Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
"You break it, you own it" goes the phrase, but as with most things, Elon Musk wants to turn that on its head. The one-man conglomerate finally owns Twitter — was wed to it in late October after a springtime betrothal and summertime fit of cold feet — so he's breaking it now.
In order to grow it back stronger? The consensus says no. The consensus is that rather than seeking a balance between free and oppressive expression, Musk has simply laid back down the welcome mat for liars, fools and tools, and that instead of leveraging the company's talent, he's discarded it — making Twitter a cogless mass of sprockets spinning apart.
One counterpoint comes from the Editorial Board of the Chicago Tribune, which wrote in an opinion republished on our website that Musk inherited an unholy mess and "deserves some time to figure out a plan."
That was about two weeks ago. Long enough?
We actually have an affinity for the Tribune view in principle. Knee-jerk naysaying is an easy vein, and Musk does have a track record of making things happen at the several companies he runs, despite often representing them in the manner of a man-child.
But we concur with the consensus view. Musk's brief — and perhaps transient — hands-on stewardship of Twitter has been an improvisational muddle. See-what-sticks may work on a small scale, but it's irresponsible with so many people along for the ride.
We worry that Twitter won't keep a lid on misinformation, hate and harassment. Musk says Twitter can't be a "hellscape," but he undermined his commitment by firing those who take the hell out of the scape. He's reinstated the accounts of past offenders. And he bungled an effort to monetize user verification. Fake accounts proliferated.
We worry that Musk isn't as committed to free speech overseas, where the platform is vital to dissidents of authoritarian governments.
Also, the self-titled "chief twit" appears to be using controversy to fuel his game. As with impulsiveness, it's a leadership characteristic the world has seen enough of.
Before Musk chuckled into Twitter headquarters Oct. 26 lugging a literal ceramic sink for effect, the company was working on ways to be better. The new guy has ditched them, along with more than half of the employees. He promised that working there would be dreadful for those with the guts to remain. (His word was "hardcore.") Eventually he asked to be schooled on Twitter's "tech stack" in a belated attempt to "understand."
Here we tap the long-late British writer G.K. Chesterton, a pre-Twitterian pithicist:
"There exists … let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.' To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.' "
We still detect some of you wondering "so what?" — and it's a fair question when you know that just more than a fifth of Americans use Twitter and that a quarter of those post most of the tweets.
Well, you may not have Twitter, but Twitter has you. Its influence on politics and culture is undeniable. It punches above its weight among social media competitors. It encompasses both the public and personal. It has vital purposes, too — witness concern about Musk's impact on emergency management. It has wars and revolutions under its belt.
That people see the platform mostly as a place for petty provocation says as much about people as it does about Twitter.
In the new era, a number of users have left or declared that they're leaving Twitter, making sure to be conspicuous about it — on Twitter. Perhaps more important to Musk's investment equation, advertisers are withdrawing.
But a central posting place, whether people visit directly or merely hear about what's gone down, is of use to society and worth sticking around to defend. Over the years, TV, radio and — close to our hearts — newspapers have served the role. None has exactly vanished, but social media owns the moment. The rest of us monitor it, cite it and use it for leverage in promoting original work.
This gives Musk the thrill of agency. His purchase does look like the vanity project many feared it would be. But he's carrying a world in that ceramic sink, all while asking after the edge of a cliff. We hope that at some point he ascertains rock-bottom and recoils.