Elon Musk should remember that no one stays in charge of Twitter for long

Elon Musk is the new owner of Twitter.
Elon Musk is the new owner of Twitter.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Blake
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Elon Musk is about to become Twitter’s new owner. Musk—who owns and runs five other companies—has proposed a raft of changes at Twitter, including making the website’s ranking algorithm open-source, relaxing content moderation practices, and introducing an edit button for tweets. Although he hasn’t said whether he will personally take on the title of CEO, Musk has said he doesn’t have confidence in Twitter’s management, which could spell trouble for the company’s board of directors and current CEO Parag Agrawal.

No matter who Musk decides should helm the newly-private company, he’d do well to remember that bosses at Twitter tend not to last very long. The star-crossed social network may be one of the hardest tech companies to run, as evidenced by the high turnover among its chief executives. Aside from TikTok, which churned through three CEOs in 2020, no other big tech company burns through bosses faster than Twitter.

Do Twitter’s troubles stem from its board of directors?

Musk blames Twitter’s board of directors for many of its problems. He complained that the board’s interests don’t align with shareholders’ because the board “owns almost no shares.” He argued Twitter would “neither thrive nor serve [its] societal imperative in its current form” and “needs to be transformed as a private company.” Twitter founder and two-time CEO Jack Dorsey echoed the sentiment when he tweeted that the board has “consistently been the dysfunction of the company.”

Now that Musk is taking Twitter private, the board won’t be able to meddle with his vision. But the company will still have a host of challenges. Twitter has about a tenth as many users as Facebook and is growing more slowly than expected. Its ads business is anemic and it turned a profit in less than half of the quarters it reported earnings as a public company. Its polarized users are split between those who believe the company isn’t doing enough to curb misinformation and hate speech, and those who believe—as Musk does—that the company is stifling free speech through excessive moderation.

Twitter doesn’t face the same geopolitical challenges as TikTok, which must find a way to balance the competing pressures of being China’s first global app. (TikTok fired three CEOs in 2020, the year former US president Donald Trump threatened to ban the Chinese app for national security reasons.) And it has fewer moderation headaches than Reddit, which has left users in charge of setting and enforcing many content moderation rules within their individual communities. (Reddit users helped orchestrate the ouster of ex-CEO Ellen Pao when she tried to tighten the social network’s moderation rules.) Either company could, arguably, be more crazy-making for a new CEO.

But Twitter remains a uniquely hard company to head. If Musk installs himself as Twitter’s sixth CEO, his favorite website might soon spit him out, as it has with his five predecessors.