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Elon Musk is right that Twitter is the "de facto town square."
But he's wrong about everything else.
Welcome to The Experiment, where we are talking about Austin’s newest insufferable megalomaniac, and no, I’m not talking about Joe Rogan. I tend to agree with Prof. Scott Galloway in thinking that Musk is undeniably world-shaping with his electric cars and reusable rocket ships, but he’s also 12 pounds of crazy in a 10-pound sack. So when he made his play for Twitter, it’s left to the us, as well as security regulators and shareholders, to figure out whether we’re seeing the Henry Ford version of Elon or the Howard Hughes one.
On this one, I think we’re seeing both, but more the latter than the former.
I’m pretty sure Elon Musk buying Twitter would be a bad idea for everyone, but the dude is absolutely right about why it’s valuable. Twitter is, he said recently in a TED conference, the “de facto town square.” Our town square is no longer The New York Times, because Twitter is where we go to discuss The New York Times. Twitter is where we rip apart David Brooks, fight with Maggie Haberman, or marvel at the both-sides contortionism of Bret Stephens. And the de facto town square is not the nightly news but the retweeted clips of Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and the like talking about the news. In a multiverse of news sources, Twitter is where we go to share the news. Elon Musk is absolutely right about that.
And by “we,” of course I’m using some exclusionary zoning here. Twitter does not represent or include everyone. Twitter users are overwhelmingly male, and tend to be younger, more urban, higher paid, and better educated than society as a whole.
But to borrow Prof. Galloway’s conclusion, Twitter punches way above its weight class when it comes to having an impact. “Twitter is among the most important products in history (real-time news source, global communications platform),” he wrote recently. Facebook and Instagram may have changed how we share our lives. Twitter has changed our society by animating awareness with #metoo and #blacklivesmatter, turning politicians into celebrities, altering our perception of public opinion, directly connecting consumers with brands and fans with celebrities, and replacing the Associated Press and Reuters to become how news is spread. Facebook might have spread a ton of disinformation in 2016, but if I hear something important happened, I’m not going to Facebook.
And yet, we still think of Twitter as a thing. Maybe you think of it as a tool, or as an addiction. Maybe you think of Twitter as something you should cut back on. Maybe, like me, your New Year’s resolution was to delete Twitter from your phone. Maybe, like me, you did not do this. Twitter is not a thing, though. When it comes to sharing information in our society, Twitter is the thing. It’s it. Twitter has replaced the Internet.
I hear something important happened, I’m not going to Facebook.
Yes, I know Twitter’s on the Internet, you pedantic knob. Stay with me here. Actually, go back with me to 1995, when I was working on a senate campaign in Texas. What made this campaign special was that we had the first website of any campaign in Texas history. Just the year before, we were carrying beepers and sending faxes on the Ann Richards campaign. A year later, we had a website where you could find our mailing address and phone number. We didn’t have email yet. Some day, we thought, every campaign would have a website. My stars, how marvelous the future was to behold.
One night I was standing in a cocktail bar that is now condos in downtown Austin, having drinks with the guy who built the website. After a couple of drinks, he sheepishly told me about the latest development in what we then called the World Wide Web. Apparently you could watch live videos of couples in their altogether enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company. Until that point, I had been skeptical of the medium’s viability, but if it was going to enable dudes to look at naked ladies doing stuff, then I allowed that this whole Information Superhighway might be headed somewhere.
Later that year, a safe containing a sex tape was stolen from Tommy Lee’s garage. A couple months after my candidate lost his primary in 1996, Penthouse reported on the infamous Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee home video. Hoping to contain the damage to her career and to minimize distribution of illegal videotapes, the couple allowed an adult internet company to stream the tape online. You see, they thought the Internet was just a thing. They didn’t know it was the thing.
The Internet had become the de facto town square, but we’re talking 1970s Times Square.
The Internet had become the de facto town square, but we’re talking 1970s Times Square with all the peep shows and working girls. The Internet is how Matt Drudge later that same year told us that Newsweek was sitting on the intern story and how a year later we read all the horny details in the Starr Report. The day the Office of Independent Counsel uploaded the Starr Report, it accounted for 20% of all Internet traffic. The rest was probably looking at Pamela and Tommy’s vacation video.
At the close of the ‘80s, we turned to CNN to see bombs drop on Bagdad and to watch the tape of LAPD cops kicking Rodney King. By the end of the ‘90s, we were telling each other to go to “dubya dubya dubya dot…” to see the news. Can you imagine not going to Twitter now to find what everyone’s talking about? Nowadays, boomers are still watching the news, Gen X is going to news websites, and Millennials and Gen Z — the two largest generations in human history — go to social media for the news.
Need more evidence Twitter dominates the news media? Recently, editors at the Times urged its reporters to “meaningfully reduce how much time you’re spending on the platform.”
“Tweet less, tweet more thoughtfully, and devote more time to reporting,” said executive editor Dean Baquet. Notice that he didn’t say that reporters should get off the Internet or even social media in general. Only Twitter was judged dangerous for journalists. But what is staggeringly wrong-footed about Baquet’s anti-Twitter guidelines is that he’s telling his reporters to not go where their readers go, as if it corrupts a pastor to be among the congregation.
Baquet is telling his reporters to not go where their readers go, as if it corrupts a pastor to be among the congregation.
Some of you are reading this and comforting yourself that you are not on Twitter. Congratulations. You are the 21st-century equivalent of people from the ‘70s who claimed not to own a television, from the ‘80s who bragged that they didn’t have cable, and from the ‘90s who said they only watched HBO. (Honestly, if you aren’t on Twitter and have read this far, I am deeply grateful.)
You don’t have to be on Twitter, however, for Twitter to have an outsized impact on your life. Consider this: Think of your life before Trump was kicked off Twitter and after. Because Twitter aerosolizes toxic discourse in the service of engagement, Trump was able to dominate our offline public conversations in the aggregate. One example: In 2018, I was standing on a street corner in Manhattan, waiting for the light to change, and looking at Twitter on my phone.
If you aren’t on Twitter and have read this far, I am deeply grateful.
“Oh god,” I said.
A total stranger standing next to me said, “What did he say now?”
Neither of us said his name, but we both knew we were talking about Trump.
Since Twitter kicked Trump off, however, things have calmed a lot more than can just be explained by him not being president anymore. He still holds dominion over the Republican Party, and he still says weird stuff all the time, like the other day when he endorsed Dr. Oz for senate. “He even said that I was in extraordinary health, which made me like him even more (although he also said I should lose a couple of pounds!),” Trump said in a statement. But now we hear about this in the news like regular people and not on the phone that shares a VPN with your brain. Our experience of Trump, therefore, is mediated and curated.
Mind you, Trump is not being censored, just kicked out of the bar for being a lousy drunk. He still has his First Amendment rights to share his hottest of takes, such as his unsolicited confirmation of a recent hole-in-one. He also has access to the Internet and can get on Fox News presumably whenever he wants. Literally the only thing of value that has been taken away from him is Twitter.
Trump is not being censored, just kicked out of the bar for being a lousy drunk.
Where Musk is riotously wrong about Twitter is that he thinks it limits speech too much and that what is lacking in the de facto town square is more cryptobots, more Trump, more Q-Anon, more actual honest-to-goodness Nazis, and just more everything because free speech, man.
Actually, and again I’m cribbing notes from Prof. Galloway, what Twitter needs is more moderation and curation. He says it’s crazy to allow brands and celebrities to communicate for free to millions of people. They should pay, as should Elon Musk, whose errant tweets move, if not manipulate, markets. Twitter should move to a subscription model and police the town square. Right now it’s selling advertising based on the promise that the algorithm will weaponize engagement so much so that we’ll doomscroll our days away while feeling like we’re having a stroke. You might not think you’d pay a monthly fee for a Twitter that didn’t replicate a Klan rally, but remember — watching television used to be free, and making long-distance phone calls used to be expensive as hell. Things change. We adjust and forget they were ever different in the first place. The question is less whether we’re willing to pay but whether Twitter will become worth it.
Before I let you go, please forgive what I’m sure are myriad errors of fact, analysis, taste, and judgment. I’m pretty sure I’m right about Twitter, but it’s hard to see paradigm shifts in real time. In a week, something else could happen, revealing to me in a flash that I’ve been a complete idiot about this whole thing. And then I’ll go on Twitter and watch everyone dunk on me.
Jason Stanford is the co-author of NYT-best selling Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. His bylines have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, and Texas Monthly, among others. He works at the Austin Independent School District as Chief of Communications and Community Engagement, though he would want to point out that these are his personal opinions and his alone, but you already knew that. Follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.
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