Yesterday’s closing of the deal, whereby Elon Musk became the owner of Twitter, was announced to its user base thus:
I wanted to reach out personally to share my motivation in acquiring Twitter. There has been much speculation about why I bought Twitter and what I think about advertising. Most of it has been wrong.
The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence. There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide society.
In the relentless pursuit of clicks, much of traditional media has fueled and catered to those polarized extremes, as they believe that is what brings in the money, but, in doing so, the opportunity for dialogue is lost.
That is why I bought Twitter. I didn’t do it because it would be easy. I didn’t do it to make more money. I did it to try to help humanity, which I love. And I do so with humility, recognizing that failure in pursuing this goal, despite our best efforts, is a very real possibility.
That said, Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences! In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences, just as you can choose, for example, to see movies or play video games from all ages to mature.
I also very much believe that advertising, when done right, can delight, entertain, and inform you; it can show you a service or product or medical treatment that you never knew existed, but is right for you. For this to be true, it is essential to show Twitter users advertising that is as relevant as possible to their needs. Low relevancy ads are spam, but highly relevant ads are actually content!
Fundamentally, Twitter aspires to be the most respected advertising platform in the world that strengthens your brand and grows your enterprise. To everyone who has partnered with us, I thank you. Let us build something extraordinary together.
— Elon Musk —
The intentions stated above are highly admirable…but let’s keep firmly in mind that they are intentions. Only the technological aspects of Twitter are entirely under Elon Musk’s control. The behavior of its users is a different subject altogether. We must wait to learn whether the two will find a happy medium that will elevate Twitter from the sewer it’s become to a genuinely worthwhile medium for exchange.
Critical to the outcome will be the intentions of Twitter’s users. If there is near-unanimous cleaving to a norm of courtesy and civility in discourse, then prospects are good. But how likely is that – and more to the point, how large a fraction of uncivil, discourteous behavior would be enough to bring the project to ruin?
In non-digital society, a degree of departure from law-abidingness that exceeds 2% of the population would be enough to render law enforcement and the maintenance of public order impossible. While I cannot yet prove this mathematically, the empirical evidence is sufficient for me to be confident about it. Consider the riots of 2020 and 2021 as demonstrations. Does the same percentage apply to a two-way digital realm such as Twitter?
The question is relevant because there will always be people determined to violate any given norm of conduct. Some will “see a profit in it;” others will simply take pleasure from destroying the norm. If the norm is a standard for civil discourse, there will be a gray zone that will render policing difficult and arbitrary, making the matter still more complex.
In particular, the intentions of politically oriented Twitter users must be addressed. Do the two sides we typically call Left and Right really want to converse – to argue about principles and policy using evidence and logic? If both are so inclined, then constructive conversation will occur, rather than the hurling of insults and the attempts to defame or damage one another that previously characterized such exchanges. But not everyone in those spheres wants constructive conversation. Some are actively opposed to it.
There are several possible reasons for which Smith might prefer to insult, defame, or damage Jones rather than have a civil conversation with him. There’s no need to analyze them here today. What matters is whether any method of curbing such behavior could prevail against the intentions of Smiths so inclined. A sufficient number of Smiths would render any policing technique fruitless.
In this regard, the behavior of political activists as observed and reported in the real world is not encouraging. I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised, though I’m not about to “bet the mortgage money.”
What will matter most to Twitter’s value as a money-making enterprise is whether there are still advertisers brave enough to risk a dip in Twitter’s previously foul waters. But if Elon Musk is sincerely more concerned with fostering civil discourse than turning an immediate profit, he could succeed where others would fail. It might require that he maintain Twitter at a break-even or lose-a-little concern for some time, until the new standards for user behavior prove durable enough to reassure potential advertisers. Of course it would also require patience and endurance…but Musk appears to have those in quantity.