Twitter, social media and the commons

Twitter is a social media platform, in the sense that its content is created by its users. Facebook, Youtube, Tiktok, Instagram and LinkedIn are also social media platforms.

All of these platforms have a goal of making money, which will come from a combination of two sources: subscriptions and advertising. (Amazon and Google are both moving into advertising, but neither promises anything like the “social” environment of these others.)

Back in 2010, I pointed out the Faustian bargain of social media companies: They either charge subscriptions to protect users (and lose users) or they sell advertising and abuse users. Much to my dismay, most of the SM websites have gone with the latter option, which has contributed to insecurity (even suicide), abuse (even genocide), and disruption (fake news, disinformation). Although it’s clear that some SM platforms are run by asocial narcissists, it’s also clear that new owners, no matter their understanding of psychology, will adapt methods that create $0.01 of revenue for every $100 of social damages. That’s how less-destructive businesses (e.g., oil, guns, alcohol) have run for centuries.

So we’re fucked.

What’s sad about Twitter is that it was less bad than most of the other SM platforms. Users had more control over who they followed; trolls were easier to block; individuals could reach a larger audience, faster than on other platforms promising to “boost” influence. For some professions (journalists and academics), Twitter was an amazing source of information, insight and (occasionally) influence.

All of that is now at risk because Elon Musk has simultaneously failed on three fronts:

  1. Destroying the “blue check” system that reduced fraud.
  2. Destroying civility by re-authorizing accounts of trolls and liars at the same time as firing moderators.
  3. Alienating nearly all “mainstream” advertisers.

So it looks like Twitter will turn into an underfunded cesspool of trolls, victims and megalomaniacs. That’s not just a bad way to blow $44 billion. It’s bad for all of the people — of all nations and statures — who will be fooled, angered and abused by the firehose of hate that Twitter (and other SM sites) promote in the name of “engagement.”

My one-handed conclusion is that you’re better off with more socializing and less Asocial Media™

Or try Mastodon?


*The Dutch say that someone is asocial when they are an asshole, i.e., ignoring social rules and norms. Americans use “amoral” in the same pejorative way, i.e., lacking morals.

Addendum (12 Dec): Ezra Klein explains Twitter and the commons (with the sheep example, alas).

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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