The shitstorm that is Elon Musk has hit Twitter. The village idiot got drunk in the town square and started hurling curses and abuse at everyone there. He’s now wondering why everyone is packing up to leave, while he proceeds to turf people out himself and smash everything in sight.
Everything that was built in the town square is now at risk. It will never be the same and it will always be stained and tarnished by what’s happening.
The thing is, that while Twitter has been a public space, it never really was, and it most certainly isn’t now. It was always a company. It was always a business trying to make money out of its users. It was always owned. This was never “our” space despite the fact that it felt that way. It was always there to exploit us, but it did so in an insidious way. It gave us value.
Twitter was the first and only tool I’ve seen and used to truly connect with people. It broke down barriers of geography. It allowed you to choose who you listened to. It provided ways, as Douglas Rushkoff says, to “find the others”.
Its openness meant that it was often banal, venal, gross, violent, sick and abusive. It did very little to combat that. If it was a truly public space then it would have been clamped down hard – new rules, methods and protocols would be put in place. But it wasn’t public, it was owned.
So instead the platform hyped up the negative because it made money. It showed whatever disaster was happening and framed it as “trending”. Trending was how Twitter framed some of the grossest and vile aspects of the platform and promoted them for you to see. It was like selling tickets to a car crash. Click the trend and watch someone get pwned and their life destroyed. Watch those brave idiots hurl abuse at everyone they could and the vitriol that was aimed at women, people of colour, and LGBQTI+ communities just grew and grew. It was an unstoppable force… but only because it made money.
Twitter was never a public square. It was never owned by us. It never served the public interest. It served its shareholders. It served its venture capital. And now it serves Elon.
I’ve been exploring Mastodon, both as a user and as a technical infrastructure. There’s a lot to like, and there’s also a lot to think about. I like the community feel, of connecting with like minds and contributing together. That feels vastly different to Twitter.
Mastodon is not Twitter, it doesn’t replicate it, it is an alternative to it. It’s not structured in the same way and it doesn’t have the same features, some of which made Twitter equally good and toxic.
But it’s not a public square either. Every instance is owned. That ownership model can be vastly different to Twitter and non-commercial, but it’s still owned. It’s still not public. Part of that is because the infrastructure has a cost.
The public square exists as an idea because collectively we can decide to surrender a space, give it over to everyone and fund the infrastructure around it. We can also agree to maintain it and, if needed, create rules and protocols about what the space is for. A public square is something that can change and respond to the times. It can evolve from marketplace to refuge depending on circumstances. A place of celebration and mourning.
I don’t know how and if you can make that a reality at the scale that Twitter did. The public square is antithetical to being owned. Maybe that’s why Twitter struggled as a corporate entity. Never meeting its hyped valuations or turning over the amount of money that would keep its masters happy.
Maybe a truly public square is not possible online. Instead of a public square, we have many. We create and tend to our communities and not dive into the shallows with the roiling swollen masses. Maybe it’s time to nurture the smaller human-scale things and stop distracting ourselves with whatever is trending.