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 be surprising at first glance. The scale of the controversy actually reflects the special place the network holds for the bluebird today and the principles it embodies, which are suddenly being called into question.

Many tweeters, and especially superusers from the worlds of politics, media and even culture, simply feel deprived of something that belongs to them outside of economic and capitalist realities. it is now being deconstructed before their eyes. To understand this, it is necessary to go back to the history of the network that deserves its name more than others. social media. After the first wave of social networks in 2006, Facebook, and in the continuity of blogs – we are primarily talking about the “microblogging” platform – Twitter promises and embodies the golden legend of web 2.0: the possibility of sharing everyday life, taste and thoughts, every open to anyone to express their opinions freely; the horizontality and fantasy of direct “democracy” (“a twitto” equals another “twitto”, access to the same technical functions regardless of rank and, in principle, the ability to challenge and easily exchange with well-known personalities registered on the platform) ).

The network quickly carved out a niche 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 the load to 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 asymmetrical: you can follow accounts without following them. In addition, its defining brevity (140 to 280 characters), the hashtag principle (keywords that allow you to combine tweets on the same topic) and its emphasis within. design from the most discussed topics (“trending topics”) at a certain time, gradually turning it into an unrivaled information tool among social networks, mass and preferentially receiving journalists and commentators. This trend is exacerbated by its strong propensity for virality and its default transparency (a Twitter account’s data is public except for user actions, making it an eldorado of trends and data for analysts). Activists, politicians and journalists, organizations of all kinds – democracies, but also dictatorships and even jihadists – are making the web their tool of choice, contributing more to the importance of the web in social debates and key presidential elections in America and France. The Arab Spring and many political and social movements around the world in which Twitter is both actor and witness.

The adoption of the platform by the world of politics and information was probably not the original intention of its creators – and probably does not indicate the quantitative reality of its current use – I gradually lost ownership. Frustrated by the political and social issues taking place on its accounts, Twitter has undoubtedly found itself in the paradoxical position of being a private, for-profit company whose purpose is leisure, subservient to the responsibilities and demands of public service. even the territory – digital – will be controlled; pulled to and fro by the conflicting cultural and legal precepts that result from its global presence. Which word is acceptable? How to give everyone access to a now-important link in the information chain? Is it right to talk about it? Can we close the account of the sliding head of state? How to “moderate” the astronomical amount of conversations that always exceed the funds allocated to it?

To respond to these issues, Twitter followed a line of behavior that can be summarized by three hidden principles observed in other major social platforms until then. The principle of free capital – access to basic functions is free, except for the purchase of space in the “exchange” of data. The principle of neutrality – the platform and its leaders maintain a retreat position in the main national political debates. Finally, the principle of protecting democracy, even progress. Of course, like Facebook and all platforms, Twitter is also a victim of serious problems that it has never been able to solve (some would say that it has fully agreed to for economic reasons): hateful or misleading, conspiratorial speech, racist and anti-Semitic, “astroturfing” methods. manipulation, data selection algorithm with dubious or even disastrous rules… But if we can doubt the effectiveness of the proposed methods and tools (taking into account the famous “certification”, the verification tag invented by Twitter and the authenticity of the account seized by other networks) the company, in its ultimate goals and speeches by its leaders, it seemed no less eager to correct these problems. In many ways, the iconic superuser, Donald Trump’s account was suspended after the Capitol riots. Functions to report problematic accounts and protect victims’ accounts, and transparency and control measures for political advertising and government propaganda accounts have been gradually introduced and strengthened.

The concerns and controversies caused by Elon Musk’s seizure of power can be analyzed from this point of view. The entrepreneur’s inconsistent declarations regularly refer to the three principles mentioned above, which form the basis of many “contracts of trust” between the platform and its most important users. The questioning of the certification system is now, at least in part, related to the tax-based paid subscription (the first examples of problem accounts certified in this way quickly emerged). Comments on the wrongness of impeaching Donald Trump against the backdrop of the libertarian concept of free speech (before the takeover) and even a call to vote Republican in the American midterm elections. The proliferation of announcements of radical and sometimes even contradictory changes that call into question the already precarious balance of the network. Added to this incomplete list is the leader’s hyperactivity on his platform now, his many unfiltered tweets and little regard for political correctness or the approval of the network’s “columns” – line. editorial no doubt usual for the founder of Tesla, but breaking withmorality Stock of GAFA colleagues. Finally, and on another level, without forgetting the question of the concentration of strategic media and industry resources in the hands of one owner – but Twitter is certainly not the only company concerned.

For many historical users, in summary, and to spin a political metaphor, not only would Elon Musk not have what it takes to “live in the role” of the leader of this hybrid platform, half social network, half media and political institution; but rather, it will fundamentally change the nature of the network, even as it regularly reiterates that it wants to protect its quality, especially to combat fake accounts. So much so that a move is re-emerging from Twitter, especially in favor of its free and decentralized rival Mastodon (this is not the first time, nor is it the only connected network, Facebook has also been subject to such initial calls. past – less so far with influence).

Caution should be exercised at this stage regarding the mid- to long-term implications of these tumultuous debuts, which will likely affect all social networks. At first, it is possible that Elon Musk, “caught up in the function” (or, more prosaically, with the flight of advertisers), will fully measure the complexity of his new acquisition in the weeks and work towards a more balanced work. operation of the network and responding to its long-standing problems, taking into account any “fakes”. It’s betting on mass effect and the lack of real competition – among those with good audiences who are really interested in leaving Twitter, is that even an option? network (yet) central? In the end, it may be that he pragmatically lamented the political and journalistic circles that populated the platform and their habits, but ultimately brought him more trouble than money. Because ultimately, the key question that these adventures reveal is: Is the dream model of a digital platform for free and safe expression fundamentally incompatible with the ownership of independent and democracy-respecting private actors, the demand for profitability? Aren’t we seeing the end of the aporetic utopia made possible in fifteen years by the benevolence of investors, the unexpected drop in advertising revenue and, above all, the economic goodwill of a few founders and their teams?

If Twitter and its recipient are certainly part of the equation, its solution, more than ever, is anyone’s business, the government’s.

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