In the US, much of the narrative surrounds fears that Musk’s ownership of the social networking platform would signal the rise of extreme right-wing political activity, with currently-banned Donald Trump cited as a potential Twitter returnee. Trump, incidentally, says he has no plans to return as he has his own social network now.
Musk’s recent public statements on his belief in everyone’s right to free speech online – he is a self-declared “free speech absolutist” – hasn’t persuaded others of any benefits from this approach to moderating offensive content: those people speak of the probability they believe that Musk’s ownership will mean the end of moderation as we know it today and the platform becoming a free-for-all Wild West where anyone can say anything without fear of consequences, never mind Musk’s recent public comments that “the law will be upheld.”
It’s worth noting that Musk’s bid for Twitter made in mid April 2022 is still that – a bid – that’s expected to close later in 2022. So with the bid filed with regulator the SEC only in the past few weeks, it’s by no means a done deal yet.
But if Twitter does become a free-for-all Wild West as some speculate, where does all this leave the average Twitter user? And what about the hundreds of thousands of organizations big and small that use the social network? Politicians? Celebrities?
While I don’t believe Musk acquiring Twitter will mean the radical departure of content moderation as some fear, I do see some areas of real concern given the current speculation and no hard and clear facts yet.
Indicators of Concern
In an in-depth assessment of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring prior to Musk’s bid move, The Wall Street Journal considers how some highly influential people in the US played a pivotal role in prodding Musk onwards:
Before and during Mr. Musk’s breakneck takeover of Twitter, a close-knit group of libertarian-leaning activists and businessmen have been encouraging him to get involved. This group includes the so-called PayPal mafia—former executives at the online payments company who include Mr. Musk, the investor Peter Thiel and entrepreneur David Sacks—as well as ancillary figures like the venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, an early Tesla investor who once served on the auto maker’s board; and Mr. Musk’s brother, Kimbal, a Tesla board member, according to people familiar with the matter.
A bleak assessment of the future for Twitter if Musk’s bid succeeds comes from The Atlantic, which offers a credible view:
The fight over Twitter’s future is not really about free speech, but the political agenda the platform may end up serving. As Americans are more and more reliant on a shrinking number of wealthy individuals and companies for services, conservatives believe having a sympathetic billionaire acquire Twitter means one less large or influential corporation the Republican Party needs to strongarm into serving its purposes. Whatever Musk ends up doing, this possibility is what the right is actually celebrating. “Free speech” is a disingenuous attempt to frame what is ultimately a political conflict over Twitter’s usage as a neutral question about civil liberties, but the outcome conservatives are hoping for is one in which conservative speech on the platform is favored and liberal speech disfavored.
Such opinions make me wonder if, no matter the global usage and interests of many, Twitter is actually a specifically American phenomenon. It looks like that to me now given the narratives in most media, mainstream and social and no matter the political flavour about Musk’s intentions and possible outcomes.
Which leads me to the point of asking: What now? If you’re personally active on Twitter, what are you going to do, whether you’re in the US or anywhere else?
The answer to such a question surely would start “It depends…” I’m going to offer some answers to follow on from that opening statement.
I’m highly active on Twitter and spend the majority of my time using the platform as a listener rather than as a talker. Part of that is the business hat I wear that means I can pay attention to who’s saying what about topics of business interest, alongside the personal use and topics of personal interest.
There’s no hard line between the two, it’s a pretty blurred one. That mix has worked for me since I joined Twitter in December 2006.
Yet my use has shifted during the past few years where I have become much less engaged with others as my concern grew about misinformation, trolls and bad actors with extreme political motivations, whether extreme left or extreme right, that have become more obvious and very active.
The further concerns that arise in light of what may happen if Elon Musk completes his Twitter acquisition have prompted me to consider other options. Meaning, other places that might be Twitter-like in their operation and would make me feel more comfortable being part of those social networks.
In doing this, I have considered the consequences that may arise if I do jump ship. I’d likely lose the vast majority of the 13.5K followers I have currently on Twitter. My account was verified by Twitter in 2017, evidenced by the blue check mark next to my name, so that ‘trust indicator‘ wouldn’t come with me to a new place.
There’s also the matter of Twitter’s sheer presence. Almost everywhere you look online, there’s a method to share content readily accessible on blogs and websites everywhere. The huge ecosystem includes apps and APIs, all geared to ease of use, and a wealth of data is available on user behaviours and follower engagement that enables you to glean very useful insights. The business side of Twitter in the form of being able to use advertising on the platform is big and still growing.
The flip side is what we hear about too often these days – the manipulation of our data by governments, big advertisers and others who most definitely do not have users’ interest at heart. No wonder there is such mistrust in the true motives of organizations, politicians and almost anyone else.
To be clear, I don’t intend to abandon Twitter – unless the worst fears about moderation and extremist political groups and behaviours suddenly erupt and look like becoming the norm. What I am doing, though, is putting in place a plan so that if I feel Twitter no longer is a place I want to be or be part of, I can transition away completely and quite speedily.
In reality, I am not too concerned about losing some or all of the benefits of Twitter I mentioned above if I do leave the platform. My use of Twitter continues to evolve. For instance, I’m more interested in connecting with a handful or a dozen people than hundreds or thousands of people. I’m not much interested any more in measuring how my tweets perform or parsing all the data to plan on what I ought to do next week or next month. I don’t have a strategy for actively attracting new followers or figuring out why existing followers stop following. I’m perfectly fine if I don’t tweet much in a day, or even don’t tweet at all for a day or so. And I’m enjoying more direct and private engagements with some followers via direct messages.
And so I have restarted an account I opened on Mastodon in April 2017 just after that social network began (and here’s what I said about it at that time). And I’ve re-discovered a more intimate way of connecting that reminds me of the very early days when Twitter first started back in 2006.
Unlike Twitter, Mastodon is partly decentralized, which means there is no one company running the entire Mastodon network. It’s a bit like how the Internet works – a ‘network of networks.’ And while Mastodon and other federated instances (see what that means here) are good options to consider, there are others that might suit your needs better.
My approach to this may or may not appeal to you or even be relevant to you and what your goals are. And for businesses, it’s a very different proposition altogether. If you are interested in trying out Mastodon, though, you can join with this invitation that will give you me as your first connection. Good for the first 50 users and valid for the next week.
In any case, nothing significant has changed with Twitter, not yet. But as the Scouts say, be prepared.
[Update May 2:] After publishing this article, a friend mentioned another potential alternative to Twitter – WT.Social, a social network founded by Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia founder, in 2019.
I signed up at launch but hadn’t used it since then: I saw it more as a competitor to Facebook than to Twitter. Looking at it again I can see how it might appeal to some. For me, though, I prefer the relative simplicity of a place like Mastodon.
Two other places I heard about from a friend on Facebook offer a far broader set of capabilities than that offered by Twitter and the alternatives I’ve talked about here. They might still appeal nevertheless.
The first one is Deso which describes itself as “a new layer-1 blockchain built from the ground up to scale decentralized social applications to one billion users”; the second is Sigle, described as “a web 3.0 open source blogging platform focused on protecting your privacy. Using a decentralised protocol and running on top of Stacks, we give you the possibility to store and lock your writings literally forever on the blockchain.”
I plan to take a close look at these two; I’m especially intrigued by the rise of such services that are clearly Web3 thrusters and, in the case of Sigle, enablers of monetizing your work in Bitcoin through Stacks tokens.
If you know of other choices you’d recommend, do let me know, thanks.