If he is a man of his word, then Elon Musk will “step down as head of Twitter”, after 10 million users voted in favor of him ending his reign over the company he bought just 53 days ago.
But the pledge in his tweet accompanying the poll, apparently made as he relaxed after watching the World Cup final in Doha in the company of Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is sparse on details. Here’s what we know – and what we don’t – about what’s in store for Twitter:
Musk has had a bad week
Musk’s bad week started with his decision to act against an account that had been reporting the movements of his private jet, using a new rule written on the fly to suspend the account. He then suspended the accounts of some prominent journalists who reported on the furore, then banned any promotion of “third-party platforms”, after users began discussing where they would go when they left Twitter.
The moves caused instant pushback. Blocking people from leaving is hardly a sign of confidence in your ability to convince them to stay. Users pointed out that Musk himself had said in June that: “The acid test for any two competing… systems is which side needs to build a wall to keep people from escaping.”
Musk quickly U-turned on the journalism suspensions and third-party rule, and promised to put any future major changes to a poll of users. But the damage appears to have been done.
He’s been planning this for a while
The suggestion that Musk would step back didn’t come out of nowhere. “There’s an initial burst of activity needed post-acquisition to reorganise the company,” he told a Delaware court last month in testimony defending his $56bn pay package at Tesla. “But then I expect to reduce my time on Twitter.”
Despite that, he insisted he did not have a successor in mind, gnomically tweeting that “those who want power are the ones who least deserve it.” However, he has brought in close confidants to help him oversee Twitter, with venture capitalist allies Jason Calacanis and David Sacks each taking on semi-official roles. Both men have a long history of running large companies, with Sacks staying on as chief operating officer of PayPal after Musk was fired as its chief executive, and Calacanis building the blogging empire Weblogs Inc, before selling it to AOL.
He has experience as a hands-off owner
The open secret of Musk’s success is that he only really runs two of the three major companies of which he is chief executive. While employees of Twitter and Tesla describe him as fearsomely hands-on, at SpaceX the day-to-day operations are overseen by the president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell.
She joined in 2002, the same year Musk founded the company, and her job is still about carrying out his vision. These days that means reassuring Nasa that Musk isn’t going to wreck SpaceX in the process of torching Twitter.
Nasa administrator Bill Nelson told reporters last week that he asked Shotwell if Twitter would be a “distraction”, and she said it wouldn’t. “I hugged her with a smile on my face, because I know she is running that thing. She’s running SpaceX,” Nelson told reporters.
What does goodmanagement mean at Twitter?
The big question, though, is whether Twitter can be saved by a competent administrator like Shotwell – or if it’s too tied up in US culture wars to be quietly and soundly managed. Before Musk bought the company, Parag Agrawal was supposed to be exactly that sort of leader, promoted from the company’s engineering department to take over after Jack Dorsey left.
But in his short time at the top, Agrawal learned that running a social network brings you in to the political sphere, whether you like it or not.
Whoever replaces Musk will have to deal with the same problems. And with Musk still very much the owner, and still embroiled in political sparring, their freedom to deal with those issues will be independently heavily constrained.