Okay, let’s see what’s happening on Twit – OH MY GOD.
As anyone who uses it knows, the notorious hellsite, never conspicuously well-run, has been in a state of chaos ever since it was bought by Elon Musk. The mercurial billionaire indeed seems bent on running it into the ground, firing much of its staff, alienating its advertisers, welcoming back the trolls and racists banned by its previous owners, and attempting to blackmail users into paying for a “premium” service with the threat that they will be impersonated if they do not. Oh, and rebranding the whole thing as X, which is probably just as well.
And yet for all his determined efforts to drive people away, the platform formerly known as Twitter does not seem to be losing all that many customers: just 3 per cent of unique visitors, year-on-year, as of March. Competing sites, started up in an effort to capitalize on the mayhem – Mastodon, Post, Bluesky, even Threads, an offshoot of Meta’s wildly popular Instagram service – have had varying degrees of success in signing up users.
But they seem to be joining these sites in addition to Twitter (I’m sorry, but I cannot in all seriousness refer to it as X) rather than in place of it. The point having been made – We’re this close to leaving, do you hear? This close! – most continue to natter away at each other on Twitter as before, only with renewed hostility, sharpened by despair.
Because of course they do. They can leave, but if they do they give up the only thing that keeps them on Twitter: their audience. Start with another service, and you have to rebuild your list of followers from scratch. And since the people you follow are in the same boat – loath to leave for fear of losing their followers – it also means that if you leave you lose them.
So everyone sits, and stews, hating what Twitter has become, hating themselves for staying on it, but unable to leave for something better.
This is the “network” or “lock-in” effect, and it’s the source of the social-media platforms’ immense power: not just Twitter, but the much larger Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and the rest. It is a power that, as we now know, has been the source of enormous social harm: not only the misinformation that has addled half the population’s brains, but racist propaganda, revenge porn and so on.
Getting the platforms to take responsibility for what appears on their sites has been an uphill battle. It has been complicated further by the seeming alternative: government regulation. I can think of only one thing worse than the social media we have at present, and that is state-supervised social media.
So no: decisions about what appears on the platforms – how to balance a commitment to free speech with responsibility for the results – must ultimately be theirs. What’s needed is not censorship but editorial judgment, enforced not by the government but by the spectre that haunts every editor: losing readers. That can’t happen so long as the platforms have their users, in effect, under lock and key.
How to free them? Let people keep their followers when they leave. Of course, you can’t actually take your followers with you: they may not want to go. But they should have access to your content wherever you publish it.
Post on one, it should appear on all the others, readable by anyone who follows you. At a stroke this would break the platforms’ stranglehold. If platform X is not a fit place for decent people – if it does not respect people’s privacy, or their intelligence – maybe platform Y does. Let’s go there.
This is the vision underlying the idea of a “fediverse” of social media sites, to which Meta, notably, has lately thrown its support – at least with regard to Threads. It is also at the heart of the important new book by the Canadian writer and internet activist Cory Doctorow, The Internet Con: How To Seize the Means of Computation. As the title suggests, Mr. Doctorow does not think this can be left to the platforms to work out between them. Rather, it will have to be imposed by law.
Nevertheless, this strikes me as the least regulatory, most market-oriented approach to the problem that does not amount to throwing our hands up in the air. Until now, the alternative to the “walled gardens” maintained by the big platforms – monopolistic, closed, but at least preserving something resembling a public square – seemed to be a retreat into smaller miniverses.
By contrast, the “interoperability” that Mr. Doctorow advocates promises the best of both worlds: you can choose between competing providers, without ever having to leave the public square.