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Whither Twitter? Part II
The saga continues...
Here I go again, writing about Twitter. But I really do think it is important for our students, many of whom spend a great deal of time on the service (or a similar one). And well, there have been some changes in the last few weeks.
I will not reiterate the news - you have probably seen it all. But it does seem as though Elon Musk decided to purchase Twitter on a whim, did not do sufficient due diligence, then tried to back out of the deal all summer, and when he realized he would lose in court, he finally went through with the deal. Since then he has fired half the company, then tried to hire some of them back, tried to launch an $8 check mark feature threatening to fire the team if they could not finish it by an arbitrary deadline, then they did, and he pulled the feature two days later because it was obviously ridiculous and poorly thought through.
During the firing spree, he fired the people who are responsible for compliance with an FTC negotiated decree whereby Twitter agreed to implement certain community safety guardrails and regularly report to the FTC showing their compliance with the decree. The day before such a report was due. The FTC is not amused.
Advertisers, who provide 90% of Twitter’s revenue, were already concerned about Musk’s spouting off about free speech and bringing back Tweeps who had been banned (for pretty good reasons). When he took over and acted as irrationally as he has been… many of Twitter’s major advertisers have ah… “paused” their advertising. Musk announced to his employees on Wednesday that Twitter was losing $4M per day, and that bankruptcy was a real possibility.
So. If Twitter is a cesspool, having Musk buy it and flush $44B down the drain would be a net good, right? Competitors will try to offer alternatives. There’s already one - it is called Mastodon. Others will spring up.
But what if Twitter really does provide what has become a real and important service? The “public square” as Musk - and many others - have called it. Perhaps it has become a Utility we all need to connect to, like the power company, under that view. If you have heard the whiff of panic from journalists about the possible demise of Twitter… it is because it has become an indispensable research and contact development tool for them.
For students, it is also a great research tool. It connects them to each other in important ways. And to important parts of their lives.
The big question is: “Can we have a powerful tool such as Twitter - the Public Square online - and maintain appropriate guardrails (and still be profitable)?”
Up to this point, Twitter has had only one profitable year (2019). And it struggled mightily to maintain guardrails of behavior. There is a mountain of evidence that it has contributed to the coarsening of American discourse, that it allowed an avenue for Russian interference in American elections, etc. Abuse is rampant on the site, and people of color and those with disabilities - they need more abuse and racism never, and yet it happens every day, still. So the track record is awful. The answer to that question would be - so far, no. We can’t have something like Twitter in a way that works for everyone.
Maybe the best thing IS for Musk to come in, blow it up, send $44B down the drain, and for us to try again with another service. Or maybe in shaking everything up, he CAN make it profitable, and preserve the guardrails. Although it seems like - through many of his tweets and actions since he purchased it - he does not see the need for that part much at all.
Mr. Big Ideas might have run out of them. They involve nuance, and this guy doesn’t seem much interested in nuance.
Did you know the first time he walked into Twitter HQ after purchasing the company, he was carrying a bathroom sink, so he could tweet: “let that sink in?” I can’t make this stuff up:
The only problem I see with that behavior - other than it being childish and ridiculous - is this: sinks have drains.
What do you think? Can Twitter be saved?
Letters of Recommendation
On the subject of social media and its manipulative effects on us, I can recommend Max Fisher’s book on social media, The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from Hamish McKenzie, Co-Founder of Substack, the platform through which I draft and send this newsletter to you every week:
While we may be convincing ourselves that we’re participating in discourse in the public square, we’re actually in a cage, making a spectacle of ourselves for little more than weak dopamine hits and a few pretend friends. The real prize goes to Twitter itself. Twitter needs your mind so it can satisfy its real customers: advertisers.