The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Elon Musk wanted to go to Mars. Now he’s distracted by blue check marks.

Elon Musk at the SpaceX Starbase in Brownsville, Tex., in August. 25. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Whatever Elon Musk thinks he’s trying to do with Twitter isn’t rocket science. Apparently, it’s much harder.

The powerful boosters made by Musk’s company SpaceX can propel humans and cargo into orbit and then, instead of tumbling chaotically to earth, land gracefully upright like a ballerina completing a jeté. But in trying to run a social media platform, Musk seems lost in space. That’s bad for Twitter users — and even worse for a world that could benefit from Musk’s undivided attention to tasks that really matter.

The planet’s wealthiest individual is doing other astounding things. His car company, Tesla, has revolutionized transportation by jump-starting the market for electric cars. The advances in battery technology he pushed his team to achieve made that leap possible.

The company’s work on batteries isn’t limited to cars: Tesla sells solar panels that look and act like shingles paired with batteries that can back up homes for days in case of prolonged power outages.

Not all of Musk’s moonshots are as close to reality. Like Post owner and fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, Musk believes we must and will send humans to colonize Mars. And Musk’s Neuralink corporation dreams of engineering an interface between computers and the human brain.

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And there are already signs that Musk is spreading himself too thin. His Boring Company staked a long-shot bet on super-high-speed transportation by whooshing vehicles through underground tubes. But the company just demolished a major California prototype.

It’s bad enough to think that the so-called Hyperloop was sacrificed to Musk’s other enthusiasms and distractions. But to give up the future for Twitter?

In the days since Musk took the platform private, his only innovation has been to set a new standard for zaniness and dysfunction in corporate governance.

If Musk gives the impression that he spent $44 billion to indulge an addictive, destructive hobby, he at least claims to have a higher purpose: to preserve “a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.”

Even if that’s true, Musk hasn’t much shown that he’s up to the task.

He’s lurched from grand pronouncements about free speech, to trying to placate advertisers, to pouting about big companies’ unwillingness to be associated with his chaos. Musk fired roughly half of Twitter’s workforce only to belatedly decide some of his ex-employees were critical to his plans. And his decision to tweet, then delete, a link to a vile and false conspiracy-theory narrative about the vicious hammer attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband, Paul, is not exactly a model for a sane public arena.

Adding to the challenges of Musk’s erratic personality is the debt he assumed to buy Twitter. His most significant move has been to monetize the site’s verification system. That’s a rational economic move, but one that cuts against his efforts to create a healthier forum for debate by opening the door to new kinds of impersonation and deception.

All these disasters have been almost as entertaining as they have been horrifying. Musk isn’t wrong that, when it’s firing on all cylinders, “Twitter is simply the most interesting place on the internet.”

But they also distract from a larger question about whether, even under the best conditions, trying to fulfill Musk’s highest aspirations for Twitter is the worthiest use of his time. Is a single, freewheeling debate forum meant to accommodate the sheer variety of opinion inevitable among billions of people useful, much less possible? And is it more useful than the things Musk has already demonstrated that he can pull off?

I may not like Musk’s libertarian bro schtick, and his management style looks simply appalling. But he has a track record of doing things that seemed impossible.

Tesla matters not merely because of the technical achievements involved in making the cars but because Musk managed to make a clean technology desirable. Given the dour, killjoy reputation the environmental movement is unfairly saddled with, that’s a generational achievement — and one that could prove a critical inflection point for big corporations and consumer behavior alike.

And if Musk is serious in his belief that humanity needs an escape hatch, why not focus exclusively on getting us to Mars? There are plenty of people working on fostering healthier civic spaces but only a very few running successful commercial space companies.

Abandoning the future of humanity for the sake of blue check marks is a comedown for Musk — and for the rest of us.