The fall of Twitter and the work of creating democratic social spaces

At the risk of giving Elon Musk any more of what he wants—for people to talk about Elon Musk—his purchase of Twitter provides an opportunity to reflect upon the governance of online spaces. As yet another billionaire with an inflated ego and tired sense of humour takes control of a piece of digital infrastructure, it is time to contemplate the lifecycle of such spaces. Put differently, if Twitter as we know it does not survive—and it looks increasingly as though it will not—what alternatives are possible?

For all their freewheeling, norm-busting style, tech companies like Twitter operate according to a set of norms and cultural values that are remarkably consistent. Through design choices and business models, social media platforms privilege specific political viewpoints over others, in ways that are obscure and often unexamined. As Mark Zuckerberg correctly identified, Facebook is more like a government than a company. And governments that are unaccountable to people are autocracies.

In large part, the guiding principle of a corporate autocracy in the tech industry is simply monetisation. No-one, not even Musk, is interested in running a social media platform as a public service. (He may be more inclined to run it as a vanity project, but that may be a bridge too far even for him.) For Twitter, at present, monetisation relies on people using the platform and companies being willing to pay to get their brand in front of those people. Any content moderation policies will need to contend with this material reality. In some ways, Musk has done us a favour: his lack of filters and unquenchable thirst for attention has led him to livetweeting his approach to setting content moderation rules, for us all to see.

Musk is the personification of the Dunning-Kreuger effect. Born into a wealthy family, he lucked out with Paypal, becoming a multi-millionaire seemingly in spite of himself, and has since turned the millions into billions thanks to tax-payer subsidies and staggering hubris. Much in the way that Donald Trump reshaped American politics by aggressively flouting norms, Musk may well shape Twitter in a similar manner. So far, it appears that Musk’s ideas for monetisation are equal parts stupid, careless, and dangerous. He is antagonising high-profile Twitter users, mass firing sections of the Twitter workforce with experience at tackling complex policy problems, and alienating the advertisers that he needs to bring in a significant chunk of revenue to the platform. His conduct recalls the adage that any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice. Twitter may not survive.

Even without Musk forcing the issue, however, we must face the fact that functional content moderation at this scale is not meaningfully possible or sustainable without an investment of money, time, and human effort that no tech company board has accepted so far. Twitter was already far from perfect at it, and has become the company it is today via a long, occasionally informed process of trial and error, engaging in a precarious scramble to balance the needs of the world’s users with a plethora of local laws, mutually incompatible social norms, and the whims of investors. It has also arrived here, as have Facebook and YouTube, by outsourcing the traumatic labour of cleaning up the most graphic and abusive content to workers in the global south, in countries such as the Philippines. Sarah T Roberts has called this ‘commercial content moderation‘—a practice that, like all other corporate policies, is ultimately in service of monetisation.

Rather than thinking of Twitter as an online agora facing possible annihilation, therefore, it is worth recognising that the space has never been singular or universal. There are multitude of intersecting ‘Twitters’—Black Twitter and Book Twitter and so on (don’t get us started on Worm Twitter) that enable communities to find each other in the maelstrom. Since news of Musk’s takeover, we have seen many of these communities begin to peel away and find new homes elsewhere, accelerating a process that has happened in waves, multiple times, across the lifetime of the platform and the services that came before it. People such as journalists and political figures, who have spent the last fifteen years treating Twitter as if it were synonymous with society, are now faced with the reality that their gaze needs to move beyond the bird app if it is to capture the complexity and breadth of a particular topic.

One of Musk’s fallacious assumptions, among the many that appear to have underpinned his entire acquisition strategy, is that everybody engages with Twitter in much the same way he does, and that community differences inside of Twitter are based on shared interests rather than shared norms or practices. His move to monetise the much-coveted ‘blue checkmark’ epitomises this misunderstanding: a function that was intended to prevent identity fraud and convey trustworthiness has warped into a status symbol for users in Musk’s social bubbles, leaving the many non-profits, charities, and activists who rely on the mark for reasons of integrity and safety in a position to have to pay eight US dollars a month in order to gain access to basic usability functions—a sharp contrast from those who think Twitter is only about connecting with celebrities.

For many of the communities making their move elsewhere, it will become apparent that functional online spaces don’t happen by accident: they involve actual work. Why do this for a company that does nothing more than monetise your content to help make Musk’s next billion? This episode in the history of the Internet allows us to think about the kind of work that is necessary, and by whom, to create supportive communities.

Nobel Prize–winning political economist Elinor Ostrom has written about this in her examination of the governance of commonly owned resources, and has identified some common trends for success, including: that those affected by the rules needed to be able to participate in making and modifying the rules; that rules ought to be matched to specific needs and conditions; that the monitoring of behaviour should be carried out by community members; and that there be an accessible, low-cost method for resolving disputes.

As communities turn away from the corporate autocracy of Twitter, many are looking to spaces that have these features, and recognising and valuing the work involved—most often by volunteers—in creating them. Increasingly, this has seen people decamp to places like Mastodon, which offers such functionality without the pall of corporate monetisation, or more retro options like email lists and bulletin boards. It turns out that many people are perfectly willing to pay eight dollars a month to an independent Mastodon instance administrator able to actively enforce bans on hate speech, even if it means they have to dispense with their blue ticks and rebuild their audiences from scratch.

However, while those who are able to do so are jumping ship, there are plenty of people without the time, energy, or ability to uproot their existing social hubs: creative folks and activists who have spent years building their Twitter audiences and literally can’t afford to do it again elsewhere, people without the technical literacy to find their communities on a new platform easily, or even just those who are ‘too weird for LinkedIn and not weird enough for Reddit’, as Keely Flaherty put it, are left at the mercies of a capricious billionaire with a new toy. As with many other sudden shifts, those with the least privilege are often the ones who suffer most.

Rather than waiting for the so-called global public square to reach a new equilibrium in the private marketplace, policy makers and community leaders would do well to use this moment to consider how we might create functional communal spaces online that can realistically serve large groups. They will not look the same as the spaces we had before, and that is perhaps for the better—after all, while public squares are gathering points, they are dismal places for living out one’s entire social life—but Twitter as an autocracy was already a disaster for discourse, and is now an outright calamity. Building something stronger will require significant work, but investing in it would be an investment in our democracy.


Image: Esther Vargas

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Lilly Ryan

Lilly Ryan is a software security consultant, a presenter on Byte Into IT (3RRR FM), and a board member of Digital Rights Watch.

More by Lilly Ryan ›

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

More by Lizzie O'Shea ›

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  1. There’s a couple of questions for the left here:
    1. Twitter communities aren’t communities. It’s a metaphor for intersecting networks which give affective feedback. That’s why we can talk of a 15 year old project being dissolved in an instant. Real communities can be dissolved by capital too, but they tend to put up an actual fight first. Has twitter served to further dissolve a left commitment to real alternatives, by giving back some of the feels associated with such, in exchange for the free content provided?

    2. If the left has such a desire to control the means of X, why has it been incapable of building collective, aggregated social media forms? As soon as geeks get capital to scale up facebook and twitter, dozens of indy internet projects were abandoned and the left flocked to owned social media. Does the left actually want collective run spaces? Or does it just want less worse billionaires to run the joint, so it can gab? Twitter’s rise and fall would suggest so.

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