Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover and changing face of literature

Elon Musk

In this photo illustration, a phone screen displays the Twitter account of Elon Musk with a photo of him shown in the background on April 14, 2022, in Washington, DC. Musk has joined a billionaires boys’ club of the likes of Zuckerberg to dominate the public square of social media platforms. 

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Musk now joins a billionaires boys’ club that dominates the public square of social media platforms.
  • Social media platforms have an impact on both democracy and literature.

Elon Musk continues to astonish. Witty, irreverent, gruff, and sometimes pompous, the world’s richest man seemingly relishes soap-opera-level psychodrama with its attendant melodramatic fire and smoke. If the great feats of acquiring companies are the crowning honour of billionaires, Musk’s takeover of Twitter — after a bruising rendezvous with the Twitter Board of Directors — is his latest materialised chivalry.

The Twitter Board had initially resisted Musk’s offer to buy the company before the Board’s stubborn will toddled, wobbled, and fell. Hard to thwart, like soldiers of old, Musk’s personal daring and a strong arm in business are mythical — sealing his legend as a king among men. Gregarious, in almost stern majesty in the gaunt strength of an uncompromising businessman who always gets what he wants, for Elon Musk, trouble is never far away.

It was probably his insatiable curiosity, the intoxicating fever of an eager intellect or the sober force of a billionaire’s taste that made him to make a bid to take over the ownership of Twitter. After twits, devious turns, and double-edged manoeuvres, on April 25, 2022, Twitter announced that Musk had agreed to buy the company at a price of $44 billion (about Sh5.1 trillion). After closing the deal, Twitter is now a private company (it used to run as a publicly traded company).

The ownership of Twitter matters because like Facebook and other social media platforms, it is a kind of public square where people tell their stories and debate important things. It’s the place where citizens of the world go to express their views, learn about what’s happening in the world and engage in debates.

Twitter perfectly fits the definition of a digital public square because in the past, a traditional public square was simply an open public area in a city or town where people gathered. The ancient Greeks had their famed agora, which meant “gathering place”. It has been described as the place “where tradespeople and philosophers, poets and politicians” exchanged ideas.

Musk now joins a billionaires boys’ club of the likes of Zuckerberg to dominate the public square of social media platforms (Zuckerberg owns Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp). These platforms are very powerful because as writer Ben Mezrich wrote, “Facebook wasn’t some site you visited — it was a place where you lived. By sharing yourself among intersecting circles of friends, family, and colleagues, you became connected to an ever-growing village. The more you shared, the more connections could be made”.

These platforms have an impact on both democracy and literature. On the democratic side, just like public squares of old, it’s where ideas are exchanged and debated. It’s also the place citizens can be persuaded through what the Greeks called rhetoric (defined as ‘the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and techniques’). Plato once wrote that, “rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men”. It’s the place to win the battle of hearts and minds using words. This can affect which politicians or ideas win votes, so the impact on democracy is clear.

On literature, Twitter and other digital platforms are redefining how we tell our stories. At its core, literature is about telling stories. These stories may entertain us or sometimes offer lessons about the nature of the world and ourselves. On digital platforms like Twitter, writers can tell their condensed versions of stories directly to readers without traditional gatekeepers like editors or publishers.

In fact, Twitter has produced a type of literature called Twitterature. A critic describes it as including “various genres, including aphorisms, poetry, and fiction… In Twitterature… the writing is often experimental or playful, with some authors or initiators seeking to find out how the medium of Twitter affects storytelling or how a story spreads through the medium”.

Whether on Twitter or in traditional newspapers, magazines and books, we should continue telling our stories. Art (including music) and literature is what beautifies our mundane lives or keeps some people sane. It adds colour to our lives.

As André Aciman writes, “Life can offer us no greater treasure than art. It is all that is beautiful, and all that allows a man’s soul to take leave of the quotidian trifles that molest his waking mind, to be lifted to the highest peaks of experience, and to peer briefly into the sublime. It is that which removes man from the static residue of time and casts him into the gentle waters of the eternal. It is to hear and to speak softly in the beauteous tongue of antiquity, and yet to foresee all that will unfold through the illimitably growing passage of our universe. In short, art is sweet.”

We hope that Elon Musk will make Twitter even better for us to tell our stories. He should probably increase the number of characters allowed on a tweet so that writers can post slightly longer paragraphs. Let’s use whatever avenue we have to tell our stories, especially our African stories. For as the proverb goes, “Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter”.


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