With news that Elon Musk is purchasing Twitter, we recorded a rare hot takes episode. In addition to Ethan sharing his thoughts, we invited Deepti Doshi from New_Public and Nathan Schneider on to talk about the need for platforms that bolster democracy.
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. This is your producer, Mike Sugarman.
I’ll actually be flipping the script today. Ethan will be on the show, but I will be interviewing him. We wanted to do a quick episode, maybe a kind of unconventional episode for our show about the news that Elon Musk has put in an offer to purchase Twitter. We figured we would cover this by inviting a few different perspectives on how to think through this purchase.
In addition to Ethan, we welcome Deepti Doshi, who is the new co-director of New_Public, alongside the first ever guest on our podcast, Talia Stroud, and our good friend, Eli Pariser. Deepti is giving us a perspective on how we might think about an internet that doesn’t just keep us on our screens but actually ties us to our local community organizations and institutions in a way that strengthens our democracy. On that note, we also have Nathan Schneider back. Previously, Nathan joined us to tell us about platform cooperativism. But, today, Nathan will be talking to us about a lost potential and, for that matter, even a potential future about an idea he calls Exit to Community for Twitter, where instead of getting sold to investors or individuals, Twitter gets sold to its users.
I couldn’t help but ask Nathan to give me his insight as a former journalist and scholar of Occupy Wall Street into an interesting deal that has the world’s richest man purchasing one of the world’s most prominent public squares. We’ll start out with Ethan. I asked Ethan to actually keep it simple and read through a tweet thread that he wrote out a couple of days ago that I think summed up the IDPI point of view on this news pretty well.
I’ll let Ethan take it away. Ethan, can you go ahead and read that thread?
Sure. Mike, let me read it and I may stretch beyond 280 characters occasionally to try to explain what I was actually trying to say. This was my hot take. I don’t usually do hot takes. But, this is so front and center to everything that I study and everything that we work on, I felt like I had to jump in and say something about this. Here’s what I wrote at 4:46 PM on April 25th, 2022. Okay, like virtually everyone else who studies social media, I’m fascinated by Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Let me say upfront, I have no idea what Twitter will be like under Elon’s leadership and neither do you. But that’s the point. We already know very little about how Twitter handles content moderation or how their algorithms work, and taking the company private makes it likely that we will know even less. What we do know is this: two billionaires will now control four of the major digital public sphere platforms. Zuckerberg, by virtue of his unusual founders shares, has functional veto power over most of the decision making within Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. A privately held Twitter will likely give Musk similar personal power over Twitter.
I’m going to do that one more time. A privately held Twitter will likely give Musk similar personal power over Twitter. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that we’ve been willing to have our public, civic conversations on platforms controlled by corporate boards. Musk’s purchase of Twitter just makes that absurdity even more apparent. Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as mass migration to Mastodon. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mastodon. I’ve had an account since 2016, I’m basing many of our projects at Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure on the Mastodon code base. But it’s not a good solution to assume that everyone will leave Twitter due to a change in ownership. What we’re actually facing are twin problems of finding alternative spaces that we have more control over, and problems of interoperability in maintaining the social relationships we’ve already built on these platforms. Mastodon, in which individuals can run small, federated servers is part of the problem. It is always harder than it looks to scale one of those servers, though, moderation’s always hard. It’s harder if you do the right thing, which is focusing on governance, allowing people to determine what’s permissible speech within a community and how they enforce it.
But even a mass exodus to Mastodon servers with thoughtful governance and moderation, we’ve got the problems of folks we’re leaving behind, folks who don’t leave Twitter, Facebook or any other closed platform. We need adversarial interoperability, as Cory Doctorow puts it.
I’m just going to jump out of the thread for a second here and say my friend, Jane Fountain, who also teaches at UMass Amherst, chipped in here and said it’s a little bit like all these people saying we just elected Donald Trump. We’re going to move to Canada. First of all, you didn’t move to Canada. Canada doesn’t want you. It’s actually very hard to get citizenship there. But, even if you did move to Canada, you would probably stay in touch with friends and family back in the United States. It’s harder to do that in some ways. Right now, if you leave Twitter for Mastodon, it actually requires quite a bit of effort to keep up those relationships with those people that you had on Mastodon. It’s the Canada problem plus-plus.
Back into the Twitter thread. I should be able to build a tool that lets you read posts for Twitter, various Mastodons, as well as other networks like Reddit, simultaneously, and through a tool you control. We’ve been building a version of that tool, called Gobo. It’s hard work both technically and legally. With a good aggregator like Gobo plus something that lets you cross-post to Twitter and Mastodon, migrating off this platform without losing the relationships we’ve built up is more realistic. It would also allow a wave of experimentation with platform governance. People could try governing these new Mastodon nodes along whatever set of norms, and affordances, and rules they wanted to try. While I happen to think this is a good way to go, there are lots of other exciting projects out there. One of my favorites is Pubhub, a project in the Netherlands that is being led in part by Jose Van Dijck, one of the world’s great social media scholars. It’s designed to be privacy preserving and non-surveillant. I like some of the ideas coming from planetary.social, though the inability to delete worries me, and even some of what Project Liberty is working on. But we should get our priorities straight.
First, we should limit our investment in social networks we do not govern. No more hoping that a better billionaire buys out a bad billionaire. No more begging for better moderation. Find a platform that wants you to govern, not one that wants to moderate you. Second, fight for real interoperability. Existing multi-million user networks cannot have veto power over future networks. You have a right to maintain your content and your relationships when you leave a platform. Third, build platforms that have a reason and a purpose. Existing platforms try to be all things for all people. Is Twitter or robust civic public sphere? A place for shitposting? A place for experimental bot-based poetry? The fact that it’s all of those things makes it very hard to govern. Lots of social networks, aggregated, each with purpose. I’ve written tons about this at publicinfrastructure.org, I will surely write more. There are lots of fellow travelers working on this from our friends at New_Public to our friend Darius Kazemi. Let’s use this moment to demand better alternatives, not just a better billionaire. So that’s the thread.
I want to drill into a couple things that maybe you didn’t quite get to in the thread, but I know are on your mind. I think one potentially obvious thing to talk about, even though it could even be a bit of a red herring, is the free speech question, that’s why Elon Musk claims he’s buying this thing and that’s why a lot of conservatives are really excited about him purchasing it, maybe not conservative as much as, shall we say, Trump adjacent, right wing [folk online 00:09:42]. But, there’s an idea that you can open up free speech on Twitter by just never banning people, letting people post whatever they want as long as it doesn’t violate some court’s interpretation of the First Amendment. It has probably for a while been in Twitter’s interest, in Facebook’s interest, and all of these social media platforms’ interest to have some kind of regulated speech. I think the Tracy Chou example… Block Party’s a good example of if your platform is so unpleasant to use, it will discourage people from taking part in it. There’s two sides of it, right? We need a public sphere where anyone can take part in it. But, the other side of it is that if you have this unmoderated hellscape, people just won’t stick around.
It would be a very powerful irony if Musk buys Twitter to make an ideological point. Then, his ideological point is ideological networks don’t work very well. It’s possible that if Musk really does take off the breaks, as far as extreme speech, that you end up with a Twitter that looks more like a Gab. People don’t necessarily hang around for it.
I just don’t know. I know that a lot of people right now are picking up and decamping to Mastodon. I wrote that thread in part to explain why I wasn’t decamping immediately. The main reason I’m not decamping immediately is that there just aren’t enough people on Mastodon. I do not want to give up the relationships and I don’t just mean all the people who follow me on Twitter. I also mean all the people who I follow and who I learn from. It’s a huge part of my informational universe. Our friend, Siva Vaidhyanathan, is out there saying Twitter’s just not that important. It’s the 12th largest social network out there. Who really gives a crap? The answer is it’s a really important social network as a public sphere. It is a place where people are talking about the news of the day, the politics of the world, the current issues. It feeds the press, it feeds public discourse. In that sense, it’s really important and I do think it is worth worrying. I think maybe where I’m saying something slightly different is that I also think it was worth worrying 10 years ago when it was merely a private company that would go public at some point and be controlled by the stock market rather than being controlled by the founders of the company. I think it is really worth worrying about having these conversations in a space that’s not a commons.
Twitter’s not a commons and Facebook’s not a commons. We have very few commons in which we can have these conversations.
Right. I think what you’re driving at is a best case scenario for decamping to Mastodon is that you and your 2,000 best friends online go and form a really wonderful little community on Mastodon. But, if something similar happened to your Mastodon community 10 years down the road, you’re going to find yourself in the same predicament, right? It’s not about how big a network is, it’s about how much it matters to the people involved. Generally speaking, in none of these situations is it particularly pleasant for a single person with a lot of influence to come in and start setting the rules for how your network operates.
Well, that’s right. The way that Mastodon runs is, unless you are running the Mastodon node, someone is running your Mastodon node. For all you know, the person that you’ve decided to work with is as problematic as Elon Musk. What you really need is a system that has lots, and lots, and lots of different networks so that there is a real possibility of exit. You can exit from one place and just make things work elsewhere. You need a tool like Gobo that we’ve been developing for years so that it is possible to look at all those networks at the same time so that it isn’t that huge loss when you move away from one network and onto another one.
Well, I think that that is probably a good place for us to introduce our first guest, Nathan Schneider from the University of Colorado Boulder. I asked Nathan to tell us about the time he took his Exit to Community idea right to the corporate shareholders meeting at Twitter
In 2016, 2017, my collaborator, Danny, and I, and along with others organized a shareholder campaign at the company just asking the company to explore options for user ownership and co-governance, exploring what would it look like to really change the meaning of that company. We got a good number of votes. A lot of people really… it opened up a conversation. One thing that is really appreciating this time around is a lot of really prominent people who are floating this idea once again saying, “Hey, wait. Shouldn’t this really be a common asset in some way?” I think people increasingly recognize that’s where it should be, that’s the role it plays in our society, and that there’s something really broken about the fact that this vital platform for public discourse is now about to be owned by the world’s richest person.
Given all of that, let’s take the cold realist approach. What would the future for cooperative ownership of something like social media look like? Could there even be a future Exit to Community of Twitter, let’s say, once the Tesla stock that is currently backing all of the debt on this purchase collapses?
One pathway that a lot of people, I think, a little too optimistically have been hoping for is, “Oh, maybe Elon Musk will facilitate this kind of transition.” There are some reasons to hope for that. Twitter didn’t take up our call for exploring user ownership as a shareholder proposal. But, they did establish something called Project Bluesky that is an effort to explore what it would look like for Twitter to become an open protocol, allowing others to plug into it and to create their own services through it and with it, and that’s actually one of the scenarios that I outlined in a law review paper with Morshed Mannan on what Exit to Community could look like. It seems like Musk is aligned with certain aspects of that vision. I don’t think it’s a completely closed door here, I think there are still options. There’s still a reason to keep the conversation going about what the fate of this platform should be and really thinking of that as a proxy for so much else, so many other platforms, so many other public spaces and utilities that are just wrongly owned. They have a mismatch in their relationship between what they do, what they provide, and how they’re governed, and who they’re accountable to.
In 2013, you published a book about Occupy Wall Street, a really good book about Occupy Wall Street. There’s some weird resonance here, right? You’re talking about Twitter is a space where a lot of people are gathering. Now, it’s a space that’s involved by someone who is not just the 1%. You actually have to create your own series of zeros after the decimal point to place exactly which fraction the percent the richest man of the world is in. How could we understand a kind of future of these platforms through the lens of this really huge, popular social movement, which happened just over 10 years ago?
I think there’s a very serious connection. In 2011, when revolutions were popping up all over the world and often associated with the social media platforms that helped enable them, it was, in many respects, for fans of democracy, very exciting moment because it felt like, “Wow, people… ” one of the slogans of that time is, “We, the people, have found our voice.” It seemed like that was a reality. But, in just about every place where those movements occurred, now especially that Tunisia has been the last one to fall toward its own autocracy, those uprisings produced simply retrenchment.
It turned out that simply organizing through sending messages on viral platforms designed for advertising is not actually an effective way to build durable power, it’s a way to get messages out. But, it doesn’t produce the kind of public square, the kind of organization of movement making, of durable power that one needs to resist authoritarians with militaries and much more durable power structures. I think the same goes for the ownership of these companies themselves. We need to wake up and recognize that if we really want democratic spaces, we need democratic institutions. We need democratic organizations that are able to persist, that are able to outlive a viral moment, and that includes both the governance of these public spaces as well as the kinds of things we’re able to build on them. The decade anniversary of that year was really crushing for me and, I think, for a lot of people who even noticed because it was an incredible wake up call. What was left in the ruins of that?
The Morsi regime in Egypt, the Syrian civil war, ISIS, the rise of Trump. Everywhere you look, those movements that relied so much on social media just demonstrated the limitations of that reliance. One distinction I make is between affective voice… a super silly academic distinction, affective voice, our ability to speak, and feel heard, and express something, and effective voice, the ability to speak with power, with actual leverage that carries out the thing that we are seeking, like a vote does, like someone who holds a position of authority is able to speak with effective voice, like someone with a lot of wealth is able to buy something and change it, whatever anybody thinks. We need to understand the difference that we have, too often, been willing to accept that affective voice and trade away the capacity for effective voice.
Next up is Deepti from New_Public. Deepti wanted to talk to us about how we can use the internet to fortify the exact type of spaces that Nathan was talking about, the places where small D democracy happens, where actual community is formed, and where having a way to talk to our friends, families, neighbors, strangers actually helps bolster the strength of our society overall.
What’s most on our mind is how do we create these public spirited spaces? Frankly, we believe that that needs to start with publicly funded, whether philanthropically funded or publicly funded from the government, systems so that then we’re out of this trap of maximizing for the wrong thing. The one thing it is that New_Public is really thinking about is the role of moderation but how hard that is in a really large space that just exists for conversation in the most general way. One of our theses is that smaller spaces… well, one that we believe that actually people are tending towards wanting to find spaces, social spaces that are fit to serving a particular need and comfortable going to multiple different spaces, like multiple different apps on their phone to do the thing it is that they want and to find the people it is on a particular need. Just really late last night, we kicked off a design sprint focused on what spaces, platforms, tools could be built to help parents get into better relationship with one another around public schools.
Public schools, in theory, are places of diverse families. But, yet, those of us who’ve been around them acknowledge that, often, we hang out with the people it is who look and feel like us. What are the ways it is that… could tools be built to help people get into better relationship around a school where you have this shared interest around your child. Similarly, we’re thinking about what platforms and tools could be built around faith-based communities or health and wellbeing needs?
As somebody who’s really passionate about having scaled impact, the scale of Facebook and the scale of Twitter are always so appealing, but I do think that perhaps the right solution for us are multiple small spaces that are federated in some way. Scale doesn’t need to come from one large platform.
I think what I find inspiring about that is I think there’s a consensus that the problem with a lot of our platforms today is they’re really designed to try to keep you on that platform for as many minutes a day as possible. But, what you’re describing and what I think you’re calling for is exactly something that we need, which is internet tools that improve your engagement with the types of spaces and communities that you’re already implicated in offline and that it’s not just about creating a better internet for experiencing social interactions on the internet. But, perhaps, there’s a better internet that can also improve our involvement in the local world around us. I think you’re right, that actually is an important way to make a positive impact. I think that probably is making it happen at scale if it happens in enough places.
Yup, exactly. We’ve lost these places to practice our democratic habits. The PTA, the unions, the local newspaper, they’ve disappeared from our lives. With the internet, and digital, and our phones taking over, our question is how do we create these spaces… we call them spaces of influence of association and learning how to be in a healthy relationship with one another as a foundation of a better democracy. These digital tools can play a really important… they are playing a very important role to make that happen.
Absolutely, and I think that that’s… I think the values… approach that you’re taking… you can say it is your value to have better local democracy. It is your value to be involved better with, to improve, and strengthen the local institutions that affect your friends and family, right? It’s a very different value than this negative, absolute free speech of, “I should be able to say whatever I want,” which is maybe not a social value, that’s a very selfish value.
Freedom is important, but our collective freedom is very different from our individual freedom. Our collective freedom is what our democracy needs, not our individual freedom.
Mike, so good to talk with you about all of this. I’m really, really glad that you’ve used this as an opportunity to reconnect with some of our friends on this. I think that the conversations that we’ve been having here for the last two years on Reimagining the Internet are really a path forward for people who want to do a deeper dive into what does this particular incident mean and, more broadly, what would it mean to imagine a public internet that is less controlled by individual figures and more treated as a commons.