he took over, while the latter have been subject to his tweets that flip-flop on company policy, his lamentable spats with journalists over free speech, and his amplification of conspiracy theories and hateful clickbait. All of this has spooked advertisers.

In truth, Musk indicated before last weekend’s poll that he would step down. On Tuesday, he confirmed this would be as soon as “I find someone foolish enough to take the job”. That is akin to Cinderella being promised she can go to the ball once all her chores are completed. Who would want to accept the poisoned chalice of being CEO of a company with significant financial woes, facing regulatory headwinds, working under a demanding owner who is also one of Twitter’s most prolific and popular users? The job spec, as laid out by Musk, is nothing if not a process of elimination: “You must like pain a lot. One catch: you have to invest your life savings in Twitter and it has been in the fast lane to bankruptcy since May. Still want the job?” Applications are now open.

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