Elon Musk Needs to Make Twitter More Profitable. His Latest Idea Isn’t the Way to Do It.

James Surowiecki
4 min readMay 1, 2022
Elon Musk (photo by Duncan Hull)

Over the past month, as he put together an offer to buy Twitter and then saw that offer accepted, Elon Musk has said and tweeted many odd things. But one of the oddest was something that, according to Reuters, he told bankers when he was trying to put together financing for the deal: one way Twitter could make money was by charging third-party websites to embed or quote tweets from verified users and companies.

It’s not surprising that Musk was talking to the bankers about ways to improve Twitter’s profitability. On top of the $21 billion in cash he’s putting up, Musk is borrowing roughly $25 billion, half in the form of a margin loan against Tesla stock and half in the form of bank loans and junk bonds collateralized by Twitter’s cash flow. So in order to convince bankers to make those loans, which collectively are going to have interest costs of nearly $1 billion a year (which is more than Twitter currently earns), Musk needed to give them some ideas about how he’ll be able to boost the company’s bottom line. One of those ideas, not surprisingly, was cutting costs by firing people. Another was this idea of charging for tweets, which is an idea that could only have been floated by someone who doesn’t fully understand how Twitter works or what its business depends upon.

Musk is right that Twitter could charge third-party websites for tweets, and it could charge users to quote-tweet other users. While users own the copyright to their tweets, Twitter’s terms of service give it a royalty-free right to do pretty much whatever it wants with those tweets, including sub-licensing them to others. So there’s no legal barrier to Musk’s plan. But there’s a simple technical reason why it’s unlikely to work and, more important, it’s a plan that would likely cost Twitter more in terms of alienating its users than it would benefit the bottom line.

The technical reason is straightforward: while Twitter can charge third-party sites for embedding tweets, it can’t stop third-party sites from screenshotting tweets and simply including those in its articles instead. And contrary to what Musk seems to have suggested, Twitter couldn’t charge sites for simply quoting or screenshotting tweets — it’s not a copyright violation to quote what someone…

James Surowiecki

I’m the author of The Wisdom of Crowds. I’ve been a business columnist for Slate and The New Yorker and written for a wide range of other publications.