Musk and Twitter, what lessons for the future of social networks?

November 15, 2022

Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is causing a stir that may at first glance be surprising. The extent of the controversy actually reflects the special place the network now holds for the blue bird, and the principles it represents and seems suddenly to be in question.

Many “twittos” and particularly super-users from the world of politics, media or even culture feel deprived of something that belongs to them, beyond economic and capitalist realities. , something they helped build, and which is now being deconstructed before their eyes. To understand this, it is necessary to return to the history of the network, which more than any other deserves the name Social media. Arriving in 2006 from the first wave of social networks, just after Facebook and the continuation of blogs – first of all we are talking about a “microblogging” platform about it – Twitter represented the promises and the golden legend of web 2.0: the possibility open to everyone to express themselves freely, by sharing their daily life, their tastes and their ideas; the horizontality and the fantasy of a direct “democracy” (one “twitto” equals another “twitto”, access to the same technical functions, regardless of their rank, and in principle able to challenge and easily exchange with well-known personalities who are also registered on the platform ).

The network quickly created a special place for itself in the digital world. Its social structure makes it more comfortable and understandable for personalities and leaders who are used to talking about overhead in a large audience: unlike Facebook, the main relationship is not symmetrical – one is a friend of another member of the network and vice versa – but asymmetric: accounts can follow you without having to follow them. In addition, defining its brevity (140 then 280 characters), the principle of hashtags (keywords that make it possible to group tweets on the same theme) and the highlighting of design on the most discussed topics at a given time (the “trending topics”) is gradually making it an unparalleled information tool in social networks, adopted and preferred by journalists and forming an opinion. A trend is further increased by its strong propensity for virality, and the default transparency that reigns there (a Twitter account’s information, except for user activity, is public, making it an eldorado of trends and analysts’ information). Activists, politicians and journalists, organizations of all kinds – democratic states, but also dictatorships and even jihadists – make it their digital tool of choice, contributing more to the importance of network in social debates, major American and French presidential elections in the Arab Spring and in many political and social movements around the world, where Twitter is both actor and witness.

This appropriation of the platform of the world of politics and information, which perhaps was not the original intention of its founders – and perhaps does not testify to the amount of truth of its current uses – gradually removed itself. Caught and no doubt shocked by the political and social issues being played out on its accounts, Twitter found itself in the paradoxical situation of being a private, for-profit company with the primary purpose of entertainment, subject to responsibilities and required public service, even territorial – digital – to be provided; pulled back and forth by conflicting cultural and legal orders, a consequence of its global presence. Which word is acceptable? How can everyone be given access to what is now a vital link in the information chain? Is it okay to talk about it? Can we close the account of a head of state who has slipped? How to “moderate” an astronomical amount of conversations, which always exceed the means allocated to it?

To respond to these issues, Twitter has until then followed a line of behavior that can be summarized by three implicit principles, which are also followed by other major social platforms. Principle of free-equity – access to the main functions, excluding the purchase of space, is free, as “exchange” of its data. Principle of neutrality – the platform and its leaders maintain a posture of withdrawal from the main national political debates. Finally, the principle of defending democracy, even progressivism. Certainly, like Facebook, and like all platforms, Twitter is the victim of problems as serious as the complaint that it is not yet able (some say fully prepared, for economic reasons) to settle once and for all: hateful or misleading speeches, conspiracy , racist and anti-Semitic, manipulating “astroturfing” techniques, information selection algorithm with questionable or even harmful rules… But if we can doubt the efficiency of the methods and methods proposed (the famous “certification” in mind, a label for verifying the authenticity of an account, invented by Twitter and taken by other networks), the company, in its latest goals and the speeches of its leaders, seems less eager to correct these problems. The account of Donald Trump, an emblematic super-user in many respects, was suspended following the disturbances at the Capitol. Functions for reporting problematic accounts, and protecting victim accounts, have been gradually introduced and strengthened, as have transparency and control measures for political advertising and propaganda accounts by state.

The illness and the controversies generated by the acquisition of Elon Musk can be analyzed from this perspective. The errant declarations of the trader seem to regularly respond to the three principles set out above, and which form the basis for many of the “contract of trust”, even if it is often considered thin, between the platform and to its most important users. Questioning the certification system, now at least partially tax-based because it is linked to a paid subscription (the first examples of problematic accounts certified in this way quickly appeared). Comments (before the takeover) on the mistake of impeaching Donald Trump, against the backdrop of a libertarian concept of freedom of speech, and even a call to vote for Republicans in the mid-term elections in America. Proliferation of announcements of radical and sometimes even contradictory changes, tend to question the precarious balance of the network. To this incomplete list is added the leader’s hyperactivity on what is now his own platform, with an abundance of tweets written without filter, and without much concern for political correctness or approval of the “pillars” of the network – editorial line that is no doubt common for the founder of Tesla, but breakingethos reserve of its GAFA counterparts. Without forgetting, finally and on another level, the question posed by the concentration of strategic media and industrial resources in the hands of a single owner – but Twitter is of course not the only company concerned.

For many historical users, in summary, and to turn the political metaphor, not only Elon Musk will not do what is necessary to “inhabit the function” of the leader of this hybrid platform, half social network, half media and political institution; but more, it will completely change its nature, although it will regularly repeat that it wants to maintain the quality of the network, especially by fighting fake accounts. So a movement outside of Twitter, especially for the benefit of its free and decentralized competitor Mastodon, is emerging again (this is not the first time, nor the only network concerned, Facebook has also had to undergo such an initial call to the past – with little effect on the present).

Caution is needed at this stage about the medium and long-term consequences of these thunderous debuts, which are likely to affect all social networks. It is possible that Elon Musk, “caught by the function” (or more prosaically by the flight of advertisers), in the weeks will take the full scale of the complexity of his new acquisition and will work in the direction of a more balanced functioning of the network , and addressing its long-standing problems, “fake” of all kinds in the mind. It is also conceivable that he is betting on the mass effect and the absence of a real competitor – who, among those who have gathered a good audience, really have an interest in leaving Twitter, is this an option, provided that network (still) central? Finally it is possible that he pragmatically lamented the political and journalistic circles that settled and their practices on the platform, but in the end brought him more problems than money. Because this is ultimately the main question that these ventures reveal: isn’t the dream model of a digital platform for free and safe expression, independent and respectful of democracy, fundamentally incompatible with its ownership of private actors, bound by a need of profitability? Are we not seeing the end of an aporetic utopia, made possible for fifteen years by the benevolence of investors, the windfall of advertising revenues and above all by the economic goodwill of some founders and their teams ?

If Twitter and its buyer are certainly part of the equation, its resolution, more than ever, is everyone’s business, the public authorities’ minds.

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