Making sense of the billionaire’s latest Twitter controversy

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The world’s richest man just bought 9.2% of the social media site promising “significant improvements” – here’s what that could mean

“If you can’t beat them, join them” is loser talk. If you can’t beat them, buy 10 per cent of them, and then they’re the ones who have to beat you.

That, at least, seems to have been Elon Musk’s conclusion, after he ended a month of whining about the social network, we the social network, with a $2.9bn purchase of 9.2% of the social network.

From the Guardian:

Elon Musk has built up a 9.2% stake in Twitteraccording to filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Monday.

Twitter shares jumped 26% in pre-market trading on the back of the news that the world’s richest person holds shares worth almost $3bn in the micro-blogging platform.

Musk, the maverick boss of Tesla and SpaceX who has an estimated $273bn (£208bn) fortune, owned 73,486,938 Twitter shares on 14 March according to the filing. Those shares were worth just under $2.9bn based on Friday’s closing price, but will now be worth about $3.6bn.

There’s scant further information about the purchase for the time being. The SEC filing, a form called Schedule 13G, is mandatory for anyone who takes control of more than 5% of a given company (which means that, theoretically, Musk could have owned 4.9% of Twitter before now without needing to disclose it). And, crucially, it requires you to commit to being a passive investor. Which is why it was somewhat odd that Twitter’s chief executive Parag Agrawal announced on Tuesday that Musk would be taking up a board seat:

Musk is a committed user of Twitter. A very committed user. Let’s have a brief overview of the Tesla chief executive’s history on the site:

  • Twitter is surely close to his heart, as the place he met his (ex?) girlfriend and mother of his (two?) children (look, it’s complicated), Grimes. The tale of their courtship is oft-told: Musk tweeted out an odd pun involving a theoretical AI hellscape before discovering that Grimes was the only other person who had made the same weird joke. He slides into his DMs and that was that.

  • In his professional life, though, Twitter is almost certainly better remembered as the reason why Musk now legally has to have a lawyer sign off on all his tweets. In August 2018 he tweeted that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private at $420 a share (the amount apparently picked as an odd weed-culture joke). Since Musk did not, in fact, have funding secured – he had, maybe, had preliminary discussions with a few investors – the US Securities and Exchange Commission made the not-unreasonable argument that he’d illegally communicated false information to investors, slapped him with a fine and forced Tesla to add said lawyer.

  • Summer 2018 was a fertile time for Musk. Just one month before the “funding secured” post, he sent a tweet which, for a normal person, would have resulted in the most legal trouble they’d ever been in for a tweet. The billionaire, who had offered his services to help rescue a boys’ football team that had become trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand, apparently became outraged when a British diver mocked his suggestion of a mini-submarine to help, and responded by calling him pedo guy. Despite doubling down on the claim, tweeting “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true” to one follower, and hiring a private investigator to find out whether the diver really was a paedophile, Musk managed to convince a US court that the claim was a meaningless insult and avoided libel damage.

  • Running through all the controversial tweets that haven’t resulted in either two children or a lawsuit would take up most of this newsletter, but Musk has also compared Twitter’s new chief executive to Stalin, said that the first two letters of “SEC” stood for “Suck” and “Elon’s”, called the coronavirus “panic” “dumb” in March 2020, obliquely called for an end to restrictions in April that yearand said we should “nuke mars”.

If there’s one through line we can take from a tour of his tweeting past, it’s that Musk is one of the few people on the planet who has a more self-destructive compulsion to tweet than I do. But if there’s a second through line, it’s that the man has a massive issue with authority, and a particular issue with the authority of the SEC.

Which takes us back to that Schedule 13G filing. The document’s a shorter version of a much longer, and much more detailed, form called Schedule 13D, which is to be used only if you’ve relied on direct or indirect control. Doing so lets you avoid disclosing certain things, like how much you paid for the stake, or the source of your funds.

But at the last minute, it looks like Musk blinked. Just hours before this newsletter was published, he filed an updated version of his disclosure, recategorized under 13D, and revealing that he has committed, as part of the agreement that gives him a board seat, not to acquire more than 14.9% of Twitter while sitting on its board, or within 90 days of leaving. It still leaves open the question of why he tried to hide his activist status in the first place, but should be enough to keep the SEC off his back – over this issue, at least.

The cost of streaming crisis

From my (personal) inbox:

We hope you’re enjoying everything Netflix has to offer. We’re updating our prices to bring you more great entertainment. Your monthly price will change to £15.99 on 4 May 2022.

This update will allow us to deliver even more value for your membership – with stories that lift you up, move you or simply make your day a bit better.

The pricing “update” was widely trailed, of course. But even so, a 14% increase is a bitter pill to swallow, particularly coming, as it does, barely a year after an increase of 17%.

Netflix raising – sorry, updating – its prices in the middle of a widely discussed national cost of living crisis also sticks in the throat. My family had already been discussing ways to save money, and Netflix deciding now is the time to inject itself into the conversation is, well, a bold move.

A £12-a-month streaming service is a very different proposition from a £16-a-month one. For one thing, it’s the difference between being £1.25 cheaper than the TV license and being £2.75 more expensive. It’s not a flattering comparison to make for Netflix, in my opinion, even if you put aside the fact that the BBC offers whole areas of programming Netflix doesn’t even touch.

But also, it’s the difference between streaming itself being value for money and being a poor return. I don’t know how unusual I am here, so please do hit reply and let me know if I’ve just outed myself as a huge weirdo, but in our household, we tend to watch shows in batches, rather than grazing a wide selection of TV. That means, when I check my Netflix viewing activity, I can see that this calendar year, I’ve watched four series of TV on the platform. (For those who are curious: Star Trek Deep Space Nine season four, Better Call Saul season three, and two deeply bizarre Japanese shows, The Way of the Househusband and Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman).

Those four shows have cost me £56, rising to £64 from next month. But the two American series are widely distributed. I could have bought and downloaded Better Call Saul for £8 from Amazon, and Star Trek for £10. Which suddenly turns an abstract question – “is Netflix worth £16 a month” – into a much more concrete one: were two mid-tier Japanese comedy shows worth £46?

Screen time is money

Not everyone uses the site the same way as me, I’m sure. If you split your attention across a number of shows, or enjoy turning on the TV and browsing through the platform’s copious backlist, you’re almost certainly getting value for money. Similarly, if you are an avid fan of Squid Game, The Crown or any other Netflix exclusives unavailable elsewhere, you may feel the subscription offers literally unparalleled value.

But I’ve decided to add Netflix to the growing list of services I subscribe to when I need them – and unsubscribe from when I don’t. Like Disney+, Xbox Game Pass and a few Guardian competitors, the site is sometimes the only way, and occasionally the best value way, to get hold of great content. However it’s also an enormous money-sink to subscribe permanently, and ultimately relies on you taking the path of least resistance.

If you do decide to go down my route – and even if you don’t – I cannot recommend Just Watch enough. The service is a search engine for the breadth of streaming media – and great for finding out just how cheaply you can download that show you’re paying Netflix £16 a month to watch once a week.

Don’t connect things to the internet

While I’m dispensing consumer advice, I feel compelled to tell you all: most things don’t need to be connected to the internet. Specifically this week, I must emphasize: this includes your robot vacuum cleaner.

I am a robot vacuum evangelist. It’s one of two pieces of technology I recommend without reservation (the other being noise-cancelling headphones). In a country where dishwasher and washing machine penetration percentages are in the high 90s, I can’t understand why the humble Roomba generics haven’t joined the Holy Trinity – particularly given, unlike those two, you don’t need to install anything in your house to use it.

But, dear readers, I am disheartened by the current state of the suckbot market. This nice roundup from The Verge of what purported to be “best robot vacuums you can buy right now” contained no fewer than seven cleandroids, all of which connect to the internet.

The best robot vacuum cleaner does not connect to the internet. In fact, a robot vacuum cleaner that connects to the internet cannot be the best one, by virtue of connecting to the internet. Connecting to the internet is not a good feature for a robot vacuum cleaner to have; it is a good feature for a robot vacuum cleaner-owner to avoid.

Hoovers and shakers

For a fancy branded Roomba, you can open an app, select individual rooms to clean, then give a voice command to activate it. For my cheap generic robot, I achieve the same ends putting it in a room with the door closed and hitting a big button on its top. For those deprivations, I save between £100 and £400.

But it’s not about the cost. Sorry to all the robot vacuum companies out there, but I do not trust you with cybersecurity. You make what is effectively a security camera on wheels, capable of mapping out my entire house and actively affecting it, and you want me to just … put it on the public internet?

I know this seems paranoid, but just last week we learned the security camera firm Wyze had knowingly left an unfixed weakness in one of its camera models for three years that could allow an attacker direct access to live camera feeds. And when it did take action, it simply removed the affected model from sale and sent a cursory email to users telling them there would be no more software updates.

Some things have to be connected to the internet, I get it. I’ve lost the fight over smart TVs: the benefits of accessing streaming services without extra hardware is too great. But if you try to put wifi in my beloved robot, I tell you: no. This is the dust-free hill, with all trailing cables neatly tucked away, that I will die on.

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