The Twitterverse becomes Muskville

Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton
Elon Musk, who purchased Twitter for $44 billion, called it “the digital town square.” But it takes unique courage to speak up in a real-life town square. Twitter isn’t always that demanding.

Elon Musk has characterized himself as a fierce proponent of unfettered speech. He revels in the notion that everyone should be able to stand in the middle of Main Street and shout their opinions, deeply held suspicions and nonsensical thoughts for all the world to hear. He has concerns about any attempt to censor, shush or otherwise impede the free flow of words from one human’s mouth into another one’s ears. He also has a lot of money and good deal of chutzpah. So he purchased Twitter for $44 billion.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in a statement announcing the spoils of his shopping spree.

Unlike some other billionaires who have entered the media fray, Musk is not a deep-pocketed investor like Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, or Laurene Powell Jobs, who owns the Atlantic – both had more distant relationships with the media companies they ultimately purchased. They were readers, admirers, curious citizens. Musk, a prodigious tweeter with more than 85 million followers, wasn’t someone standing on the sidelines who suddenly began to fret that one of the principles of democracy was in peril. Rather, he is 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 bought the very tool of his frenzied, unfiltered communicative clout. He purchased what he considers a public square so that he can make it private. The Twitterverse becomes Muskville.

But the idea that Twitter was ever truly 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 siloed and self-selecting. There’s media Twitter and Black Twitter and fashion Twitter and so on. It’s possible to be on Twitter and to never once have stumbled across a Musk tweet despite his having fired off more than 17,000 of them.

True public squares may be places where words can flow unobstructed to a vast audience, but speaking in these open-air venues means navigating unavoidable considerations and complexities. In a true public square, you face your neighbors. Whatever you might have a hankering to get off your chest has to be unloaded with the full knowledge that those standing nearby can see precisely who’s doing the talking.

Audiences in the public square are more demanding. A lone man hawking misinformation on the street corner is more easily denounced or even ignored than some unseen face behind a Twitter account that spews hearsay and make-believe. Gullibility is abundant on Twitter. In real life, skepticism thrives. We dodge census takers, petition drives and panhandlers because we doubt their spiel or we simply don’t want to be bothered.

In real life, we try to suss out the truth of people by taking note of their body language. We make eye contact. We use all our senses to assess folks and make judgments. Those judgments aren’t free of stereotypes or prejudices, but still, they’re rooted in something, in some sort of evidence, some shred of humanity. Twitter isn’t a public square as much as it’s a sensory deprivation chamber in which we’re trying to figure out who to trust, who to believe, with little more to go on than a little blue check.

It takes more courage and more forethought to step onto a milk crate and hold forth in front of passersby than it does to shoot off a couple of random thoughts on the topic of the day. For most people, Twitter isn’t a place that requires excessive courage. In fact, it tends to reward those with very little courage. The town square is for the brave. It takes guts for street corner preachers to shout the Gospel at the top of their lungs at passersby who have little interest in listening. But it takes little more than a couple seconds of self-righteous ire to type a tweet insinuating that some political rival – or neighbor or stranger – has lost favor with God simply because they prefer mercy over vengeance, tolerance over punishment.

Musk revels in the freewheeling mayhem that so easily erupts on Twitter. Underlying 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’d like. He equates a public space with breathing freely. But a public space is also a shared one. It isn’t merely a spot where people come together to exchange ideas, it’s also a shared ground where a multitude of different people have to coexist and doing so requires rules and standards and norms. Without them, the public square would essentially be a boxing ring, where strangers pummel each other in frustration and disgust.

Public parks, after all, have basic rules prohibiting loud music, littering and letting pets run off-leash – not because any one of these things is terrible but because if everyone did all of them simultaneously the park would be a wholly unpleasant place to be. For Twitter to be closer to a public square, it needs rules. Public squares serve as places for protests and rallies, for organizing and connecting. But depending on where you live, there are rules about disturbing the peace. Good neighbors try to de-escalate shouting matches before they spark physical violence. Twitter rewards hot heads with trending status and ultimately, more followers.

Musk’s vision for Twitter is murky. At the moment, it’s mostly mutterings about free speech, avoiding censorship, open-source algorithms and the importance of Elon Musk in the future of democracy and humanity itself. Perhaps Musk will defeat the bots. Perhaps he will restore honor and nuance in public discourse. Or maybe, he will simply expand the reach of Twitter, which may count for something, but is hardly courageous.