It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, has finally taken charge at Twitter following his initial offer to buy the company back in April this year.
He entered the building in memetic style, carrying a porcelain sink, captioning a video of his entrance with the words ‘let that sink in’ and the drama that began on that day has not abated.
Chaos over the process for verification, a blue tick charge of $8 a month, the firing of the majority of employees reducing headcount from around 7,000 to 2,750, followed by late night coding sessions with those who are left.
Users of Twitter, alongside newly non-users of Twitter, are commenting on where the Chief Twit is taking the social media platform and forecasting its demise. But is this chaos? Or is this long-overdue surgery? Commentary aside, this is a case study in the making, about a company and a platform which we can say is truly at a crossroads.
The critics of Musk’s takeover are under-appreciating the growing sense of demoralisation and decline that had already taken hold in many a timeline. The content moderation approach pursued by Twitter (presumably through the trust and safety team) had become so partisan that while traditional conservative voices were regularly shadow banned and then permanently banned from the site, progressive voices became louder and louder.
Inconsistency in application meant that there was very little chance of the leader of a rogue country or an authoritarian regime losing their account, meanwhile the 45th President of the United States lost his account for tweeting that he would not be attending Joe Biden’s inauguration. Musk has since reinstated Trump’s account.
However, it was not so much the political content but the ever-growing presence of only one set of voices that was becoming problematic. A timeline that is only ever permitted to display the ‘official' narrative is inherently boring. And not only boring but inauthentic.
Timelines were beginning to feel manufactured, orchestrated and choreographed, with wrong-think subdued, shadow-banned or disappeared from media completely. Whatever one’s views, what had begun to emerge was a long way from a truthful representation of what the public really thought. How then could it really be called the public square? The answer is, it couldn’t.
Musk knows this. And he knows that in order for Twitter to regain its cultural value as well as any commercial value it needs to properly reflect the honestly-held opinion of as many people as possible. Not only those who agree with those in charge, but also those who sometimes agree and sometimes don’t, and even those who never agree.
On 11th November, Musk tweeted that “because it consists of billions of bi-directional interactions per day, Twitter can be thought of as a collective, cybernetic super-intelligence…”. Here then is Musk’s acknowledgment of his interest in the idea of a collective consciousness. That is not new, it is very much in the cybernetics tradition and rather appealing to many a Gen X’er such as Musk. I have written before about how the concept of the hive mind will disrupt the creative industries - it is literally ‘brain storming’. But it has a political dimension too. It is a tool by which one may be able to use disagreement as a means to create public policy through consensus.
Let’s look at an example: Audrey Tang who is the digital minister in Taiwan has built a system that doesn’t use social media for ‘state surveillance’ (as we are prone to do in the West). Instead she uses social media for ‘collective intelligence’.
Through platforms like Join.gov.tw there is early consultation on government policy, the general public are heavily involved and engaged in order to up-vote and down-vote on ideas that the government puts out there to poll.
She tells the story about lobbyists and how they end up polarising any policy debate. Instead the government encourages the wider public to go to these social platforms to share their feelings - not judgements - on any particular issue.
What results is a crowdsourced agenda because the agenda setting has been done by the crowd, and done with a range of higher quality, diverse opinions. This goes on for weeks and weeks until a consensus starts to emerge (requiring over 80% agreement). After a public consensus has been arrived at, the whole digital process is available for anyone to download and investigate in detail, because everything is open source.
I think this is what Musk is eventually going to do with Twitter.
It is why he polled the public on whether Trump’s account should be reinstated and it is why he wants to have a platform that has a method of verification for identifying ‘real’ people as users - he sees everyone as a stakeholder in society.
As Marshall McLuhan wrote back in the 1960s, man-as-cyborg can exploit the possibility either of total extension of his consciousness as a world environment, or as a perpetual and collective organism of war.
Social media had been moving towards the collective organism of war. Twitter is now at a crossroads, where it can choose total extension of consciousness instead. This now is the choice that Musk, and all of us, are going to have to make.
Tracey Follows is the founder and CEO of futures consultancy, Futuremade, and author of The Future of You.