The latest episode of As the Twitter-verse Turns is a doozy.
“Don’t introduce a pistol in the first act unless you intend to see it fired in the second,” were the immortal words of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.
The advice on storytelling, from a master like Chekhov, isn’t just a caution against unnecessary flourishes, though it is that. Art, as we are so often reminded, imitates life. In fact, sometimes life goes out on the unlikeliest of coincidental limbs- limbs even the most hardened sci-fi fantasy writer would find wobbly at best.
“Truth,” another timeless adage tells us, “is often stranger than fiction”; that is what Anton Chekhov was really talking about.
Irony, foreshadowing, unbelievable coincidences, overly dramatic characters that veer into the territory of caricature, a Sword of Damocles introduced during the first act that, in retrospect, was bound to fall at the worst possible moment since the moment it first fell aloft.
The weeks-long saga of Elon Musk versus Twitter has all the elements of great fiction. First Musk acquired a majority stake in Twitter, looked likely to join the board, then refused to do so before offering to buy the company outright. The offer was publicly rejected by Twitter board members, who adopted a poison pill strategy to advert the sale.
No matter where you watch the show, whatever your perspective, it has all the hallmarks of great entertainment: Conflict, tension, comic relief, an atmosphere of impending doom.
There is a clear-cut good guy, and an unmitigatedly evil bad guy, and never the twain shall meet. The storyline is solid with a Good versus evil, David versus Goliath sensibility.
Of course, who’s who depends increasingly on whether you check “D” or “R” when you register to vote.
For most Republicans and conservatives, Elon Musk- perhaps oddly- is the hero in this drama and Twitter Management the bad. Musk purports to be an advocate for free speech in an industry increasingly concerned about misinformation, maintaining public order and censorship for the social good.
Most of Musk’s peers disagree with him wholeheartedly that free speech is good for society. In fact, they argue- more and more vociferously since Donald Trump used Facebook to win in 2016- that even more censorship is needed and technology companies- not government regulatory bodies- are the ones to do it. According to these authorities, Lack of censorship on social media is a terrible threat to democracy.
Critics of this approach, including Musk, argue that censorship by Big Tech companies is the real threat to democracy.
Big Tech companies like Twitter who engage in online censorship of public posts- and during the 2020 election, even private messages- do so in a way that is obscure. The process by which posts are flagged, shadow-banned, etc. isn’t a transparent one, the algorithm is secret. Critics of Big Tech censorship also argue that deciding what content to publish makes Twitter a publisher, which should be subject to the same rules as any other publisher.
It is always difficult to regulate new industries. Even after decades, Silicon Valley has proven a many-headed hydra, protean in its adaptability and singularity of purpose. Regulating Big Tech has been a network of patches, work-arounds and sub-clauses.
No one knows quite how to handle a company like Twitter, with its power and reach. There can be little question that Twitter’s censorship of the New York Post story in 2020 impacted the outcome of a very close U.S. election. While some Twitter execs have apologized and admitted doing so was a mistake, the outcome remains the same.
Other nations around the world are already looking at U.S. social media and Big Tech companies in askance, asking themselves if they want Mark Zuckerberg or the board of Twitter choosing their next president.
The question of outsize influence goes far beyond the borders of the U.S.
There are certainly those who Twitter’s current model is serving. Maintaining the status quo, to their mind, is empowering the voice of the common people, who can vent on Twitter about anything.
Elon Musk, with his threat to remove the controls of censorship, or at the very least make the process of censorship more transparent and democratic, is likely to undermine all that.
And now, at the time of this writing, the news has just come in that the drama is over; the pistol introduced in the first act of this play has indeed been fired in the second.
Twitter has accepted Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter, according to the Wall Street Journal. While the Twitter-verse burns with the fire of 10,000 blue-checks weeping and gnashing their teeth, and conservatives overindulge in a round of smug satisfaction, Musk is likely basking in all the disruption he’s caused.
In life, as in art, what you think is going to happen, doesn’t always happen. No, not at all. It is very unlikely Elon Musk is going to do all the terrible things to Twitter that some are predicting.
It’s doubtful Musk will even follow through with his idea to have Twitter HQ San Francisco converted into a very posh homeless shelter, “since no one ever shows up anyway.”
Nor is Elon Musk likely to prove the free speech champion which conservatives hope he will be. He probably won’t allow former-President Donald Trump back on the platform, for instance; he might even consider whether other world leaders and influential people should be removed.
There are plenty of human rights authorities worldwide who don’t believe the Iranian government or Louis Farrakhan should have a platform, either.
As it will be his private property, Musk may soon do whatever he likes with Twitter, which is fine. One of the best things about the free market economy, is that if social media users really want a platform which polices its content more carefully, there are sure to be other options. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply.
Who knows what the future of social media will be anyway?
A place less anonymous, where accounts are verified as real people, might be nice, if it isn’t too onerous or careless with real-world identifiers. Some market experts predict social media will become progressively smaller- with more niche platforms like NextDoor, where only people living in the same neighborhood can interact and connect. Platforms may be centered around shared common-interest communities. One social media site for people who restore classic cars, one for bluegrass musicians, one for doctors and medical students, etc.
Whatever happens, one thing is certain: If Musk’s intention was to disrupt business as usual on social media and at Twitter, his mission has already been accomplished.
As of today, we have liftoff.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)