What kind of neighborhood will Elon Musk’s Twitter become?

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Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter closed last night, and he sacked four executives including the CEO. What might Twitter be like if Musk lays off 75% of the staff, as The Washington Post reports he plans to do?

Consider Twitter as a neighborhood

Here’s an analogy for you.

Let’s assume that you live in a pretty decent neighborhood. The streets have a few cracks in them, but they’re reasonably well-maintained. As people pass each other on the street, they smile and say hello. There are election signs on people’s lawns, and not everyone agrees with everyone else, but they respect each other’s right to have different opinions. Nobody has a car up on cinder blocks in their front lawn, but a few people haven’t painted their houses in a while or mowed their lawns this month.

The neighborhood sees some investments that improve it. Maybe a new company starts to offer very fast fiber Internet. Maybe they put in sidewalks to make it easier for kids to get to school safely. Or they designate a street as one-way to make traffic move more safely.

What happens in this neighborhood if somebody starts to behave like an ass? If they’re shouting, screaming, or threatening people, probably somebody calls the police.

If a huge pothole develops, they call public works and, sooner or later, somebody comes to repair it.

Now, a new mayor arrives. The mayor says taxes are too high. And he believes the local homeowners association has too many rules. So the mayor says, we can’t afford to put all our money into this neighborhood any more, and it’s time to stop enforcing silly rules that restrict what people can do in the neighborhood.

The investment in improvements stops. Because of the cutbacks, the streets start developing big bumps and cracks. Some of the street lights stop working. If people in the neighborhood start putting up signs that are nasty, or shouting at passers-by, or leaving dog poop on their neighbor’s lawn, well, that’s their right of free expression, isn’t it? In any case, the money that used to go to public works, trash collection, and investments in the neighborhood is no longer available.

Now the neighborhood deteriorates. Some of the people who live there say it’s not as nice as it used to be. Some people move out; the people who come in their place are people who are happier in a shabbier neighborhood with fewer rules.

A meth lab starts operating, but the police are stretched too thin to do anything about it.

It’s a much freer place than it used to be. Anybody can do anything they want. But bullies rule and the nice people who remain are afraid.

It just isn’t the way it used it be. Something valuable is gone forever.

Twitter isn’t a perfect neighborhood. But it’s going to get worse.

If Musk actually goes through with his draconian plan for Twitter, it’s going to cease to be the kind of place you’d like to spend time in.

He says he’s going to get rid of trolls. If that was so easy to do in an automated way, the current Twitter staff would do it. If it’s automated, it will take high-end developers, who may no longer wish to work at Twitter after most of their colleagues have been laid off. If it isn’t automated, it will require staff that Musk clearly doesn’t want to hire.

If Musk makes these huge cuts, he will cut future development funds. He will cut moderation costs, which will make content moderation much harder. There will be less money for cyber security, so Twitter may be subject to more attacks by bad actors.

Musk’s vision of a Twitter where nearly anyone can say nearly anything will be much cheaper to maintain. But the experience will go to shit.

It’s easy to destroy a social network by upsetting the balance between rules that keep it safe and free expression. But once it’s destroyed, it’s devilishly hard to bring it back.

Musk’s plan for Twitter won’t kill it. But it won’t be much fun to hang out in any more.

4 responses to “What kind of neighborhood will Elon Musk’s Twitter become?

  1. The unstated assumption here is that Twitter hadn’t already “go[ne] to shit,” or even that it was ever “valuable.” Given its effect during the past several years on public discourse, both political and cultural, I’m not so sure those are valid assumptions. Yes, it has allowed people to talk to each other who might otherwise never do so–and in the process made those discussions shriller and shriller (it’s almost like some things take more nuance than will fit into 280 characters), with echo chambers and pile-ons. Not that these are anything new to online interactions (I’ve seen plenty since I first got online in 1995), but between Twitter’s enforced brevity and its promotion algorithms, my opinion is that the site reached a whole new level of bad.

    And I’m not so sure that Twitter *would* have gotten rid of trolls if there were an easy automated way to do it: not to go all conspiracy theory, but it’s simply a fact that the more people who load pages to read or respond to trolls, the more eyeballs get shown ads. I think they would, at least, have hesitated long enough to figure out how much it would cost them.

    Twitter isn’t unique among social media in its problems, but it has always had the least counterbalancing upsides. Musk probably can’t fix it, and will probably make it even worse. But let’s don’t pretend it was some shining jewel to begin with.

  2. Imagine in this new neighborhood much easier it will be to do all sorts of untoward things.

    I’ve filled out more takedown requests for pirated versions of my books than I can recall. I expect to fill out more of them.

    Oh, wait.

    Boy genius knows the answers to all problems.

    My bad.

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