🎩 We deserve better than billionaire-owned social media platforms
This isn't just about Elon Musk and Twitter.
A note from Eli Pariser, New_ Public Co-Director (adapted, ironically, from this morning’s Twitter thread)
So the world’s wealthiest space cowboy seems intent on buying Twitter. RIP Twitter is trending. Some thoughts on what this means for the future of digital platforms:
Musk’s stated reasons for buying Twitter are self-contradictory. He’s going to unlock Twitter’s profitability but also not run it to make money. He’s going to make the platform better for “absolute free speech” but create a subscription tier (impediment to unfettered speech!).
Pretty much every platform speech expert thinks his ideas are bad/unworkable. It’s a random collection of design ideas that sound good at first blush (edit button! Post the algo to Github!) but are very complicated and not necessarily helpful in practice. And his free speech ideas aren’t just dumb, they’re dangerous. What happens in a space with no public safety and no moderation? The loudest voices – usually the people who can pay the most – win. That means companies, bot networks, state actors.
Now let’s remember, this guy is so thin-skinned that when a man who saved the lives of kids trapped in a cave criticized his misguided attempts to help, Musk called him a pedophile. And he’s shown a willingness to use his companies to exact revenge on critics. So if the transaction goes through, trust in the platform is really trust in Musk not to be arbitrary and capricious. While the dude is talented at many things, self-restraint and reliability are not even remotely on that list.
The possibilities here are pretty dark. Have billionaires seized communications platforms and used them for their own agendas? Sure. Ironically, this is what a lot of actual US 1st amendment jurisprudence is about: The absolute right of companies to “say” whatever the hell they want.
Musk says he’ll steward Twitter for the greater good. Even leaving his personal history aside, the recent history of billionaires doing this is not so hot. For every Washington Post (praise grudgingly given) there’s a Tribune Company, Gothamist, Pacific Standard, or hey, MySpace. Billionaires tend to be distracted by the next shiny thing. How much faith should we have that someone who also runs a rocket ship co, a car co, a tunnel-boring co, etc is going to stick with the hard decisions once his initial (again, dumb) plans fail to work as planned?
Here’s the thing: This is not just about Twitter, and not just about Musk. It’s about the fundamental way we’re choosing – and it is a choice – to structure our communications mediums. When we – the people who actually power these platforms and make them worth visiting – choose to structure them as for-profit companies, we choose to cede decision-making to the highest bidder.
But there’s no reason we couldn’t choose to create public benefit social media we own and govern. As Ethan Zuckerman has been writing for years, in every new media epoch some countries choose to invest in public goods. Thus we have powerful public broadcasters in many countries… and Fox News and Facebook in the US.
These investments aren’t even THAT expensive in the scheme of things. Twitter in its 16-year history has raised $4B in capital (including its IPO). PBS over the same period cost about $6.4B. Maybe this is the kick we need to decide that the way we connect and communicate with each other shouldn’t be subject to the whims of a mercurial billionaire, and invest in something better.
I’m not suggesting all social platforms should be public. But in physical communities we mix private and public spaces (parks, libraries) for a reason. It’s time to build healthy public spaces for digital life too.
Musk says “a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.” I fully agree with him. I just think achieving that requires thinking outside the box of the for-profit venture-backed company.
There are a bunch of folks working on this around the globe. It’s really exciting! And it’s what we’re working on at New_ Public too. So let’s get to work!
P.S. We at New_ Public are actually looking for a Head of Product and COO to help drive this work. If this mission has you jazzed, come work with us!
The world’s slowest messaging service
Happy Monday! This is Wilfred Chan, New_ Public’s magazine editor, filling in for Josh while he soaks up rays on a beach.
I’d like to excerpt a piece I wrote last week for The Guardian, where I’m a freelance contributor. It’s about how I got a surprise on my 31st birthday: a heartfelt letter from my past self sent through FutureMe, my favorite example of (very) slow tech.
I just received a mysterious email. “Dear Wilfred,” it began. “You better be a baller by this time. You better have a hot wife and kids. I hope you have a Porsche. If not, I don’t know what is wrong with you man.”
The 280-word message, which arrived in my inbox this week, on the morning of my 31st birthday, was actually from someone who I knew well: myself, exactly 10 years ago.
It went on: “I’m just kidding. None of those things really matter. I just hope you’re living a good life, being a good person to the people around you, and not losing your sense of wonder about the world.”
Since I was a teenager, I’ve been sending messages to the future using a free email service called FutureMe, which is kind of like a digital time capsule. It’s simple: you compose an email, enter a recipient, and select a date in the future. Once you submit it, your note is sealed away in FutureMe’s servers and won’t send until that date, which could be years or decades later.
In a time of dopamine-drenched social media feeds, this might well be the world’s slowest messaging service.
The site was launched in 2002, as a side project of Matt Sly and Jay Patrikios, programmers who were then in their 20s. Sly told me he had designed the site to be “super streamlined” so that it would be able to run indefinitely – at first the server costs were just $11 a month.
Now, despite handling 10,000 to 20,000 emails every day, the server costs just a couple of hundred dollars a month and brings in far more in revenue, Sly said. He sold FutureMe to a digital memorials company last year but feels confident about its longevity.
“The cool thing is the longer it’s around, the more kind of profound these experiences are, because 10, 15, 20 years is a long time,” said Sly, who writes about 10 letters to his future self every year. “It’s intense, as you experienced.”
The first time I used this time machine, a high school crush and I sat next to each other just before we graduated and sent letters to each other one year in the future. She stayed in our home town; I moved across the country and got her email the next winter, during a snowfall in my lonely first semester.
Our next magazine issue is coming
I also wanted to drum up some noise about the upcoming launch of our next magazine issue — which explores the theme of “trust.” It will have a dozen pieces that include:
A critique of blockchain as a “trustless” technology, by a team of experts in the field
An account of how talking about race unraveled trust inside a dog training Facebook group
A story about the problems of “zero-trust” cybersecurity in marginalized communities
An essay about what designers of digital spaces can learn from physical queer spaces
An interview with Congressman Ro Khanna about how digital infrastructure needs to evolve.
The issue will be published online at newpublic.org and as a free e-book — keep your eyes peeled for more details in the coming weeks. I can’t wait to share it with you.
In the meantime, do check out our first issue on decentralization, published last year.
Work with us!
New_ Public is shifting from a focus on knowledge and network building to incubating and building products that are aligned with the Signals, our research on what constitutes a healthy digital space. We are also scaling as an organization — and growing our team!
We are hiring for a COO, a Head of Product and a Head of Community and would love your help to connect us to people who can help bring our mission alive.
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.