Twitter Wants to Be a Public Platform

Unsolicited advice on how the social media site should be run, after Elon Musk said he’d buy it.

AccessTimeIconApr 26, 2022 at 5:59 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 5:32 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconApr 26, 2022 at 5:59 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 5:32 p.m. UTCLayer 2
AccessTimeIconApr 26, 2022 at 5:59 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 5:32 p.m. UTCLayer 2

Amid the Elon Musk-Twitter saga – which reached its apogee yesterday, after the billionaire investor said he will take the popular social media platform private in a $44 billion transaction – came a rise of a new type of political commentator. For them, it’s now clear, for sure, that power and influence and money rule the world – and they want a hand in applying it.

Musk, the Tesla leader, the would-be astronaut, the sometimes-ribald tweeter, has been questioned for his choices. He’s said his piece: Twitter is an important platform that has been corrupted. In taking it out of the public markets, Musk might try to make it again a bastion for “free speech.”

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Many asked why. And some felt the need to make suggestions. Writers, politicians and other public (and private) figures have gone Machiavellian. Apparently, Musk is a boy prince, who knows his power not, who needs to be guided towards right action and proper duty.

Mirrors for princes,” a literary genre popularized in the Middle Ages, were political treaties that offered coaching and encyclopedic knowledge to shape a sovereign’s rule. Though you’ve maybe read the most popular – Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince” – these works were written for a time and place, and for an audience of one (whoever had the authority to apply its opinions).

Today, through the internet, everyone essentially has the ability to reach anyone. There’s a sense that we’re all talking past one another, that our ideas get drowned out in the crowd, but no doubt Twitter flattens the realm of speech. And so Musk has insight into what people want, fear and question.

It’s that power that Musk seemingly wants to preserve. He said yesterday, “free speech” is letting his critics thrive on Twitter. These are just words, and as the still undefined leadership role he’ll take there are legitimate concerns they won’t be honored. Twitter, the platform, belongs to all of us – that’s where its value comes from.

Twitter, the company, is a different story. Analysts say it has underperformed, that we could all be fed more advertisements or subscription models. Others raise concerns that this global messaging platform hasn’t done enough to stymie bad actors and scammers: Over its lifetime, Twitter has fostered healthy public debate as well as misinformation and public confusion.

For all its faults, Twitter has certainly grown to become culturally and politically significant. That’s the main takeaway of the Musk-Twitter story – we all care about this platform because it’s important and don’t want it to be misled.

Yesterday, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey condoned Musk’s plan and pledged his support for this “singular” individual. But Dorsey, too, held up a mirror for Musk to gaze into – he might be the leader for the job, but the job is ultimately unnecessary.

“In principle, I don’t believe anyone should own or run Twitter. It wants to be a public good at a protocol level, not a company,” Dorsey tweeted.

What that looks like is still up for debate. Although Musk is getting people to ask what they want from Twitter, he’s also stirring a feeling that changes to the code – though, perhaps, necessary – should be up to the will of one man.

Twitter the protocol “could enable different users to choose different styles of content moderation,” tech blogger Casey Newton wrote. There are many reasons why social media applications should or should not run on a blockchain. But “open sourcing” the algorithm and granting people the authority to order their feed, not just choose who they follow, is far past due.

Musk called Twitter the modern-day public square. There are a lot of things separating the digital age from the medieval, but the biggest is that authority and governance has shifted largely from princes(ses) to the people. No one writes manuals for rulers anymore, but self-help books chart.

If I were writing a mirror for Musk, I might first write a practical guide to managing “buyer’s remorse.” It will be a tough road ahead, Musk will always have critics and managing global discourse is almost impossible.

But Dorsey already said it all. Twitter wants to be a public protocol, and in many ways, it already operates like one. So why again is everyone writing political manuals about the Musk-Twitter saga? Well, I guess, money still rules us all.

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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.