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Elon Musk, lord of land of Twitter?

The feudal enterprise of the modern-day Twitterverse

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu

Elon Musk, lord of land of Twitter?
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Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter came only after six months of farcical drama. First, Twitter’s directors angrily rebuffed Musk’s hostile takeover bid, then begged and indeed sued him to follow through on it, then were forced to pack their bags when he sealed the deal. Musk took sole control of Twitter on Oct. 27, and the acquisition cemented his position as one of the world’s most powerful men.

Within days of assuming leadership, Musk announced sweeping changes to everything from the company’s philosophy and its leadership to its business model. This included thousands of layoffs and an $8 monthly charge for accounts wanting to retain the coveted verified blue-check status reserved for key influencers on the platform.

At first glance, these changes might look a lot like what one would expect for the takeover of a troubled company: The new CEO comes in and cleans house by firing failed leadership, shrinks the workforce to stop the company’s financial bleeding, and tries to create new revenue streams. However, Twitter is anything but a typical company, and Musk’s changes have implications much bigger even than the eye-popping $44 billion price tag of his acquisition would suggest.

Twitter resembles nothing so much as a great pre-modern feudal domain transposed into a techno-futurist key. Its users, far from representing a typical customer base, are actually the firm’s producers, generating by their activities the most precious resource of the digital age—attention—which Twitter then effectively sells, in place of the staple crops of an earlier economy. Like peasants on a medieval manor, these users have partial ownership rights—use rights—over the invisible yet immensely valuable terrain of digital real estate.

In return for their service, Twitter’s rulers provide its users with protection—against hackers and haters—although such protection is often crowd-sourced from users themselves, much as a medieval yeoman might grab his longbow to join in repelling an assault on the lord’s domain.

Musk, grasping the platform’s feudal logic, has sought to re-establish the rowdy yet transparent personal rule of a modern-day warrior baron fond of the joust and the hunt.

As a feudal domain, Twitter is less a business than a polity, so it is no surprise that the conflicts that have riven it in recent years have been political conflicts, as users and stakeholders have battled over rival visions of the good and clashing claims of justice. Twitter’s former leaders vaguely understood this, and tried to instill order by the means most familiar to them—the opaque, top-down, bureaucratic governance of the modern state. Musk, however, grasping the platform’s feudal logic, has sought to re-establish the rowdy yet transparent personal rule of a modern-day warrior baron fond of the joust and the hunt. Musk likes a bit of chaos.

Viewed from this standpoint, Musk’s recent changes make a great deal of sense. The lord of the manor does not need a board of directors, just a few loyal lieutenants. Nor does he need a vast army of clerks setting policy; the more direct his access to the denizens of his domain, the more effective his authority. And if there is going to be hierarchy and status on the manor, a class of knights and squires on sleek chargers, their shields embossed with blue check marks, well, then, the squirearchy should be expected to pay for this privilege.

The rules on such a domain will be far fewer, the jostling will be rowdier, but acts of insubordination and disrespect to the hierarchy will be punished quickly and severely. Just consider Musk’s announcement that users falsely impersonating influencers will be permanently suspended.

The difference, of course, is that no medieval manor had 400 million residents. And if chaos or unrest struck, it was unlikely to spread faster than the pace of a mule. Today, a viral Twitter controversy can spread around the globe at literally the speed of light. Musk’s $44 billion bet is that by replacing a bloated and bureaucratic governance structure with something leaner, meaner, and more personal, he can unlock Twitter’s remarkable financial potential.

He’s betting Twitter can serve as a vibrant virtual commonwealth that helps hold accountable the politics of each of our real-world commonwealths around the globe—without allowing the platform to be overrun by the 21st-century equivalent of marauding Vikings. Let’s hope he succeeds. With everyone from Justin Bieber to the world’s leading heads of state relying on Twitter’s attention economy to shape public discourse, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute. He also works as a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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