Musk, Twitter, and Digital Public Squares

I'd like to share some thoughts on Elon Musk, Twitter, and digital public squares.

Elon Musk

Musk is fascinating and a top notch troll. The more he gets attacked by legacy institutions, the more I'm inclined to trust him.

Electric and self-driving cars are overrated. Solar roofs, humanoid robots, and space exploration technologies are more important.

I don't know enough about him to do anything other than take his stated long-term goals for Twitter at face value.


Twitter as software

Early Twitter employees envisioned it as an open software protocol. It initially felt like a protocol and the code was written for it to function as one. Most innovation came from users and third party developers, not internal teams.

Because the software was owned by a corporation, the team optimized for the needs of private investors, not the general public.

Twitter became a platform, not a protocol.

Twitter will be more valuable to society if it can transition to being an open client of a decentralized protocol. Jack Dorsey launched Project Bluesky to facilitate this transition and Musk appears to be aligned with this vision.

Twitter as corporation

Because Twitter is a closed platform owned by a private company, the corporation's leadership has tremendous influence over the platform's social dynamics.

By relying on ad-revenue for monetization, Twitter's leadership has allowed the application to be victimized by the same toxic dynamics of every major social media platform. Advertisers are the customers while users, along with their data, are products to be sold.

The way the company has approached content moderation has not been conducive to creating a healthy digital public square. They put too much faith in the power of top-down control and restricting the flow of information.

I understand the fear that would drive highly-educated individuals to embrace this approach. I also believe it is counter-productive.

I hope Musk can help us transition to a future where the Twitter corporation is just one of many stakeholders in a decentralized community managing an open-source digital public good.

Digital Public Squares

Jemima Kelley of the Financial Times makes a valid point in arguing that Twitter is more theater than public square. Still, Twitter is the only major social network with the potential to function as a digital public square.

By focusing on free speech and healthy discourse Musk can help unlock Twitter's potential.

Free speech

Twitter's "safety policies" have made me feel less safe. Starting in early 2020 I found myself increasingly engaged in self-censorship. I avoided sharing many of my thoughts on politics and society because I didn't want to be banned.

Platforms should ban illegal content, like death threats, and lobby to change any laws they believe are unjust.

All other content should be fair game. Users should be empowered with tools to curate their experience and avoid any legal content they can't stand being exposed to.

I hope Musk can create a culture that is less fixated on censoring "undesirable" speech.

Healthy Discourse

Free speech is necessary, but not sufficient for healthy discourse.

I don't have any grand solutions to the problem of facilitating healthy discourse on social media. But I will share some thoughts.

  • All verified humans should get a blue check, but we should preserve the ability for quality pseudonymous accounts to participate in public discourse as equals.
  • Disinformation is real, but it is beyond naive to believe that those crying the loudest about its dangers aren't guilty of spreading it themselves. Corporations and governments will not "solve" disinformation.
  • I've had no personal experience with bigotry, racism, or hate speech on Twitter so it's hard for me to relate to those who fear it. I'm open to private conversations to learn more from people who have been directly impacted by these issues.
  • We should be supporting the work of researchers like Chris Bail of the Duke Polarization Lab. Chris is engaged in important research that has incredible potential to help humans become more aware of their biases and capable of engaging in healthy debate with people "on the other side" of controversial issues.

If we want healthy digital public squares, we need to address the human causes of polarization and social media dysfunction. Relying on technology to fight symptoms by suppressing ideas has backfired.

What I'm Watching for

I value Twitter because it helps me develop connections with like minds, closely follow developments in fields I care about, and engage with a diversity of perspectives on important issues. I haven't experienced this on any other social network, so I have a vested interest in seeing Twitter thrive.

Assuming Musk's Twitter takeover goes through, here's what I'll be watching for.

The fact that Jack Dorsey describes Musk as the "singular solution [he] trusts to solve for the issue of Twitter being a company" and as being on "a mission to extend the light of consciousness" makes me cautiously optimistic about his potential to transform Twitter for the better.

Shingai Thornton

Shingai Thornton