Elon Musk’s somewhat reluctant acquisition of Twitter is top of the news today. Lots can be said about this, but I have seen the cycle of free public communication spaces several times now, starting with the old USENET newsgroups in the 1980s.
The problem is basically the same as any other free, shared resource in a society. Think of parks. Without some level of policing and maintainence public parks quickly become places you don’t want to be. Completely free and open is an invitation to all sorts of abuse.
There seem to be multiple forces at work. First, commerce will seek to use these free public spaces for private gain. A park can easily turn into a trash dump. A social network can quickly get filled up with free advertisements, or “spam“. The solution here is rules and policing. This changes everything. Who are the police? Who gets to make the rules? Who pays for the policing and how?
The other, somewhat related problem is acceptable use. Is pornography acceptable on the platform? Most platforms clamp down on this early, or risk become a de-facto porn site. YouTube, Facebook and other large popular platform police this heavily. It is a business decision. You don’t want a small group to chase off larger numbers of users. But this opens the door to other similar policing issues. What about offensive speech? Again, who decides what is offensive and what are the remedies? Some policing in the form of content moderation becomes necessary.
Lastly, related to acceptable use is illegal activities. Do you want your platform to be used for drug dealing, fencing stolen items, prostitution, to name a few possibilities? More policing, this time maybe involving actual police.
In the old days, these platforms would start out completely free, go into decline and irrelevance, and eventually be replaced a new platform. In large modern social media, acquisitions changed this cycle. Facebook may have been wiped out by Instagram, if it hadn’t acquired it. Today it is being eaten alive by Tik-Tok, which is Chinese and can’t easily be acquired by a US company like Facebook. The cycle continues. It will be interesting to see if it is different this time with Twitter. Of course, there is no reason to think Twitter is any different from other platforms. If Musk’s claims of making Twitter more free and open are to believed, it seems it would only hasten Twitter’s demise. Of course what we can really expect is more moderation and policing, just a different sort of moderation and policing, for a specific audience.