The internet is experiencing its midlife crisis

The jokes and memes about buying Elon Musk on Twitter as evidence of a massive midlife crisis are at least partially relevant. The Internet, for example, is having its midlife crisis.

Many of us who grew up with the web are now reaching middle age and have enough experience with the internet to know what’s good and what’s bad. And as with any midlife crisis, the Internet can either plunge into the abyss, continuing its self-destructive path, or we can seize the day to build a better Internet built on the essential principle that the Internet belongs to us all.

Twitter is not just a platform. This is how some of us live, work and survive. Many have long argued that Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms are utilities: They provide an essential service to the public by enabling the flow of communication that supports communities, commerce, and access to critical information. The fact that one of the richest men in the world can buy Twitter and screw everything up has sparked an epiphany for many of his staunchest devotees: activists, journalists, politicians, and yes, trolls. We need to reshape the internet to support this public spirit or at least reshape a small slice of it. But that requires addressing issues that have vexed decades of internet political thinkers; i.e., who pays the bill and who sets the rules of engagement?

Here’s a proposition for when Musk finally realizes he’s responsible for destroying something he once loved enough to pay $44 billion, and that the best option to save Twitter or his own creditworthiness is to give up. Circumstances are not unlikely to play out in such a way that Twitter goes at a (comparably) fire sale price like Myspace. And when it does, a combination of global civil service organizations and public service broadcasters should step in to collectively own the platform.

He thinks Twitter is owned, but not necessarily operated, by, say, organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxford University and Radio France instead of Musk or corporate shareholders. Think New Twitter, but without all the bad jokes of New Coke (although the Musk Caffeine-Free Diet Coke obsession helps make a real case for the brand). The new Twitter is Twitter reborn as itself, not much different than it is now, flawed and stripped-down, but no longer driven by market expectations for ever-increasing profits and scale.

Twitter in its mature form was a publicly traded company and, as such, amenable to all capitalist incentives to maximize profits, but at least it belonged to its shareholders. This corporate structure has produced a highly flawed company that has provided a platform for #blacklivesmatter and white supremacists, #metoo and manosphere, journalists and conspiracy theorists alike.

Twitter was only nominally free, as our attention and data were paying the bill rather precariously, it seems, given the meager advertising revenue. But the fact that Twitter didn’t cost real money eliminated a barrier to entry that allowed marginalized groups to use it. When Musk threatened to charge for verification, he only exacerbated the similarities between Twitter and other utilities like water and electricity.

In general, the idea that the Internet belongs to all of us has a political corollary: Government must provide regulatory guidance to prevent the worst excesses of capitalist exit and abuse, by acting as steward for the public.

That’s where the hiccups begin. Government regulation of the internet looks threatening, with the Great Firewall of China and the ability of autocrats around the world to literally shut down internet service providers in their counties, or call on Facebook, Google and Twitter to do their bidding or whatever.

We also have little precedent for collaborative, public digital spaces, though what we do have Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, and the Mozilla Foundation provide the essential backbones to what the internet can do best: disseminating knowledge at scale. But this is not profitable and these organizations are all supported philanthropically. These are not so much a public square but a starting point for public knowledge.

They also wouldn’t exist without free labor. For example, Wikipedia is supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, but it’s also built on its volunteer and mostly white, male, and English-speaking editors, and the Mozilla Foundation depends on programmers who accept a free, open-source view of the web. The Internet Archive is essentially a large public library, and libraries have never been propped up by the market, instead depending on philanthropists or public money to exist.

Using this model as inspiration, New Twitter could be a global communications platform owned and operated by a coalition of public service-oriented stakeholders. But to keep Twitter, well, Twitter, it has to keep some core properties and features of the platform that people have come to appreciate. That is to say, the platform must be free, it must have scale and, for better or worse, it must be a place for free expression. Twitter should have a long leash, just like well-supported public broadcasting providers in democracies around the world who have stayed at arm’s length from government censorship.

Some have already championed such digital public service infrastructure. University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Ethan Zuckerman argues that social media in its current, profit-driven form is not good for democracy and that a digital audience needs digital tools specifically designed to promote democracy. He acknowledges that this infrastructure won’t make any money and needs public funding to sustain it.

Similarly, Eli Pariser, the author of The filter bubble, is pushing for the digital equivalent of public parks. He rightly points out that Twitter and other platforms are the only common spaces Touch like public spaces but are owned by for-profit tech companies.

But these versions of the web starting with democracy don’t sound particularly fun, and you need fun to keep users. Mastodon, a proposed alternative to Twitter, was designed to be decentralized and democratized and to promote civic discourse as defined by a community. Many have found it preachy, unwieldy and, at best, an anodyne substitute.

Maybe the attention machine economy and democracy can’t go hand in hand. Yet there is a long legacy of communication technology, from the telegraph to cable television, which has been this mix of public-private partnership: produced and maintained with the support of Uncle Sam but under the leadership of RCA, AT&T and Westinghouse. There are few contemporary examples, in part because so much technology is financed indirectly: Venture capital firms finance other companies that make things.

I suggest a slight revision of approaches to the digital public space: let’s imagine New Twitter in the US as a public-private partnership. These are often most demonstrable in stadiums and sometimes take the form of NCAA booster clubs or local banks that split costs with the public. Stadiums are fun, they bring people together, and they’re also flawed: unruly, corporate, loud, and yes, crowds can easily turn into crowds. But our behavior on the Internet can do it too.

Sure, maybe New Twitter (or should it be Nu Twitter?) is a pipe dream. But dreams inspire us to think big. The Internet is shaped and shapes humanity: it is a fairground mirror that reflects, amplifies and distorts our best and worst impulses.

The beauty of New Twitter’s globally distributed ownership is that it would be messy, located in specific cultural and national contexts, and grossly flawed. But if reimagined for the public rather than for profit, we might be able to think of the Internet as an essential human right, like air or water, something we all need to protect in order to to survive.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.

#internet #experiencing #midlife #crisis

Leave a Comment