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Thoughts on Twitter

April 27, 2022

In my view, most everyone commenting on Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter gets it wrong.

There will be rules. Digital platforms and forums are created and maintained with some vision of how they will serve their participants. There always are nefarious actors, scammers and spammers and trolls, who will stomp on those goals for their own purpose or profit. More, the participants have their own range of desires, from wanting some controls and filters for their own preferences, to simply not wanting to wade through random porn. Platforms always struggle with the mechanisms and rules that control content and who sees what. Those shape the character of the platform, and how various participants see it and use it.

What we will see is another experiment in how to manage a digital platform. Elon Musk is not dumb. He has some notion of where he wants to take Twitter. He is not going to let it become a wasteland of spam and scams and random porn. Musk likely will introduce new patterns, some of which prove interesting or useful. I will watch to see how it plays out a bit, before judging it. I am not thrilled with the existing platforms, so I like to see attempts at new ones.

Twitter never was the people’s platform. Those who are upset that this is a billionaire’s experiment need to keep in mind that Jack Dorsey created Twitter as a business. Twitter 1.0 was his vision. Twitter 2.0 was its evolution after Dorsey left. Twitter 3.0 will be Musk’s vision. The notion that Musk is destroying what once was a democratic platform is as silly as the notion that he is creating what will be a new kind of unregulated platform. Neither is the case. At some point, the rumored Web 3.0 may bring varieties of social media that are not reliant on some company’s platform, with fully distributed control. We are not yet there. Though I hope some team is taking Musk’s purchase of Twitter as incentive to move that forward.

The rules aren’t about free speech. In the legal sense, free speech lies in the fact that different platforms and forums are free to set their own rules. The Wikimedia Foundation manages how Wikipedia evolves, with many thousands of participating editors. Facebook puts users in “jail” if they violate its opaque policies. Political forums such as DemocraticUnderground to FreeRepublic have their own mechanisms for moderating content. Someone who uploads porn to Instagram may be kicked off there. Someone who uploads anything other than porn to Pornhub likely will suffer some repercussion there. Each platform goes its own way, and it is the owners rather than the government who determine how the rules are made.

Most of the political commentary on this is nonsense. Elizabeth Warren tweets that Musk buying Twitter is dangerous for our democracy. As if he were Rupert Murdoch reincarnated. As if Rupert Murdoch weren’t already present in our democracy. Many on the right are hailing this as a step for free speech, showing only how little they understand that legal principle. Including Musk. This is just one media property changing hands. Its political consequence is less than it is made to be by those who see every large news event as the next play between blue and red. Or by those who now have marketing interest in hailing the event.

No Twitter employee should be shocked or surprised. Sudden changes of this sort are common in the business world, and moreso in the tech industries. I once was doing contract work for an internet enterprise owned by a large bank, that was shutdown entirely in a company wide meeting the first day of work in the New Year. The non-tech workers who provided the domain expertise and contacts were jolted. The tech workers, not so much. In our world, it was routine to have career path marked by mergers, buy-outs, shutdowns, spin-offs, pivots, and other business change. Perhaps that is part of why I see Musk’s purchase as just an interesting business turn, neither panacea nor apocalypse.

Update #1: Another voice urging people to “calm the [Moderated] down.”

Update #2: A former Twitter engineer comments on some of the proposed changes. Authentication is a hard nut, with potential vast changes in the nature of a platform.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Michael Grossberg permalink
    April 27, 2022 7:22 pm

    All that is exactly right.
    As usual, despite the usual inflamed fears and panicked commentary, the future will not result in either utopia or oblivion – just more change (and probably, as you’ve said, more adjustments than drastic revolution.)

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