Twitter Should Not Be Free | John Power
The philosophy underpinning our understanding of the internet is fundamentally utopian. Perhaps as a reaction to the dominance of the political right towards the end of the 20th century, the first pioneers of ‘cyberspace’ envisaged it as a tool by which artificially constructed social boundaries, like race, gender class and nationality, would be dissolved.
Twitter, and platforms similar to it, were supposed to further democratise communication. It would provide everyone with a voice, a global conversation which could be accessed for free. To cover the enormous cost of hosting this mass of information we would have to watch advertisements, a harmless and minor inconvenience, which would apply equally to both rich and poor.
There is, and always has been, a problem with this business model. Costs have almost always exceed revenue. Between 2013, and 2019, Twitter posted a loss every single year. It has only begun to recover over this period of time due to the innovative methods by which Twitter has increased engagement.
Twitter increases the visibility of controversial media in order to drive engagement. Controversy leads to arguments, leading to clicks. Creators seeking to expand their platforms on social media tend towards this content knowing it will increase their follower counts and enrich themselves. This content, as it relates to Twitter, often takes the form of highly charged and inflammatory debate.
Exposure to this content, over a period of time, alongside the tendency to curate our ‘subscription’ or ‘following’ lists to fit our preconceived biases, creates radicalised echo chambers. These echo chambers, at the start of this year, erupted from the virtual world onto the steps of the Capitol in Washington.
Conspiracy theories, which flourish in these information eco-systems, are a genuine threat. Democracy cannot function if a sizeable proportion of the population believes that an Atlantic elite keeps children in tunnels under the ground. The power that a demagogue could acquire, by promising to protect us from this ‘global cabal’, is infinite. This threat is rooted in the tendency of social media platforms towards radicalisation as a means of improving engagement.
Twitter will not be able to censor this content in a politically impartial way. Even if it could, it would be very dangerous to trust a small number of wealthy people with the burden of deciding what the truth is.
The obsession with engagement is not simply a burden on society, it is a burden on our personal lives. Programmers have gone as far as seeking consultation from Casinos to make their apps more addictive, as a means for driving engagement.
There is a personal cost, spending hours strung out in front of televisions tapping our phones. Attention spans are shortened. Real communication, and real life, with its rain and wind, sometimes seems less attractive from the comfort of our curated electronic caves.
The critical problem here is the business model that social media companies operate from. The original compromise, that advertisements can be used to subsidise these means of communications, is not sustainable.
What would happen, if Parliament asserted itself, and demanded that Twitter, as well as Youtube and Facebook, charge for their services, and completely remove advertising from their business models?
Without the constant need to drive engagement, there will be no incentive for these platforms to radicalise society, or render us addicted consumers scrolling through advertisements.
We cannot grapple with the Internet, the changes it imposes on society, until we question the philosophical foundations of our approach towards it. The pervasive myth, that the Internet is and has to be a democratising entity, has clouded our decision making up until this point. Democracy does not spring eternal from server rooms in Silicon Valley. Its true source, elected assemblies operating under the rule of law, must assert itself once more.