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Musk’s Board-Seat Tweet Needed an Edit Button

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Tesla Inc. will be added to the S&P 500 Index in one shot on Dec. 21, a move that will ripple through the entire market as money managers adjust their portfolios to make room for shares of the $538 billion company.
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Tesla Inc. will be added to the S&P 500 Index in one shot on Dec. 21, a move that will ripple through the entire market as money managers adjust their portfolios to make room for shares of the $538 billion company. (Bloomberg)

Oops. Looks like Elon Musk isn’t joining Twitter Inc.’s board after all. Less than a week after Chief Executive Officer Parag Agrawal excitedly tweeted that the world’s richest man would get a seat, he’s now been forced to backpedal after saying Musk declined the offer. 

Musk was supposed to take up his post on Saturday, Agrawal wrote in a memo subsequently posted on Twitter, but instead “Elon shared that same morning that he will no longer be joining the board. I believe this is for the best.” Musk later tweeted a single “hand on mouth” emoji, as if to imply a cheeky “Haha, I misspoke,” before deleting the tweet.

It says a lot about the relationship between Musk, Agrawal and the board — and the overall dysfunction therein — that we can go from him being a mere Twitter user, to largest shareholder, to board member, to non-board member in barely a week. But this also shows us that people make mistakes and can change their mind. Many Twitter users would love that same luxury — in the form of an edit button.

But all is not lost. The mere thought that Twitter’s most high-profile user would help run the company, and improve the product, got everyone talking. News just a day before that he’d amassed a 9.2% stake to become its largest shareholder drove the stock up 27%. Sure, there were numerous reasons for concern, including buying up shares while also having discussions about active involvement. With a board seat off the table, investors will be left speculating — and eagerly watching @elonmusk — for hints as to whether he’ll hold onto that stake, raise it or cut it.

Also befuddling was the joy expressed by Agrawal and founder Jack Dorsey that Musk was joining the board after he’d bought a stake — when in fact they could have invited him anytime without waiting for the Tesla Inc. and SpaceX chief to purchase a $2.8 billion ticket. I pondered this fact in a Tweet last week, to which Dorsey himself replied that this was something he’d wanted for a long time.

Yet, in quick succession, Musk shared some of his thoughts on what the company can and should do to boost engagement and revenue — better perks for paid users, stamp out crypto bots, and, of course, add an edit button. And that’s where Musk’s influence and intellect comes to bear. 

His value to Twitter won’t be in raising the company’s share price but in boosting its revenue and earnings. As Stratechery’s Ben Thompson noted, Musk made more money from his Twitter trade than the social network earned in the past three years. That’s not a tough feat: Net income (and losses) come to just $159 million over the period.

In truth, Musk’s clout comes from being the most powerful man on Twitter. And in the age of influencers and social media, throwing shade at the platform from outside may end up being more useful than becoming an insider and playing by the myriad corporate governance rules that would be applicable — we can only guess how compliant he might be.

Of all the things Musk has said on Twitter this past week — and he can get very chatty — one Tweet stands out. He pointed out that the service’s most popular users — Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry — barely even Tweet.

So perhaps the first thing Agrawal and his board should do is to reach out to each of them and ask why, and find out what can be done to rectify the problem. In some respects, getting Musk on the board is preaching to the choir, but convincing the former president and two of the world’s biggest pop stars to use the platform just once a week would go a long way in proving that Twitter isn’t dying.

And if Musk truly loves the platform, as he seems to, then he can lend his weight as an external ambassador, product consultant and professional polemic. He likely has the ear of every board member anyway, so he needn’t sit among them to be heard. Holding one share, or 73 million, or none, Musk is both a power-user and a major influencer.

The upside for Twitter, and the 217 million users not named Elon Musk, is that they won’t then need to act on his every whim and whimper. Perhaps the world’s famous tweeter won’t be a board member after all, but that doesn’t mean he’s going away.

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

• How Will Elon Musk Change Twitter?: Timothy L. O’Brien

• What the Modi Twitter Breach Tells Us About Hackers: Tim Culpan

• Jack Dorsey Must Come to the Rescue of Music: Lionel Laurent

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Based in Taipei, he writes about Asian and global businesses and trends. He previously covered the beat at Bloomberg News.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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