The proposed acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk may simply be the richest man on the planet running out of things to buy and therefore wanting a new toy. But to dismiss this move in this way is probably naïve.

From public to private

Musk’s $44 billion acquisition potentially marks a new era for both Twitter and social media platforms in general. For all the talk of charging business users, bringing in an edit button and promoting free speech, the biggest impact will be that the organisation will no longer be a publicly traded business. This means less transparency over the revenues and profits the site makes. Essentially the new Twitter (assuming the deal goes through) will be in the hands of one person.

This is not necessarily a wholly bad thing, but it is concerning when we consider the nature of social networking. We tend to see social networking platforms as “ours”. Listen to people talking about “my Facebook” or “my Instagram”. It is easy to forget that both platforms belong to corporations that exist to make as much money as possible.

You are the product

Thinking back to when people first discovered Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, there is a certain adrenaline rush of finding and connecting to long lost friends. Within the excitement it is easy to forget that there is a commercial enterprise behind this platform; this is not a free tool because – to use a famous quote – ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product’.

A recent foray into Facebook advertising confirmed this strongly. The level of granular detail that is available for advertisers to use to micro target people is astonishing. It includes much more than likes, follows and friends. You can target by the device someone is browsing on, the specific location, the University they attended as well as a host of other criteria. Combined this offers the most effective advertising tool in history. And most of us have given this information away for free.

The power of the data

Elon Musk knows this already. Every mile you travel in a Tesla, every song and podcast you listen to is being harvested. So what? Google does this already. Musk’s genius is he has convinced people to pay a premium price for a Tesla and still give their data away. Google gives products like Maps away in exchange for data. Tesla charges people for an expensive car and gets their data too.

If Musk can replicate this with Twitter or other social media platforms he has a hybrid Google/Apple on his hands that could potentially redefine the “big tech giants”.