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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Musk’s Twitter Will Not Be the Town Square the World Needs

In April, as he prepared to make his offer to buy Twitter, Elon Musk asked on the site whether “a new platform is needed” for “the de facto public town square.” Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s cofounder—and, until recently, its CEO—replied to him privately in a now-public text: “Yes, a new platform is needed,” he wrote. “It can’t be a company. This is why I left … It can’t have an advertising model … It should be funded by a foundation.”

Musk is unlikely to listen—especially given the plans he announced Thursday morning to make Twitter the “most respected advertising platform in the world.” Twitter after Musk’s purchase will be loaded with debt; interest alone will be billions of dollars each year. And his alliance with far-right voices (see, for example, the “three Musketeers” meme he posted suggesting common cause with Donald Trump and Kanye West), combined with his undercooked ideas about content moderation, make him an unlikely steward for the kind of cohesion and meaning-building digital “town square” democracies need.

The other options are no better. Mark Zuckerberg seems to have given up on his stated mission of building community and “bringing the world closer together” while he chases the metaverse, and is pivoting Facebook and Instagram to algorithmically surfaced TikTok-style videos. And TikTok, the fastest growing social application and an increasingly important source of news around the world, is effectively controlled by the world’s most powerful autocrat, Xi Jinping, and his surveillance state.

Musk’s purchase is the inevitable outcome of a choice we collectively made to cede our public sphere to centralized, advertising-driven companies controlled by a few men. The outcome has been a functionally autocratic digital environment in which you can tweet whatever you want—but to change the dynamics of the platform itself, you need $44 billion. And it’s been disastrous for democracies, for communities, and for many people who have suffered the hate, political oppression, and worse that comes with being an afterthought in an attention economy.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

This moment of great change in social media gives us a window to choose a different path. It’s time to stop relying on a few billionaires or VCs to make key decisions for billions of people around the world. It’s time to invest in public digital spaces that actually serve the public and prioritize healthy relationships, stable communities and, well, people.

This isn’t just a pipe dream: A growing movement of software architects, community entrepreneurs, designers, and researchers around the world—including myself and my colleagues at New_Public—are starting to imagine and build the kind of truly public spaces that Dorsey’s text gestures at.

We start by taking the town square metaphor seriously—not just because town squares are not run for financial gain, but because a meaningful understanding of how public spaces work in healthy communities in the physical world can give us a great deal of insight about how to structure the digital world. In the physical world, we’ve developed a whole host of social affordances and institutions–from park benches and parks to schools to sidewalks to libraries—to help build cohesion and inclusion.

And as in the physical world, in the digital world there should not be one single town square, no single, unitary nonprofit Facebook clone. We take inspiration from the economist Elinor Ostrom, who, after studying how communities manage commons like fisheries and forestries around the world, declared that there are “no panaceas,” no one-size-fits-all solutions for commons management.

What we should aspire to is an overlapping ecosystem of cross-connected public-service and publicly owned digital social spaces. On today’s Big Social, a few voices do a lot of the speaking, while most users struggle to get heard, get shouted down when they do, or self-censor to avoid harassment and worse—a problem less prevalent in the world of “small social.” Moving to smaller fora creates more opportunity for everyone to actually participate.

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Consumers have sensed this and are already moving toward a digital social environment of smaller and more governable spaces. You can see this in the rise of Discord, Slack, group chats, and Web3 DAOs—spaces that feel more ownable, governable, and safe than the legacy commercial platforms. However, these spaces tend to be either high-quality, well-moderated, and homogenous, with a subscription business model, or a low-quality, heterogeneous free-for-all. The critical project that the new wave of startups have little incentive to solve for is building free, heterogeneous, well-moderated communities—and that’s where public-service digital spaces have a critical role to play.

Private and public funders should invest in smaller and more public governable spaces—the digital equivalents of parks and libraries—built toward specific community goals (for example, slower but respectful local conversation) rather than advertiser engagement.

As for what will draw people to participate in them, the dynamics of these new spaces can be informed by the ones in offline life. People don’t go to libraries to participate in civic democracy, they go to libraries to get books, access the internet, engage librarians, and use free community space—in other words, to meet disparate individual needs that commercial and market-based solutions will not. The fact that libraries build community strength and cohesion is a beneficial byproduct. There are plenty of these unmet needs in digital life as well—especially where building deep relationships and community is concerned. Meeting needs around social support and connection in a simple, enjoyable way can drive adoption of these spaces.

Some of these social spaces can also grow around existing public institutions. For example, New_ Public has been investigating how public-service digital conversations might be built around one of America’s largest and most public institutions: school communities. These communities contain many of the ingredients for building a healthy, pluralistic, cross-cutting public conversation: a shared identity and investment, a relatively high degree of diversity, and a need to communicate digitally. But, as researcher danah boyd has pointed out, schools are overburdened already, and weaving this “social network for democracy” isn’t anyone in particular’s job. The school community members in Oakland, California, we worked with saw an enormous unmet opportunity to help each other solve problems as caretakers, be more informed about their schools, and celebrate their kids accomplishments digitally (think the digital equivalent of a school talent show)—none of which are met by most of the existing tools around schools.

There’s still plenty of space in this vision for private businesses online, just as coffee shops don’t obviate the need for parks and bookstores don’t remove the need for libraries. In fact, as they do in the physical world, investments in digital social infrastructure could increase the value and health of businesses: They could take on some of the thorny functions and conversations that advertisers aren’t eager to support anyway and would be better managed by public servants.

Bringing online a digital environment conducive to healthy conversation and democracy will require a mix of space-size ambition and human-scale curiosity and care. We’ll need an explosion of experimentation to discover how to build different kinds of social spaces, and we’ll need to develop new methods to quickly assess what works and what doesn’t. We’ll need a significant amount of new philanthropic and public funding for this work. And we’ll need community entrepreneurs, digital urban planners, and public-interest technologists who are adept at building with the public in mind.

Getting our communications infrastructure right is an existentially important task. The fate of democracy—and our ability to solve big problems, from runaway AI to climate change to the next pandemic—depends on our ability to see each other, influence each other, and make meaning with each other. All of that will happen to a large degree in digital spaces.

We can build the kind of digital public spaces that actually help us come together effectively. Or we can continue to put our faith in Xi Jinping, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon, and hope for the best.

We know how that experiment plays out. It’s time to try a different one.


WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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