The Future Of Twitter
Elon Musk, owner of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has launched an audacious bid to acquire Twitter. This begs so many questions about what will happen to the most influential of all social media platforms.
It started almost as a joke. For a long time, it felt impossible. But a few weeks ago, rumours started to circulate with increasing ferocity. Elon Musk was planning to buy Twitter.
This exchange continues to haunt me pic.twitter.com/W06oSqx0MR
— Dave Smith (@redletterdave) April 25, 2022
Most Twitter users could give you a list of things they’d like changed. The company has underperformed compared to other social media platforms. When Jack Dorsey stepped down as CEO, for the second time, Twitter failed to articulate a clear direction for the future. It’s easy to make a case for a change of ownership and a refreshed vision for the company.
But when Elon Musk stepped up as a potential white knight, Twitter users were sharply split. Actually, that’s kind of bullshit, the sort of both-sides argument that’s ruining our public discourse. The truth seldom lives in the middle. Almost everyone was apoplectic, with a few people taking a wait-and-see attitude and an army of Musk supporters jumping in to defend their hero.
I even got called a communist! Yeah, I know.
Anyway, it wasn’t just the issue of Musk the person, or his track record with his companies, although both are worth looking at. It’s what he specifically said needs to change at Twitter, and his attitude while making those suggestions.
What Will Musk Change At Twitter
So far, Musk has promised to (a) give users an edit button; (b) make Twitter more trustworthy and transparent by making algorithms open source; (c) authenticate most, if not all, users; (d) get rid of spam bots; (e) overhaul the business model: and (f) make content moderation radically less strict.
We don’t know if this list is comprehensive or whether it reflects Musk’s priorities. But this is where we have to start.
The edit button is something many users request but mostly in a joking sort of way. This feature might be nice. No one enjoys typos. But it also might embolden trolls to gaslight their targets or post without consequences. Twitter has been working on this feature anyway, and it’s not clear a change of ownership was required for it to happen.
The same is true for being more transparent. Twitter wasn’t exactly on a path to making its algorithms open source. But under Jack Dorsey, Twitter has been exploring how to make the platform more open and less centralised. The development of Twitter Space was an example of Twitter building in public. This was amplified by the many opportunities the roll-out gave to users to speak directly to developers, designers and people on Twitter’s safety and community teams.
Twitter was also doing a lot to deal with fake accounts and bots. A study in 2017 found that somewhere between 9% and 15% of all accounts were bots. That same year, a Pew Research Center study found that 66% of links shared on Twitter came from bots. In May and June 2018, Twitter removed 70 million fake and suspect accounts.
The problem is vast, and it’s complicated by the fact that many bot accounts are good and useful. Weather services use bots to run accounts that give local updates. Art galleries and museums use bots to share their collections. There was even a bot that exposed companies that made International Women’s Day pledges despite having a record of paying women less than men.
What's a bot and what's not? We're making it easier to identify #GoodBots and their automated Tweets with new labels.
Starting today, we’re testing these labels to give you more context about who you're interacting with on Twitter. pic.twitter.com/gnN5jVU3pp
— Support (@Support) September 9, 2021
Changing the business model feels like a more urgent task. Twitter might be the best social media tech we have, but it’s always struggled to match the growth and revenue of other platforms. We’ll come back to this because Twitter’s business woes have begat so many problems, including the ones that might be addressed by authenticating more users.
We’ll also come back to the idea of changing content moderation practices. This is the biggest concern most Twitter users have with this potential change of ownership. The simplistic way the idea of “free speech” has been evoked raises a lot of concerns.
The Myth Of Twitter’s Failure
Most days, you’ll find someone describing Twitter as a “hell site.” The negative aspects of Twitter are real. The platform is full of trolls, reply guys and sea lions. And lots of hateful political shouting matches. Okay, those are everywhere online, but Twitter feels particularly susceptible to coordinated attacks and articulated hate. And for a long time, it felt like Twitter was doing little to protect its users.
This moral failure was directly tied to Twitter’s commercial underperformance. Twitter simply isn’t a great business. It never managed to match Google’s profitability or Facebook’s scale. Now Twitter is dwarfed by TikTok, which is nearly twice as big and growing fast.
A lot of Twitter’s failures – from its lack of safety to the mess it made of verification – stem from the need to answer to shareholders.
The company had to do everything it could to look like it was growing, even if a lot of this growth hid fake and dormant accounts. It had to show high levels of engagement, even if much of that was actually enragement. Scratch the surface of any of Twitter’s woes and you’ll see a solution that was slowed down, or just avoided, for commercial reasons.
Along the way, Twitter changed from being a place to “Be authentic, be genuine, talk about what you are doing every day…” (Dorsey’s words) to a platform associated in most people’s minds with charged political arguments. Twitter did little to change this perception because it helped justify their ad-based business model.
Let’s Also Acknowledge Twitter’s Success
And yet, Twitter is influential in the public discourse. Twitter users are younger, better educated, and more cosmopolitan than the typical adult. Twitter is where the elites come out to play.
There is a massive demographic divide between those casually discussing how Twitter is a giant joke machine gone wrong, and those for whom Twitter as a functional platform has great significance for their work and communities – both in the US and elsewhere…
— emily bell (@emilybell) April 28, 2022
And also, Twitter is where “truth speaks to power”. Sixty-five per cent of the most active users are women. Twitter has vibrant activist communities working for greater inclusion of people with disabilities; recognition of people with life-long illnesses; and racial, gender and sexual equality.
I think we'll look back on the last decade as a time when social media gave previously marginalized groups the ability to speak directly to elites and, as a result, elites lost their minds.
— Michael Hobbes (@RottenInDenmark) April 27, 2022
Moreover, Twitter is an amazing professional platform. I’ve said many times that most of my best career opportunities and collaborations came via Twitter.
But it’s not just shitposting and slacking. For many people, especially women and people of color, Twitter has been instrumental to building professional connections and career growth without the gatekeeping that prevents them from getting those benefits elsewhere.
— Robyn Swirling (@RSwirling) April 27, 2022
Once we understand this, we can see beyond the clichéd critiques. The platform is vast and many of the most active users never tweet about politics or the trending topics of the day. They’re too busy tweeting about the latest research in their field of science and academia, or the progress of their latest book, the music they’re recording or listening to, their favourite Japanese mascots, the best food at football grounds, or just simply what they watched on TV last night.
What’s frustrating about Musk’s pronouncements is they never acknowledge these successes. If anything, he seems to be doubling down on the idea that Twitter is all about US politics, which is a tragic misrepresentation of reality.
Twitter’s Ad Model Mistakes
Over the years, Twitter has made several important mistakes, each one amplified by Twitter’s strategic inconsistency. Google has also made mistakes. But it always knew what its core business was, so when Google course-corrected, it did so to its advantage. Facebook was often awful, but consistently awful in the same direction.
Twitter has never been able to reconcile the service it provides to users and the ad-business model it relies on. And it’s ad business is small – $4.5 billion compared to Facebook/Instagram/Meta’s $130 billion. This is made worse by Twitter’s failure to build the technology needed for direct-response ad campaigns with many advertisers frustrated by the results of their campaigns and the lack of metrics provided.
I love Twitter. Twitter is the closest thing we have to a global consciousness.
— jack (@jack) April 26, 2022
Jack Dorsey likes to say Twitter is a “protocol”. That’s technobabble for “publishing service”. This doesn’t mean ads have no place, but a better model would be “subscription”.
This is how LinkedIn managed to become the first profitable social media platform. Most users pay nothing. But power users – recruiters, big companies, business authors and consultants – pay quite a big premium for added features. This revenue stream allowed LinkedIn to expand into business education.
Twitter has already started on this with Twitter Blue, a service that gives users access to new features (including a version of the much-vaunted edit button). Twitter has also launched Super Follows and Ticketed Spaces as features, where users pay for extra access to their favourite accounts, creating another revenue stream for the company.
Twitter also has underdeveloped features, like TweetDeck or the Media Studio, which it could enhance and update for paid users. And there’s data on user demographics and behaviours, which could also be bundled into higher tiers of a subscription model.
However, it’s not clear how Musk sees the question of subscriptions or how the transition might be handled. It’s possible that moving towards subscription will hurt the ad revenues faster than the company can recoup in signups to new services. For now, Twitter relies on selling ads against the news of the day.
Trending Topics Create Problems
Twitter sells itself as the platform for understanding what’s trending. There’s no question that when something is happening, Twitter is great. The platform is amazing during an election, sports event, or awards show. It’s also at its best during a crisis, when fresh reports from the ground are important. In a crisis, everyone’s attention is focussed on one thing – how big was the earthquake, where is the fire, when will the flood waters hit?
But we’re not supposed to live every day in that heightened sense of awareness. Yet the trending topics are still there, filled with whatever gets the most engagement. This game entices a lot of bad actors. Gaming the trending topics is a big field of nefarious activity. The term “ephemeral astroturfing” was used for the way bots will tweet massive numbers of repetitive tweets in order to get a topic trending, then delete those tweets.
By mining https://t.co/nHEUDwZ1bE’s Twitter Stream Grab (which saves deletion notices) we detected 19k trends astroturfed by 108k accounts between July 2015 and September 2019. There were 33k bot accounts making up 5 communities in 2019, 2 of them were taken down in the same year pic.twitter.com/qugNY1zxUX
— Tuğrulcan Elmas 🇹 🇯 (@tugrulcanelmas) March 17, 2021
It’s also well documented that many high-profile accounts have a lot of fake followers. SparkToro, an audience research tool, noted that Donald Trump had 61 per cent fake followers. Not all fake followers are bots. Sometimes, people sign up for Twitter, then quit. It’s understandable that political figures might have followers who signed up simply to support their candidate. But the same study found 35 per cent of that account’s followers exhibited 10 or more signs of suspect behaviour, which suggests a big problem.
Still, for five years, this man dominated the platform. A lot of users hated his policies and the way he presented them. But they also hated having to think about one person every day. That just feels odd. Especially if you don’t live in the same country. And yet, even if you used all the available safety tools, he and his pronouncements were there on the trending topics every single day.
For a long time, Twitter resisted giving users the tools to manage their own following. Twitter also removed access to its API from third-party services that could help you manage your account. It only recently opened up the ability to remove followers. Until then, you were stuck with your own fake followers.
Musk’s solution is pure technocracy: Ban the bots; verify the humans.
But technology isn’t the solution for every cultural problem. Twitter needs to rethink not just its policies around authentic accounts and algorithms but also its whole approach to trending topics, news, and our ability to choose the conversations we want to participate in.
Or, to paraphrase Dorsey, Twitter needs to rewire its consciousness.
The Challenge Of Verification
Online anonymity makes me uncomfortable because a lot of the worst online behaviour comes from anonymous users. And there’s research in moral psychology to suggest anonymity can bring out the worst in people.
In principle, I agree with Musk on this.
But this isn’t a simple issue. And it’s not just a matter of opinion.
Culture plays a role. In Japan, for example, employers take a dim view of staff having social media accounts. Pseudonyms are common because users want to go on Twitter to talk about their hobbies and passions or explore their identity, free from the harsh judgement of fellow employees, staff or even family.
Musk has said he wants to authenticate all users on Twitter…but Japanese Twitter users – an overwhelming number of whom use the sit under a pseudonym – reminding everyone that they like things just the way they are https://t.co/zsgKeqPNiT
— Eleanor Warnock (@misssaxbys) April 29, 2022
Of course, pseudonyms have been commonplace in the history of art and especially writing. If we take a creativity-forward attitude to the internet, which I do, then we have to embrace the potential positives of online anonymity.
Moreover, for some people in politically repressive societies, anonymity is the only alternative. Whatever “free speech” might mean, if it’s going to serve democratic ends, then we have to accept that in many countries people can speak up on Twitter only if they use an assumed name.
Even in free societies, forcing people to verify their real name becomes problematic. And it’s unfair to claim Twitter hasn’t been trying to address these problems, even if they did mess up the verification process. In fact, Twitter has a track record of going to court to protect the First Amendment free speech rights of its users.
So, while I agree with Musk in an abstract, philosophical way, the idea argument feels simplistic. It ignores the needs of vulnerable users and fails to account for the ways Twitter is exploited around the world.
What The Hell Is Free Speech
Free speech is one of those phrases that users assume everyone understands what it means. It’s drawn from the US First Amendment. But that’s about the government not being able to restrict speech. And, as Stanley Fish pointed out in the essay There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, this isn’t a once-for-always proclamation. Rather, it’s constantly being negotiated, and varies greatly from country to country.
Or to put it another way, speech is always being limited.
In a TED interview, Musk described free speech as “…someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like”. Sounds clever. But you wouldn’t get away with that in a first year political philosophy or law class.
There’s a world of difference between someone saying, “Rugby is a better sport than football” or “Taylor Swift writes terrible songs”, and “People like you don’t deserve to live” or “I’m going to find out where your kid goes to school and rape them.”
The first two are opinions. Yes, I dislike them. Sure, they feel objectively wrong. But neither prompts any greater emotion than faint amusement. If someone insisted otherwise, I’d be tempted to just say, “Okay, sure” and walk away.
The latter two statements are both replies I’ve received on Twitter. They’re not opinions. They’re threats. You can block or mute or report, but you can’t easily forget. However thick-skinned you try to be, those kinds of words find a way through.
How Speech Works Online
The rules we might use to respond to opinions are inadequate to deal with hate, threats and other kinds of toxicity. These opinions are more than just words. They’re actions. Online, and especially in a text-based environment like Twitter, the distinction between words and actions can fall apart.
And, while a lot of people love the idea of “free speech”, where you can say whatever you want, only a very few would argue for “free actions”, where you can do whatever you want.
This distinction gets obscured because the work platforms do to keep users safe is described as content moderation. This sounds like censorship, but it’s more like behaviour moderation.
Keeping users safe isn’t about protecting them from ideas or opinions they don’t like. It’s helping them avoid hate and targeted harassment.
I can’t imagine spending time in an unmoderated online space, for the same reason I can’t imagine spending time in an unmoderated physical space. All of life is regulated by laws, customs and traditions. Moreover, the most creative, inspiring, and artistically free spaces I’ve been are always moderated.
The freedom comes in large part from the election of people who are welcomed and the attitudes they embody. You can’t just walk into an academic seminar, design agency, recording studio or government policy briefing. But Twitter gives anybody direct access to people in those kinds of spaces.
2/ Here are a few of the highlights.
First, it’s a complete misunderstanding to think anything the Twitter Trust and Safety team does is political. We never had one political conversation.
They were trying to solve a USER EXPERIENCE problem. Every tech product has UX people.
— Brianna Wu (@BriannaWu) April 26, 2022
We already have online spaces where so-called free speech in unfettered, such as 4chan and all the Twitter clones that have sprung up in recent years. But guess what? Academics and artists and creatives and musicians and scientists and writers don’t invest time in those spaces. They do on Twitter.
The Political Edge Of Speech
Musk’s recent comments suggest he’s bought into a common misconception that the left side of US politics dominates Twitter. The most extreme versions of this even suggest the algorithms favour the politics of the Democrats over those of the Republicans.
Twitter’s own research disputes this. They found that, if anything, it favours the Republicans. This probably says more about the way issues are framed than the algorithm itself. Another study confirmed this, finding personalization algorithms don’t amplify parties at either extreme and instead reflect “strong partisan bias in news reporting.” It also reflects the different ways that supporters of each side of US politics use Twitter.
In other words, the mess you see on Twitter reflects deeper divisions in society.
It’s not clear how changing the algorithms, making them public, or rewriting content moderation policies will fix the polarization we see on Twitter. Hot culture-war topics like the so-called “cancel culture” are viewed so differently across the political spectrum that it’s unlikely they will be reconciled through any technical tweaks.
Collective Versus Individual Rights
The way Musk talks about “free speech” suggests he believes that Twitter is some kind of marketplace of ideas. You can judge ideas like you judge consumer preferences. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
But markets are terrible ways to choose our morality. Most truths don’t exist on a single axis. And they’re seldom either/or choices.
At the moment, we don’t really have a marketplace of ideas so much as a marketplace of attention – yours, mine – sold to the highest bidder. What’s missing isn’t really the “right” to speak more. It’s something closer to De Toqueville’s habits of the heart.
We don’t get closer to democracy by just mouthing off. We get democracy by listening, reading, reflecting, contemplating, and working together. Twitter gets compared to the town square. But what we need is the town hall.
In the early days of Twitter, I used to compare the platform to the cafés that shaped the art and intellectual scene of Paris and Vienna. At its best, Twitter is still like that – people talking to people about interesting things. When we get to that level, the abstract yelling about speech falls away because people are simply talking to each other.
A Few Notes On Elon Musk’s Business Ethics
Musk is asking us to trust him to make Twitter more transparent. But this calls to mind Tesla’s past failures to be transparent about their own climate management strategies. Sure, electric vehicles are better for the environment. But the mining of cobalt and lithium, essential to make the batteries, is a messy business. Full transparency requires understanding the ecological effect of the whole business.
In recent weeks, we’ve been reminded of other questions in the Musk success story. Like when Musk’s anti-union tweet broke US Labour laws along with other infringements which included having security guards harass workers who handed out pamphlets. A Tesla employee sued after being repeatedly subject to racial slurs. The workplace culture is often reported as being grueling and toxic. There’s also the claims of sexual harassment from employees at SpaceX.
There’s Musk’s behaviour on Twitter itself. Like when he (falsely) accused British cave rescuer Vernon Unsworth of being a paedophile. How Musk’s tweets put so much strain on Tesla’ that the SEC imposed a regulartory oversight of his tweets about the company. Or the alarmingly addictive way he uses the platform.
Musk has tweeted almost every day for the past 4 years, and tweets at all hours of the day.
— Christopher Mims 🤌 (@mims) April 29, 2022
Then there’s his recent public attacks on Twitter employees. Musk tweeted criticism of Twitter’s chief lawyer prompting a pile-on of frequently racist abuse. Musk might think Twitter is something akin to a “war zone” but most users would disagree with that.
Five Ways Twitter Could Become Better
Twitter talked a lot about authenticity in the early days. It was born of an internet culture interested in sharing the ordinary details of your life.
In fact, authenticity was the hallmark of one of Twitter’s important early successes: authentication. This was a war that Google and Apple have largely won now, at least in the current version of the internet. But authentication, which allows you to log into services and platforms, was something Twitter took an early lead in.
If Twitter could fix and extend verification, connect it again to the idea of authentication, then it could become the gateway to a potential of a lot of new innovations which are currently living under the umbrella term Web3.
Twitter has already moved in this direction, trying to become a better social media marketplace. But it could do more, move faster, and communicate more clearly to users and customers. This would involve more than just Twitter’s initial gestures towards the “creator economy”; it involves fixing thorny issues like licensing.
This could help Twitter wean itself off the ad-revenue model. The sooner Twitter relies less on ads the faster it can change its philosophy around engagement and trending topics. A further push in this direction would involve exploiting its profitable backend API business.
Perhaps most importantly, Twitter needs to do better at explaining its behaviour moderation policies. If this week has taught us anything, it’s that many users are unsure about how the platform handles speech. Pretending we have one, single, global conversation around this doesn’t help.
Finally, Twitter needs to do more to introduce users to the diversity of experiences that are possible on the platform. It needs to educate users on how to customize the experience they have on the platform, enhance these tools, and open up them up more to third-party developers.
I’m not convinced Twitter will implement these changes. But it’s worth highlighting that these changes are possible.
What Will Happen Next?
Twitter has been one of the great, revolutionary tech innovations, alongside Blogger, Facebook, Flickr, Friendster, iTunes, MySpace, and YouTube. Not every name on that list still exists.
Sadly, there are no alternatives. Platforms like Mastodon get suggested but they’re not able to provide what Twitter offers. And users will be unwilling to migrate to another platform if it’s hard to recreate their social graph, if their safety is not guaranteed, or if it’s technically too challenging.
Maybe Twitter will be okay. I doubt it. The problems that exist are vast, and sufficiently radical fixes might be too difficult. Reality has a way of slowing down ideologues.
What seems clear is that Twitter will have to shed a lot of employees to fund this takeover. Where they will be lost is unclear.
If Twitter does undo most of its moderation, advertisers who Twitter rely on for the foreseeable future will revolt. The ad industry is already well organized and militant about brand safety after its experiences with poor content moderation on Facebook and YouTube.
Wealthy tycoons owning media companies is not new. What we’re seeing is a generational shift in who the owners are, a shift away from the industrial world of Henry Ford and production lines to the networked world of Steve Jobs and cloud services.
A hundred years ago, everyone read newspapers, but most people would never have anything published in them. A few might have a letter to the editor published, take out a classified, or maybe appear in an obituary. But the general population didn’t actively participate in the public discourse.
What’s different today is the idea that we, collectively, have a role in creating and curating the discourse. This has always been at the core of the most utopian versions of the internet, from publishing your own home page on the early web to tweeting on Twitter today.
Platforms like Twitter are, despite our protestations about algorithms and moderation policies, what we make them into. They are messy because the project of creating culture is complex. They are fraught not only because we can’t always agree on important issues but because where we are in the world changes what we think the important issues are.
Twitter will change. A few people know what some of the changes might be. Nobody knows what the consequences of those changes will be. It could even be that the whole deal collapses – especially if Tesla’s share price keeps falling.
For now, what we can do is what we should’ve been doing all along. We can curate the experience we have on Twitter. Follow accounts with good ideas and good information. Mute and unfollow accounts that sow division, hatred and strife. Resist the urge to amplify drama or things we hate. Have a little fun. Then log off and spend the bulk of our time doing other wonderful things and not doom-scrolling or thinking about Twitter.
Full disclosure: At the time of writing, I was a shareholder in both Tesla and Twitter.