Twitter Isn’t a Town Square—It’s a Whole City


The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

Several years ago, in response to a piece about the internet’s love of the movie Carol, someone posted a tweet claiming “the year is 2017 and WIRED has just discovered Gay Twitter.” The criticism is fair; we were probably a bit late to the party, but it was also an indication that, on Twitter, the subgroups are practically endless. Gay Twitter, Black Twitter, Trans Twitter, Feminist Twitter, Asian-American Twitter — they’re all there, if you know where to look.

In the last week, since Elon Musk’s $ 44 billion takeover of Twitter, users have been cautiously eyeing the deal, wondering if Musk’s stewardship of the platform could erode those communities. “With Elon Musk in charge, it’s the beginning of the end for #BlackTwitter,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “Elon Musk once tweeted ‘pronouns suck.’ What could go wrong when he owns Twitter? ” asked Them, adding that his ownership could be a “nightmare” for LGBTQ + people.

In the Times piece, writer Erika D. Smith cited lawsuits against Tesla for racial bias (the very lawsuits the Twitter purchase is keeping out of the news cycle) as cause for concern. More broadly, users wonder whether Musk’s talk of promoting free speech on the platform means looser content moderation, the kind that could lead to increased harassment and punching down. For Musk, free speech is just whatever speech is allowed by law, but as my colleague Gilad Edelman pointed out “allowing any legal speech would mean opening up Twitter to explicit racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, advocacy of violence, and worse.” If that isn’t Musk’s intent, he continued, Musk’s plan still seemed like terrible news because “it means he has spent close to zero time thinking seriously about free speech before attempting to buy Twitter in the name of free speech.”

In Musk’s mind, “Twitter serves as the de facto public town square,” and as such, it should be a place where people are able to speak their minds. This metaphor seems slightly off, though. Yes, for people like Musk it’s a place to have debates they think are important for humanity; people with millions of followers are often the people who think what they’re saying is most important. But for the rest of Twitter — some 229 million daily users — it’s more like a metropolis. People have neighborhoods they stick to; sometimes they go out and talk with friends, sometimes they watch from their windows, sometimes they talk up strangers in a park. Most of these aren’t the kind of world-changing conversations Musk seems to want to have, but they’re just as vital.

In Musk’s view, opening up Twitter will encourage dialog amongst people with diverse views, and will fuel a “functioning democracy.” But if you pretend it’s a city, then Musk just essentially bought the mayorship. (Not that having one person at the helm of the town square is ideal, either.) Mayors are elected; Musk was not. He’s named himself the leader of Twitter, and while he may hope even his “worst critics” remain on the platform “because that’s what free speech means, ”He sounds oblivious to the fact that death threats in your mentions are likely far more scary when you’re not the world’s richest man. Musk doesn’t even have the reins yet, and far-right trolls and previously banned neo-Nazis are already attempting to set up new accounts. Gab, Parler, Truth Social, and other social media sites with broad definitions of free speech are already “awash with extremism, racism, misogyny, violence, and terrorism,” Joe Mulhall, director of research at Hope Not Hate, told WIRED this week . This could directly impact neighborhoods on Twitter that are already the most vulnerable. No one wants to go outside without headphones when they know someone is going to randomly yell slurs at them. The people who do are usually those for whom no slurs exist.

They are also, perhaps, those who ignore harassment and hate speech, or are willing to wade through it to continue participating. It’s not like Twitter isn’t already a cesspool now. But everyone has a breaking point, and if members of any given community start giving in at even higher rates, there are fewer of them to look out for each other. Maybe Twitter never deserved their insights in the first place. It’s already a given that Twitter is a very valuable tool for its elite power users — businesses, entertainers, journalists (hi!), Politicians — but this isn’t really about them. They’ll likely be fine. Folks with fewer than a thousand followers looking for a community on Twitter or trying to build one, less so. They’ll be able to say what they want, but they might more easily be shouted down.


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