With or without Elon Musk, Twitter is bad. It’s seduced the country into transferring important parts of our political and cultural discourse onto an addictive platform with unhealthy incentives. The company’s business model is predicated on tricking our brains into spending as much time as possible on the app. It’s not moral to want any part of that.
You don’t have to consume unhealthy and addictive foods to live in America — although it’s hard not to. But you do have to consume Twitter to participate in American politics and culture simply because it’s where politicians, journalists, and powerful people do much of their work. It’s where they post statements, debate one another, and respond to constituents, customers, and shareholders.
So whether you’re on the platform or not, you’re subjected to a culture that’s distorted by it because Twitter distorts discourse by manipulating human behavior in destructive ways. If anything, Elon Musk should work to steer Twitter towards an off-ramp, gently sending it off to pasture.
But in the meantime, I think Musk can do a lot of good (even while his stance on China and corporate welfare remains of serious concern). Twitter is smaller than other social networks, but its disproportionate cultural power means the company is a standard-bearer. That’s critical for a few reasons.
First, if Musk seriously finds a way to make the Twitter algorithm public, he’ll set a fantastic example for other social media companies that influence our culture and our interpersonal relationships so dramatically. He would do this both by creating the infrastructure and helping create a norm.
The same goes for his goal of restoring content moderation more in line with First Amendment standards. This is what most Americans want — despite the fears and objections of Silicon Valley, journalists, and Washington Democrats — so Musk finally ignoring the hysteria would go a long way towards reestablishing a better cultural norm of platforms functioning as reasonably neutral arenas. (Returning to such a norm would have positive downstream consequences for sectors like banking as well, where activists have tried to pressure corporations to deplatform people who commit wrongthink.)
Again, when it comes to speech, Musk simply relaxing Twitter’s stringent and laughably absurd policies would also show other social networks a healthier way is both better and possible. Musk would certainly face hyperbolic backlash for letting people like Donald Trump and Alex Jones back onto the platform, but most users would probably prefer a more neutral environment, rendering the hysteria less powerful than it is now, when executives assume it’s reflective of public sentiment and will crush their business.
Finally, Musk can also work to make Twitter a psychologically healthier space. It might hurt his business but, judging by the money he spent on the company itself, finances aren’t his top priority in this particular case. It may well turn out he made a good financial decision, but he seems sincerely focused on lifting a giant middle finger to the corporate establishment. A great way to do that would be to innovate a better business model.
We’ve run an experiment with obviously terrible results on all of society over the past two decades. Our intimate data is in the hands of major corporations (and their friends in government). Our politics and relationships are litigated on speech platforms run like slot machines. We’re more divided, more online, and less happy.
While Twitter is smaller than other tech companies, Musk can use the platform to nudge our cultural norms in a healthier direction, create healthier social media infrastructure, and model an all-around better way of doing business. The world would be better off without Twitter, but if we have to have it, Musk just might be able to minimize the damage.