Discover more from Gideon's Substack
Does It Matter Who Owns Twitter?
Maybe, but neither an enlightened despot nor public ownership can solve the platform's biggest problem
Does it matter who owns Twitter?
By that I mean, does it matter in the sense of the public good? It obviously matters to people who care a great deal about Twitter: people who work there, people who use it regularly for work or pleasure. If someone buys the local bodega, and they stop carrying your favorite brand of corn chip, and they were the only ones in the neighborhood that carried it, that could matter a lot to you. But it doesn’t matter.
Twitter obviously matters more than your local bodega. But how much does it matter? Does it matter, say, as much as who owns The Washington Post? Back when Jeff Bezos bought it, I thought he might be interested in doing something big for the future of journalism in the digital era, and I wrote up a bunch of suggestions for what he might do. Turns out, what Bezos wanted to do was own a newspaper; he didn’t have wider-ranging and more transformative plans. Regardless, though, Bezos’s ownership of a major national newspaper certainly matters, but it matters a lot less than if Bezos owned the means by which all news was distributed. Because his paper, however large, has robust competition, we can be relatively sanguine about the prospect of one billionaire using it as a platform for his idiosyncratic views.
Is Twitter similar? Well, consider how Elon Musk himself described the company when contemplating his bid:
If Twitter is indeed the digital agora, the space where the community comes together to discuss and debate matters of collective importance, then it is of paramount importance to the common good that it be well-managed, meaning both that nobody is excluded from legitimate participation and that nobody is able to abuse their participation to harass other participants or otherwise pollute the agora.
But by the same token, if it is the digital agora, then who would we trust to manage it properly? I don’t trust Elon Musk to control the public square. But I also don’t trust any public company, such as Twitter has been and will cease to be when Musk completes his acquisition. Public companies are subject to all kinds of pressures, most importantly the requirement to deliver value for shareholders, that could readily conflict with the public’s need for an open and accessible agora. Twitter, specifically, depends on advertising revenue, which means it needs to please its advertisers in its approach to who it includes and excludes from the agora. That sounds fine if we’re talking about excluding Nazis, but what if we’re talking about excluding Taiwanese voices to placate advertisers who do a lot of business in China? This is a worry that Bezos raised with respect to Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, but it and analogous concerns already exist. For that matter, they exist with respect to the independence of Bezos’s own paper, since notwithstanding their exit from the domestic e-commerce market in China, Amazon still serves as a massive platform for Chinese businesses and does a large volume of business in China. And let’s not even talk about the major media platform that is actually controlled by China!
So perhaps Twitter shouldn’t be privately owned at all? If it’s genuinely as important to democracy as Musk himself seems to believe, perhaps it should be a public utility. That’s a view taken by people with as radically opposed views as Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey and Catholic integralist Adrian Vermeule. But it’s not clear to me that this solves the problem in a material way. Vermeule’s tweet calling for state ownership explicitly says that the state must be “rightly ordered” which is actually the whole rub: Vermeule would be horrified if the public square itself were controlled by a state he viewed as wrongly-ordered, as indeed he considers the state that actually exists to be.
Dorsey favors Musk’s takeover as a kind of enlightened despotism that is preferable to subservience to the demands of advertisers, but he’d prefer the service not be a for-profit enterprise at all. His idealized vision for Twitter doesn’t involve state ownership, but rather decentralized management through publicly available and shared protocols. Twitter would be managed, in other words, something like Wikipedia, or like an open-source operating system. I find that vision instinctively appealing, and I’ve been profoundly impressed by the ability of crowd-managed systems to operate at a high level. But the public square is different. If Wikipedia doesn’t handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to everyone’s satisfaction, well, it’s just one source of information on that topic. If Wikipedia got to decide who was allowed to talk about the conflict, and in what way, that would raise much more serious issues, and the fact that most users considered its volunteer editors to be remarkably fair and balanced in their treatment would not be sufficient to deflect criticism. The managers of the public square require something more than a good track record; they require legitimacy.
I don’t think there’s any entity that could achieve that kind of legitimacy in the world we actually inhabit. Twitter can make its algorithm public, can “authenticate all humans,” can do all the things that Musk is planning to do so as to increase trust and transparency, and in the end the people who lose by his rules (or simply don’t win enough) will blame him. They’d do exactly the same thing if Twitter continued to be managed to satisfy the demands of advertisers (and employees), or if Twitter were run by the state or by a self-appointed group of volunteers.
There are lots of reasons I don’t like Twitter. I don’t like how it rewards short attention spans, impulsivity and shouting for attention, and how it has thereby contributed to interpersonal conflict that can and has bled into real life. I don’t like how it has made so many people in positions of power afraid of their own shadows and therefore incapable of making sensible decisions. These are problems that, I believe, are fundamental to the way Twitter functions, not things that can be fixed, so if Twitter is the agora, I think we have a serious problem.
Fortunately, I don’t think Twitter is the agora. It’s just one way of disseminating information among many, one platform for debate among many. It has far fewer users than other social media platforms and I suspect it has far less influence on people’s actual opinions and behavior (outside of its own heavy-user subculture) than people think. It is, as they say, “not real.” But if it isn’t really the town square, it is true that it has no credible direct competitors. Its network effects are incredibly powerful and yet it is not even a terribly lucrative niche to own (as evidenced by Twitter’s paltry revenues), so building a viable competing service is extremely difficult to impossible, as those who have tried have discovered.
Can that be changed? I don’t know. But I think that’s the really important question with respect to Twitter (and an even more important one with respect to far more powerful dominant tech platforms like Google). The ultimate check on mismanagement of the town square is the ability to move to another town, or even to found another town. Twitter’s lack of competition within its niche—which, again, I don’t believe is close to being the equivalent of the town square—means that, if it is poorly managed, you have no other town to go to, and no practical way to start another town. And since any management is going to be poor from the perspective of a significant number of people, the sense that there’s nowhere else to go is going to feel oppressive to enough people to be a recurrent problem.