My relationship with my sons is, thankfully, incredibly strong. But, like many other parents, my progeny has a history of diagnosing their father as a simpleton whose IQ is significantly less than his age. My sons are now young adults and hence I have the distinct pleasure of personal lived experience of a quote generally attributed to Mark Twain (though with no evidence to suggest he actually said it):

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

Part of the lads’ certainly that I should be institutionalized was my penchant for embarrassing them as publicly as possible. One of the highlights of this trait was the time I was asked to give a speech at the leadership assembly for their high school. Much to my lads embarrassment, my address was generally received with appreciation and regarded as having some useful advice.

Of course the utility of my address had less to do with the quality of the content, and more to do (as pointed out by my sons’ awesome debating coach) with the fact that I applied good signposting throughout the talk. That signposting was pretty simple really and went as follows:

  • The fact you grew up in an incredible country, and went to an amazing school provided you with a future full of opportunity
  • The aforementioned facts, along with your general good fortune, means that you also have an obligation to serve the world
  • If you fulfil your obligation, you will go forward and create a legacy for yourself, your school and your world

I’ve been thinking of this triumvirate – opportunity, obligation and legacy – of late. In particular since Elon Musk, the master of seemingly all things, took over not only the ownership, but also the management and governance of Twitter.

I wrote about Musk’s acquisition recently and, in particular, his decision to not only fire the entire board, but to get rid of most of the management as well. Many of my governance friends agreed with my perspective, that independent governance is needed to ensure a CEO, and the organization more generally, is held to account, has a clear vision and lives its values. Of course my governance friends would say this, they are, after all, professional board members whose careers now revolve around providing just this governance.

Other individuals had a differing viewpoint, albeit one which still ran contrary to my perspective. These folks, often with a libertarian bent, proclaimed that since Elon and his mates had stumped up the forty or so billion dollars needed to buy Twitter, that he no longer had an obligation. It was his company and he could do whatever the hell he liked.

Now I am a big believer in the sanctity of property and the rights that ownership brings to an owner. While there are many who suggest that I’m a commie (though I’ve not had the pleasure of being called a “pretty communist” as our PM has), the fact is we live in a society that, rightly or wrongly, includes private ownership and this private ownership brings with it some rights.

But the way I see it, those rights are not inalienable. Thirty years ago we lived in a period of neoliberalism, where the prevailing theory was one of trickle down and where the sole role of a business was to create wealth for its shareholders. Those times have passed and we now live within a context of broader social license. A business earns its right to operate by thinking not only of a financial return to its shareholders, but also impacts upon its broader stakeholder group – its employees, customers, the society within which it operates and, yes, the planet itself.

And this is where Elon’s rights to do whatever he pleases with Twitter are in tension with his obligation as an owner to do the right thing more broadly. For better or for worse, Twitter is the new town square. It is one of the primary platforms where information (and, sadly, disinformation) is disseminated. It has been used time and again to incite revolutions – good ones and bad.

Elon gutting the teams within Twitter that were entrusted with ensuring that the platform took seriously its obligations in terms of fake news, the dissemination of hate speech and other deleterious impacts is in direct contravention of this broader social license obligation.

While it will pain the Musk fans to hear it. And while it will be far from music to the ears of my libertarian friends, Musk doesn’t actually have the right to do whatever he pleases with Twitter. He has obligations and his actions have unintended consequences that spread far and wide.

Musk has an opportunity with Twitter, but that opportunity brings with it an obligation. Here’s hoping the legacy of his purchase of the platform will be positive and not destructive.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He often embarrasses his sons. Especially on Twitter.


Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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