The jokes and memes about buying Elon Musk on Twitter as evidence of a massive midlife crisis are at least partly on point. The internet, for its part, is having its own midlife crisis.
Many of us who grew up with the Web are now reaching middle age, and we have enough experience with the Internet to know what it does right and what it does wrong. And as with any midlife crisis, the internet can sink into the abyss, continuing its own path of self-destruction, or we can seize the moment to build a better internet based on the essential principle that the internet belongs to all of us.
Twitter is not just a platform. This is how some of us live, work and survive. Many have long argued that Twitter, Facebook and other platforms are public services— they provide an essential service to the public by enabling the flow of communication that supports communities, commerce and access to critical information. The fact that one of the richest men in the world could buy Twitter and fuck it up has caused an epiphany for many of his most loyal followers: activists, journalists, politicians and yes, trolls. We need to reshape the internet to support that public spirit, or at least reshape a small part of it. But that requires grappling with questions that have vexed decades of Internet policy thinkers; namely, who pays the bill and who sets the rules of engagement?
Here’s a guess for when Musk finally realizes he’s responsible for destroying something he loved enough to pay $44 billion and that the best option to save Twitter — or his own solvency — is to do it. to renouncer. It’s not unlikely that circumstances will unfold such that Twitter opts for a (comparatively) discounted price like Myspace. And when it does, a combination of global civil service organizations and public service broadcasters should step in to collectively own the platform.
Think of Twitter being owned, but not necessarily operated, for example by organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Oxford University and Radio France instead of Musk or shareholders. Think “New Twitter,” but without all the bad “New Coke” jokes (although Musk Coke’s obsession with caffeine-free Diet Coke help make a real case for the brand). The New Twitter is Twitter reborn as itself, not much different from what it is now, flawed and essential, but no longer driven by market expectations for ever-increasing profits and scale.
Twitter in its mature form was a publicly traded company, and as such susceptible to any capitalist incentives to maximize profit, but at least it was owned by its shareholders. This corporate structure resulted in a very flawed company that provided a platform for #blacklivesmatter and white supremacists, #metoo and the manosphere, journalists and conspiracy theorists.
Twitter was only free in a nominal sense, as our attention and data paid the bill – somewhat precariously, it turns out, given lackluster ad revenue. But the fact that Twitter doesn’t cost real money removed a barrier to entry that allowed marginalized groups to use it. When Musk threatened to charge for verification, it only deepened the similarities between Twitter and other utilities like water and electricity.
Generally, the idea that the Internet belongs to all of us has a political corollary: government must provide regulatory guidance to prevent the worst excesses of capitalist outflow and abuse, serving as stewards for the public.
This is where the hiccups begin. Government regulation of the internet looks ominous, with China’s Great Firewall and the ability of autocrats around the world to literally shut down internet service providers in their counties, or enlist Facebook, Google and Twitter to do their bidding. , Or other.
We also have few precedents for public and collaborative digital spaces, although those we have – Wikipedia, the Internet Archive and the Mozilla Foundation – provide the essential pillars of what the Internet can do best: spread knowledge at scale. . But it’s not profitable, and these organizations are all philanthropically supported. They are not so much a public square as a starting point for public knowledge.
Nor would they exist without free labor. For example, Wikipedia is supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, but it is also built on the foundation of its volunteers and above all white, male, and English-speaking writers, and the Mozilla Foundation depends on coders who adhere to a free and open source vision of the Web. The Internet Archive is in essence a large public library, and libraries have never been supported by the market, relying instead on philanthropists or public funds to exist.
Inspired by this model, “New Twitter” could be a global communications platform owned and operated by a coalition of public service-minded actors. But to keep Twitter, well, Twitter, it needs to keep some core properties and features of the platform that people have come to appreciate. Namely, the platform should be free, it should have scale, and for better or worse, it should be a place for free expression. Twitter would need a long leash, as would well-supported public streaming providers in democracies around the world that have stayed away from government censorship.
Some have already advocated for such a digital public service infrastructure. Ethan Zuckerman, professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst make the argument that social media in its current profit-driven form is not good for democracy and that a digital audience needs digital tools specifically designed to foster democracy. He recognizes that this infrastructure will not bring in money and that it needs public funds to support it.
Similarly, Eli Pariser, the author of The filter bubble, campaigns for the digital equivalent of public parks. He rightly points out that Twitter and other platforms are the common spaces that only feel such as public spaces but are owned by for-profit tech companies.
But those versions of the web that start with democracy don’t seem particularly fun – and you need fun to keep users. Mastodon, a proposed alternative to Twitter, was designed to be decentralized and democratized, and to promote civil discourse as defined by a community. Many have found it preachy, unwieldy, and an innocuous substitute at best.
Perhaps the attention machine economy and democracy cannot go hand in hand. Yet there is a long legacy of communications technology, from the telegraph to cable television, which has been this mix of public-private partnership: produced and maintained with the support of Uncle Sam but under the direction of RCA, AT&T and Westinghouse. There are few contemporary examples, in part because so much technology is funded indirectly: venture capitalists fund other companies that make things.
I suggest a slight revision of the approach to digital public space – imagine the new Twitter in the United States as a public-private partnership. These are often more demonstrable in stadiums and sometimes take the form of NCAA booster clubs or local banks that share the costs with the public. Stadiums are fun, they bring people together, and they’re also flawed: unruly, corporate, noisy – and yes, crowds can easily become crowds. But our behavior on the Internet too.
Of course, maybe New Twitter (or should it be Nu Twitter?) is a pipe dream. But dreams inspire us to think bigger. The internet is both shaped by and shapes humanity – it’s a fun mirror that reflects, amplifies and distorts our best and worst impulses.
The beauty of globally distributed ownership of the new Twitter is that it would be messy, set in specific cultural and national contexts, and decidedly flawed. But if redesigned for the public rather than for profit, we might think of the internet as a basic human right, like air or water, something we all need to protect in order to to survive.