Twitter cofounder Evan Williams on Elon Musk: ‘People project either their hopes and dreams or their worst nightmares’

April 27, 2022, 7:15 AM UTC

Elon Musk’s deal this week to buy Twitter for $44 billion and take it private could help “open up some new possibilities” for the social messaging company, said its cofounder and former CEO Evan Williams.

That includes letting Twitter experiment with new revenue models, like subscriptions, without facing pressure from skeptical public-market investors, he said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech dinner in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Williams, who cofounded Twitter in 2006 and served as its CEO for two years, has had no formal ties to the company since 2019 beyond being a shareholder. His opinion about the company’s sale, however, has symbolic weight considering his history in creating the service that now has 217 million daily active users worldwide and serves as a public bulletin board for the digital age.

Williams described Musk, the billionaire who is already CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, as “clearly a genius who thinks on another level.” But he also acknowledged Musk’s polarizing reputation, comparing him to the trendy idea of Web3, a vague philosophy centered on a more decentralized internet that has ardent believers and critics.

“I think what we’re also seeing is people project either their hopes and dreams or their worst nightmares,” Williams said of Musk. “And it’s like Elon and Web3 are the same.”

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter began after a remarkable month that started when he took a 9% stake in the company and publicly attacked its business strategy and leaders. After declining a board seat, he launched a hostile takeover bid that Twitter’s board, after initially implementing a so-called poison pill defense plan, eventually accepted.

The drama enthralled the business world and left a number of unanswered questions about how Musk would spur more growth at Twitter, whose service has a huge impact globally while underperforming as a business.

Williams said that Twitter has always been the “easiest company” for people to criticize like armchair quarterbacks. These critics overlook how difficult it is to run the company, from both a technological and societal perspective.

The issue of free speech, for instance, is not as black-and-white for Twitter as some critics make it out to be, Williams explained. Musk, for one, has said he would focus on restoring free speech to the service, which Twitter has increasingly policed for hate and misinformation, including banning the account of President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Although Williams said it’s been a while since he’s really studied speech on Twitter, he said that he thinks “it’s pretty free.”

“I don’t know what should be censored or moderated on a daily basis,” Williams conceded. 

However, he explained how Twitter could host some discussions that are moderated. Others who prefer more freewheeling but potentially offensive conversations could join discussions that have no moderators.

“Choose your pool,” Williams said, comparing it to choosing to swim in pools with rules against public urination or those without.

As for the loud voices calling for Twitter to create a feature to edit tweets for misspellings, for example, as Musk has suggested, Williams said he doesn’t particularly care one way or the other.

“I think it’s overblown,” Williams said.

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