Elon Musk is naïve about Twitter

posted by Jeff | Thursday, April 28, 2022, 5:30 PM | comments: 0

One could generally argue that trying to grow a new car company in the late aughts, building electric cars no less, was a pretty bad business idea. Trying to build a private space exploration company seems like a worse idea, since at the time only governments had ever put people in space. It requires a fair amount of hubris, maybe arrogance, to think that you can do such things. As much as I think both are necessary and important for the future of humanity, I wouldn't put my money into those things. But Elon Musk did, and today I drive two electric cars and watch private rockets carry humans into space from my front yard. As controversial as he can be, he deserves credit for doing what bordered on impossible for a non-government entity. It's a big deal.

But with the increasing success of these endeavors, Musk has looked at every problem as something he can solve. The problem is that the two really big things he helped solve took many years, many people and a whole lot of knowledge and experience to be gained to get to where he is now.

Twitter is a dumpster fire. I've played along and use it to shamelessly promote my sites, but the quality of "conversation" there is terrible. The limited nature of it, the short messages, are inherently poorly suited for nuanced conversation, but optimized for nonsense, sharing bullshit and insults. Yes, some people get a lot of utility out of it, and that's fine. It's just not for me. I don't see the value in anything that I can say to a random audience in 280 characters, and it may take a little narcissism to believe otherwise. That's why I don't even write here as much, because who cares?

What I can say is that I have been directly involved in online communities long before anyone ever said "social media" aloud. I put my first forum online in 1999, and after 23 years, I've seen the full range of what happens when people communicate over the Internet. It's nice to have a small niche as we do in the roller coaster nerd area, and it's mostly free from noise (admittedly in part because people have gone to Facebook and, wait for it, Twitter). But think about what happened in that time frame: COPPA, the testing of Section 230 in the courts, GDPR and just last week, the Digital Services Act in the EU. We have hard data on election interference, privacy scandals and the harm of engagement algorithms. The online world is far from a utopia, and it brings new problems we don't have in the in-person world.

I'm not going to try and psychoanalyze Musk (though I have my opinions and theories), but for whatever reason, he believes that he can make Twitter better on the basis of his free speech ideals. And when you have billions of dollars and the aforementioned hubris, you can buy a Twitter. But the problem with his free speech ideals is that they ignore the reality of online community. First of all free speech as a concept is a government concept. The First Amendment exists to prevent the government from telling you what to say. A business can do whatever it wants in that regard, especially in the backward world where you're the product, and not the customer. Regulating what happens on your platform is necessary because your actual customers do not want to be associated with something that's icky. Furthermore, if you don't moderate it, regulators will, and that's where the EU is already going. Indeed, these large platforms are businesses, and ideals don't pay for servers.

Beyond that, I think there's a moral responsibility. Twitter banned Trump because he incited an insurrection. Facebook deleted thousands of fake accounts set up by Russian operatives who were using the platform to influence elections toward candidates sympathetic to them. In the midst of a global pandemic where lives were at stake, most platforms labeled Covid content with a warning about its authenticity. These are all responsible actions by people running a business. Again, you can't remain neutral, nor should you. And by the way, First Amendment as applied to online platforms is the right to censor them, which is kind of ironic and funny.

I bounced some users spreading Covid falsehoods on my sites, because I'm not going to pay for that or be a part of its distribution. I've also dropped racists, homophobes and other people wielding hate. I don't need that in the online extension of my community.

What's really disappointing about Musk and his sudden Twitter obsession is that his allegations about what's wrong with it are not based on actual data and research that tells a fairly complete story. That story is that there is no bias against "conservatives" and that the engagement algorithms actually favor their version of "reality." For a guy who puts people in space, you'd think he would approach it a more data driven way. But then, he's the guy who thought he could fish those kids out of that cave in Thailand and then called the real hero diver a "pedo guy." Like I said, success in one area doesn't make you an expert elsewhere.

At least he's leading an important part of moving toward sustainable energy. Unless of course he's too busy fucking around with the Twitter.


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