Elon Musk has characterized himself as an ardent advocate of unrestrained speech. He revel in the notion that everyone should be able to stand in the middle of Main Street and shout their opinions, deep-seated suspicions and junk thoughts that the whole world can hear. He is concerned about any attempt to censor, silence or otherwise obstruct the free flow of words from one person’s mouth into another’s ears. He also has a lot of money and a good deal of chutzpah. So he bought Twitter for $ 44 billion.
“Freedom of speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital city square where issues crucial to humanity’s future are discussed,” Musk said in a statement announcing the prey of his shopping trip.
Unlike some other billionaires who have gone into the media battle, Musk is not an investor with deep pockets like Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, or Laurene Powell Jobs, who owns Atlantic – both had more distant relationships with the media companies they eventually purchased. They were readers, admirers, curious citizens. Musk, a wonderful tweeter with more than 85 million followers, was not one to stand on the sidelines, suddenly starting to worry that one of the principles of democracy was in jeopardy. He is rather akin to a guy who obsessively wrote letters to the editor, who wrote dozens every day, who finally decided to go ahead and buy the newspaper. Musk is a Twitter power user who purchased the tool itself for his insane, unfiltered communicative power. He bought what he considers a public space so he can make it private. The Twitter verse becomes Muskville.
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But the idea that Twitter was ever really akin to a central gathering place where members of the public could speak freely to an audience of random citizens has always been a misnomer. Twitter conversations are blurry and self-selected. There are media Twitter and Black Twitter and fashion Twitter and so on. It is possible to be on Twitter and never once come across a Musk tweet despite the fact that he has fired more than 17,000 of them.
Real public spaces can be places where words can flow unhindered to a large audience, but speaking in these outdoor venues means navigating unavoidable considerations and complexities. In a true public space, you face your neighbors. Whatever you feel like getting off your chest, unload with the full knowledge that those standing nearby can see exactly who is speaking.
Audiences in the public square are more demanding. A lone man selling misinformation on the street corner is more easily condemned or even ignored than an unseen face behind a Twitter account that broadcasts rumors and performances. Credulity is plentiful on Twitter. In real life, skepticism thrives. We avoid censuses, petitions and pan-traders because we doubt their game or because we simply do not want to be bothered.
In real life, we try to find out the truth of people by noting their body language. We make eye contact. We use all our senses to judge people and make judgments. These judgments are not free from stereotypes or prejudices, yet they are rooted in something, in a kind of evidence, a speck of humanity. Twitter is not so much a public square as it is a sensory deprivation chamber where we try to figure out who to trust, who to believe, with little more to go after than a little blue check.
It takes more courage and more consideration to step up in a milk crate and hold out in front of passers-by than it does to shoot a few random thoughts off of the topic of the day. For most people, Twitter is not a place that requires excessive courage. In fact, it tends to reward them with very little courage. Bytorvet is for the brave. It takes courage for street corner preachers to shout the Gospel in earnest to passers-by who do not feel like listening. But it takes a little more than a few seconds of self-righteous anger to write a tweet that insinuates that a political rival – or neighbor or stranger – has lost favor with God, simply because they prefer mercy to revenge, tolerance over punishment.
Musk revel in the free-running chaos that so easily erupts on Twitter. The background to his vision of Twitter as a digital square is the idea that it should be a place where people can say pretty much whatever they want. He equates a public space with breathing freely. But a public space is also a common space. It is not only a place where people meet to exchange ideas, it is also a common area where a multitude of different people have to coexist and it requires rules and standards and norms. Without them, public space would essentially be a boxing ring where strangers beat each other in frustration and disgust.
After all, public parks have basic rules that prohibit loud music, trash, and letting pets run without a leash – not because any of these things are awful, but because if everyone did them all at once, the park would be a completely uncomfortable place to be. . For Twitter to be closer to a public space, it requires rules. Public squares serve as places for protests and rallies, to organize and connect. But depending on where you live, there are rules about disturbing the peace. Good neighbors try to de-escalate shouting fights before triggering physical violence. Twitter rewards hot heads with trend status and ultimately more followers.
Musk’s vision for Twitter is murky. At the moment, it is mostly the mumble about freedom of speech, the avoidance of censorship, open source algorithms and the importance of Elon Musk in the future of democracy and humanity itself. Maybe Musk will defeat the bots. Perhaps he wants to recreate honor and nuance in public discourse. Or maybe he simply wants to expand the reach of Twitter, which can count for something but is hardly brave.