The stock market was rocked Thursday morning by the news that Tesla CEO Elon Musk has made a hostile offer to take Twitter private. Musk stated that he did not trust current management to do what needs to be done with the service.
Musk has two goals, based on documents filed with the Securities & Exchange Commission detailing his communications with Twitter chairman Bret Taylor.
First, Musk is looking forward to his $3 billion investment in Twitter, currently 9%; he has questioned in tweets whether Twitter is “dying” and becoming less vital as a platform, arguing that substantial changes are needed to avert that prospect.
At the same time, Musk has a higher purpose. He says he wants to make Twitter a platform for free speech.
“I invested in Twitter because I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the world, and I believe that freedom of speech is a societal necessity for a functioning democracy,” Musk wrote to Taylor. “Since making my investment, I now realize that the company in its current form will not thrive or serve this societal need. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”
Also: Elon Musk offers to buy Twitter for $43 billion and keep it private
In comments later Thursday, Musk spoke of specific changes he would make at a TED Talk, including eliminating spam bots and Twitter’s open source algorithm.
While Musk may succeed in increasing the value of his stake in Twitter, he’s unlikely to succeed in the second goal, which is to make Twitter a free-speech mechanism. As with all other social media platforms, including Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Tik Tok, Twitter’s structure prohibits freedom of expression.
Social media does not allow any control on the part of the participants. Individuals have no control over how they use what they type in tweets and posts and “likes” and other social media actions. Everything is controlled by the owner of the social media platform, who is free to sort, sift, and display user contributions as the platform owner sees fit.
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Because there is no control by a user, there is no autonomy for those who participate in social media. And without autonomy there is no identity, only the illusion of identity.
Like anyone who participates in social media, Elon Musk participates in the illusion of having an identity online. In all respects, “Elon Musk” exists no more than any other entity. It is a name associated with a series of text fragments residing in a database that is constantly sorted and sifted at its discretion by a platform owner.
People who have no identity have no “speech” because they are merely fulfilling the will of the platform. Since they have no expression, the notion of “free” speech is irrelevant.
What is social media under the veneer of identity and speech? It is a machine intended to reduce entropy by enforcing repetitive patterns of activity with the aim of raising a clear signal for advertising. Hence the production of more and more derivative content on Tik Tok and other platforms.
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There is a way to restore control to individuals, give them online autonomy, and thereby create something like identity and something close to real speech. That path includes returning control to individuals through a personal protocol, mastering how their utterances appear, their likeness, their presence on websites and in the expanding world of the Metaverse, things like The Sandbox and Decentraland.
A personal protocol would make each person the owner and sole controller of their data, beyond the reach of platform owners.
That kind of change can’t happen from Twitter or Facebook, or LinkedIn. Fixing those services, as Musk suggests, would only lead to improved versions of a system that lacks design freedom.
Nothing less than a radical rethinking of identity online could ensure that freedom is granted to those who participate in all online worlds, including social media.
If Musk were to go down the road to help create a personal protocol that no one owns, it would promote freedom and freedom of expression. It may not increase the value of Musk’s Twitter stock, but it would promote the second, more important, of his stated goals.