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Why I'm (cautiously) optimistic about Elon buying Twitter
The company's fractious management was simply never going to fix the platform's problems.
So I guess I’m doing two posts about social media in a row! It looks like Elon Musk has successfully purchased Twitter, and will turn it into a private company. As someone who has written extensively on the problems with Twitter, I probably need to offer my thoughts about this.
In a nutshell, Twitter is important because it has the strongest network effect in all of social media — maybe in all of tech, period. There are plenty of social networks for keeping in touch with your friends, but there is really only one for having public discussions about public affairs. Twitter acts as the live news feed for the nation, as the assignment desk for the mainstream media and the blogosphere alike, and as the universal forum for the airing of public grievances great and small. If Reddit is the internet’s basement, Twitter is its commanding heights.
Because of this seemingly unbreakable stranglehold over public discourse, Twitter has managed to be utterly secure in its corporate position despite having famously fractious management, never really making much money, and not having that many users compared to other social networks. The company’s board was free to feud and fight, and its management was left to carve out fiefdoms instead of working together as a team, because nothing they really did could sabotage the invincible network effect.
But at the same time, that network effect made Twitter something of a dystopian technology in many ways. Media figures like me, and like every New York Times reporter, have to use it for our jobs — we just don’t have an alternative. Politicians, businesspeople, academics, artists and activists are heavily incentivized to use it as well. But this means that we’re inevitably over-exposed to the often extreme views of the relatively small slice of the public that uses Twitter all the time — the people I call the Shouting Class. It also means that we’re over-exposed to the relentless negativity and rage that characterizes interaction on the platform.
Over the past few years, a number of people have begun to warn that this was contributing to unrest, both in the U.S. and in the world at large. Martin Gurri’s excellent book The Revolt of the Public argued that social media (but really mostly Twitter) took power out of the hands of the populace at large and put it into the hands of a number of small “publics” — sets of dedicated activists with the time and inclination to shout about issues they cared about. In the Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt wrote a long and persuasive article arguing that social media platforms (but really mostly Twitter) were fragmenting society and destroying trust in institutions. Twitter’s fractious management was simply unable to deal effectively with the corrosive effect that the platform was having on the world.
This is why, in our podcast a few weeks ago, Brad DeLong and I explicitly called on Elon Musk to buy Twitter! (The relevant discussion starts at 39:57, and the part about Musk is at 44:30).
The problems with Twitter are so deep and so difficult that only total control by a single individual has a realistic chance of solving them. Transforming a sprawling octopus like this can only be done via dictatorial authority (which is why founder-led companies tend to outperform).
Now that doesn’t mean Musk will solve Twitter’s problems. I am no Muskologist (though I’d love to get him on this blog for an interview). With my limited knowledge, I can’t really predict what he’s going to do with the platform — maybe he himself doesn’t even know yet. The only thing I can confidently predict is that whatever he decides to do, he will probably be able to do it, whereas the status quo would have meant that Twitter’s ineffectual management would have probably continued on to infinity. So at least now we have a chance for positive change.
And as to the specifics of that change, I’m cautiously optimistic.
For one thing, I think Musk is well-positioned to deal with foreign information ops, especially those perpetrated by Russia and China. Russian bots and agents are big on Twitter, and China has been working to build a similar network. This presents the disturbing possibility that the existence of Twitter spells doom for liberal governments — if totalitarians can exercise tight control over their own Twitter-like networks while using info ops to heavily influence the discussion on Twitter itself, it could give them a crucial advantage in the new era of international competition.
I suspect that Musk is thinking about this scary future and how to avert it. When Russia invaded two months ago, Musk instantly shipped thousands of Starlink internet kits to Ukraine. This was crucial in helping the Ukrainians keep their internet running in the face of Russian cyberattacks and bombardments. This demonstrates that Elon values the defense of liberal societies against totalitarian aggression. It stands to reason that he’d also care about this in the case of Twitter info ops as well. Elon famously cares about free speech, but when totalitarian governments use their power to selectively disrupt speech in free societies, that seems pretty detrimental to free speech, and it needs stronger pushback.
It also seems possible that Musk will figure out a way to address the problems with Twitter’s quote-tweet function. As Haidt notes — and as any Twitter user well knows — the quote-tweet makes it extremely easy to summon mobs. It is thus one of the main tools of Cancel Culture, which Elon is not a fan of:
Chris Wetherell, the engineer who invented the quote-tweet button, later recognized what a disaster it had been. But the company has been reluctant to change the way the function works, probably because it’s worried this would reduce engagement. If anyone can figure out how to change the quote-tweet function so as to preserve engagement and discussion while not biasing the platform toward the formation of cancel-mobs, it’s probably Elon.
This also applies to an even more damaging variant of “cancellation” — the ability of powerful Twitter users to sic mobs on people in real life. The most famous example of this is when Twitter activist Shaun King posted the photo of a man whom he falsely accused of the murder of a young girl. The true culprits were later arrested, but the man King falsely accused suffered extensive real-life harassment. Yet the company refused to crack down. Musk has a chance to address this as well.
And even beyond addressing these specific behaviors, Musk may try to tweak the algorithm to push Twitter toward being a more positive, less bitter, less toxic place — in his own words, “more fun, less shun”.
I offered a few suggestions for how to do that in an earlier post:
But I’m sure Elon will have even better ideas — especially after studying the problem in detail.
All of these would be welcome changes — at least in my point of view. Twitter is one of the mezzanine institutions of our society — both its rules and its algorithm have the power to make speech unfree, even though it’s not an arm of the government. Built-in algorithmic toxicity, mobs, false accusations, and foreign info ops are all things that make speech feel less free, and in my view that’s what’s important.
In any case, this is why I’m optimistic about the changes Musk might bring to Twitter. Not everyone, of course, is so optimistic — the list of fears that people have about what Musk might do is far too long for me to address in a blog post. But there are a few specific fears that I think are probably overblown.
The single biggest fear seems to be that Musk will admit Trump back onto the platform. But Trump has stated that he has no intention to return. The most likely reason is that the former President’s overwhelming ego would make him wary of being subordinate to another man, especially one with whom he hasn’t always gotten along.
Then there’s Jeff Bezos’ odd allegation that Musk would do the bidding of China’s government:
This doesn’t make a lot of sense even in the narrow sense of business incentives, since China’s government is supporting a host of Tesla competitors. Some Western business executives over the years have fallen all over themselves to do favors for China’s government in exchange for promises of market access, only to see themselves muscled out by state-sponsored competitors after giving China’s leaders what they want; Elon seems way too smart to fall for that old trick. But on top of that, as I mentioned above, Musk seems committed to the defense of liberal countries against authoritarian ones. Nothing kills free speech faster than when the tanks roll in.
Anyway, there are plenty of other fears that various people have about Musk controlling Twitter. There’s no way I can address them all here, even if I had room. The truth is that we just can’t really know exactly what Musk will do with the platform, and we’ll just have to wait and find out. But as someone who called for Musk to make exactly the move he just made, I’m cautiously optimistic that it’ll end up improving the situation.