“Free speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital public square where issues vital to the future of humanity are debated,” is how Elon Musk explained why. it had spent $44 billion to acquire Twitter.
This phrase – “digital city square” – has a long and messy history in social media. Facebook and others have proven that throwing millions or billions of people into a single unfettered space is a near impossible and above all terrible idea. But maybe we just defined it wrong. In reality, a public square is not a place where everyone stands in a crowd and shouts at each other while advertisers throw objects at them. It is a place where groups of people meet and spend time together. And yes, perhaps they are debating questions vital to the future of humanity. But not with everyone.
Twitter shouldn’t try to optimize the public space, a conversation of 200 million people that will never make sense. Instead, under Musk, the company is expected to focus on the private side of the platform, a woefully underdeveloped messaging and communication system that could make it the best messaging app on the market.
Twitter should invest heavily in making DMs a powerful, searchable, and encrypted messaging system. It should finally roll out the popular “long tweets” feature that allows people to post longer than 280 characters. It should continue to work on the Communities feature so people can discuss things they care about rather than jamming their followers’ timelines with things they don’t care about. It should integrate the Revue newsletters and strive to make the Spaces more useful and more reliable. He should care less about categorizing your calendar and more about giving you ways to talk and people to talk to.
It is true that Twitter is the best Internet platform to create an audience and then send this audience to other places. You build an audience on Twitter, the joke goes, and monetize it on Substack or YouTube or any number of other places. Twitter should keep digging into this because it’s what gives the platform its cultural cachet – after all, what’s cable news if not just a bunch of people in a suit reading tweets?
But most people don’t want to communicate with 200 million people at once, and even those who don’t only do this. Instead of just focusing on connecting people in the public square, it needs to focus on connecting people to each other. Twitter is set to catch up with Facebook and others in recent years: towards a more private version of the internet, where spending time online involves less shouting your most angry thoughts to a teeming mass of thousands of equally angry and more real spending. time with people you care about.
When Twitter rolled out Communities, David Regan, Product Manager, wrote that “We haven’t done enough to help connect people who are into the same things.” This has been a long-standing problem for Twitter, which has tried suggested watchlists and trending topics and fleets and a thousand other ways to give people things to do on the platform. Communities are the correct first approach, simply giving people a safer, quieter place to be together. That’s why Facebook believes Groups are the future of the platform; it’s also why Telegram grew so fast and why WhatsApp launched Communities just to keep up.
There’s a lot of competition in the group chat space, but Twitter is entering the fray with an advantage: communication happens on a sliding scale. Sometimes you want to text your best friend, other times your group of friends, other times your whole company, other times the world. Most messaging platforms excel at one, maybe two of these things. Twitter could bring its simple and fast communication tools to the whole scale. And by putting it all in one place, in one app where users only need one username, it could be the best communication platform on the planet.
To be clear, none of this is easy! Many content moderation issues can be more difficult in these semi-private and private spaces, though Musk and Twitter can learn a lot from platforms like Reddit and Discord on this front. And for a platform as globally visible as Twitter, these issues will be magnified, especially as government regulations around the world become more stringent.
Before Musk came on the scene, however, this sliding scale approach seemed to be pretty much the way Twitter was headed. As early as 2016, then-CEO Jack Dorsey said that “Twitter is essentially public messaging” and that speed and utility were more important to the platform than character limits or specific time limits. In practice, the company has long focused on one-to-many messaging to the detriment of everything else. Over the past two years, the company has finally started shipping products on a regular basis, and many of them were meant to make Twitter a little smaller for users. He launched communities, through which you can tweet but only to a group of interested people at the same time. He started testing Flock, a way for you to simply tweet to your close friends. And it finally, for the first time in forever, seemed to remember that DMs existed and started rolling out some improvements.
Of course, in the long run, projects like Bluesky mean Twitter could be even bigger than Twitter. It could become a universal standard on which many different types of experiences could be built. For Musk, who periodically debated creating his own social network before deciding to buy one, the idea of a decentralized social platform should be appealing.
In general, much of Musk’s focus on Twitter has been on the algorithm. The theory behind open source, as far as I can tell, is to give users transparency and choice of what they see and where. But the best strategy is to let people create their own experiences, with better tools than the simple follow button. Help them out and let them find out who they are talking to, what and how, in any way possible. This is where people will speak, where they will feel free to express themselves freely. No algorithm will ever do better than that.