Twitter: A Fledgling Digital Public Square

I believe Twitter is one of humanity’s most powerful available tools for overcoming our information crisis...

Introduction

I believe Twitter is one of humanity’s most powerful available tools for overcoming our information crisis.

Our shared sources of truth are disintegrating as trust in traditional institutions crumbles. We are losing the ability to agree on basic facts just as we are becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent.

We need a functional digital public square in order to safely navigate the information age.

In this post I’ll examine four trends in the Twitter ecosystem to paint a picture of the platform's current state, and where it's headed.

  1. Twitter as digital public square
  2. Monetization woes
  3. Polarization and Mis/disinformation struggles
  4. The rise of Twitter alternatives

The next post will discuss how Twitter's "bluesky," an open-source decentralized protocol for social media, can transform it into a healthier digital public square.

Twitter’s Past and Present

#1 Twitter as Public Square

Liberal democracies, the least horrible form of government humanity has created thus far, can't function if their populations aren't able to form consensus on key issues. Consensus formation requires open debate.

Twitter's mission – to "give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers," is perfectly aligned with the ideals of liberal democracy.

The platform's design makes it uniquely positioned among major social networks to serve as a forum for discussion about local, national, and global issues.

  • Facebook confines us to small networks of family and friends.
  • Instagram, Snapchat, and Youtube aren’t designed to facilitate meaningful conversations within and across diverse communities.
  • Reddit has the right structure, but the prevalence of pseudonymous accounts makes it poorly suited for the job.

At 330 million monthly active users, Twitter has built a solid foundation for a digital public square.

#2 Monetization Woes

Despite the platform’s growth, Twitter faces significant business challenges. Ad revenue, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of income, is declining. Twitter operated at a net loss in 2020, and its stock price has chronically underperformed rivals such as Facebook and Snapchat.

The company has recently made important moves towards Passion Economy style monetization. “Super follows” will allow users to charge their followers for access to extra content such as private communities, bonus tweets, and subscriptions to newsletters. Twitter's acquisition of Revue will enable them to attempt competition with Substack.

Twitter will boost revenue by taking a cut from each transaction enabled by these new services, thereby reducing its reliance on advertisements.

#3 Polarization and Mis/disinformation struggles

Twitter's CEO Jack Dorsey has been called to testify in front of the U.S. Congress multiple times and is stuck in a no-win situation. Democrats accuse Twitter of allowing dangerous misinformation to spread, while Republicans claim the company is engaged in politically motivated censorship.

Political pressure in the wake of a contested U.S. Presidential election and the Jan. 6th storming of the Capitol made banning Donald Trump for his alleged role in spreading disinformation that led to violence a logical short-term move. Business would have suffered had they not made the call.

But even anti-Trumpers such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Trump’s eviction from Twitter “problematic,” and Twitter may be considering allowing Trump back on the platform. Dorsey acknowledged that banning Trump was a difficult decision that reflected Twitter's failure to promote healthy conversation.

The reality is that our misinformation/disinformation crisis is merely a symptom of a much larger issue – the chronic lack of trust in our decaying social institutions. A populace which does not trust the corporate press (often with good reason) along with mainstream science or the education system, will inevitably look to "alternative sources" to make sense of the world.

Pew Research Center

Twitter can not fulfill its mission if it continues making millions feel persecuted, driving them to self-censor and seek haven in isolated echo-chambers. Deplatforming, censorship, and ridicule of those with different perspectives merely accelerates the loss of trust in institutions. The apparent dominance of the left on Twitter limits its potential to facilitate healthy debate.

Knight Foundation: Polarization in the Twittersphere

Twitter should develop tools that help us engage in meaningful discussion with our ideological opponents. Eric Weinstein, a Bernie Sanders supporting "Never Trumper" who works for a former Trump-supporter (Peter Thiel), has consistently demonstrated that there is demand for nuanced perspectives on the polarizing issues of our time.

#4 The Rise of Twitter Alternatives

In response to Twitter’s deplatforming spree, there’s been a surge of interest in alternative platforms.

Network effects will keep Twitter safe for a while, but in the absence of a paradigm shift in the company's approach to content moderation, the demand for alternatives will rise. Its potential to act as a space for discussion between groups with diverse viewpoints will disintegrate as people retreat to the safety of their echo chambers.


Why Twitter’s Fate Matters

Twitter is approaching a tipping point.

It will either become exponentially more useful and influential, or it will stagnate, deteriorate, and become increasingly dysfunctional in its role as digital public square.

As the most prominent digital space where world leaders, tech CEOs, celebrity influencers, and the average citizen can all engage in meaningful interactions with each other, the platform can not be ignored. It is the closest we have to a functional and highly scalable digital public square, and it is in our collective best interest to work towards shaping it into a healthier space.  

My next post will explore how bluesky can help transform Twitter, and the broader social media ecosystem, for the better.