There’s no way this can happen. None. Many of us know this on a fundamental level, and it is disturbing to me that more are not pointing this out.
If by town square we mean to refer to a mythical place where people can head to share their thoughts unhindered; if by town square, we mean free speech: then Twitter, together with almost all social media platforms as we currently know them, is entirely unequipped to provide anyone with such a space.
Not only is Twitter unequipped to provide users with such a space, it is unequipped to do so by design. New ownership will not change this.
Why? Because Twitter works with algorithms. This is not only how the platform works at this point, it’s how it thrives. And free speech is intrinsically incompatible with an algorithmically-driven world.
There’s a complication here of course, which is where a lot of people get tripped up.
Social media platforms, including Twitter, have done wonders for the expansion of free speech. Twitter alone has close to half a billion users. For most of these users, the opportunities to be heard went from being small to exponential. There’s no denying that.
In recent years, Twitter has become a place for otherwise marginalized voices to bypass traditional gatekeepers, find communities and even make a living. Helping them along the way and keeping people engaged and online? Algorithms.
Algorithms help voices be heard and people find audiences. They determine what’s seen, what’s promoted, what’s amplified. But if this is the case, the opposite must also be true. Online attention is a zero sum game. Algorithms also diminish and ignore. That is to say, they suppress.
That’s not what an open town square looks like, is it? What this is, is selective censorship combined with selective amplification. You can argue this type of system is useful, or even necessary, that it amplifies good, but there’s no way you can bend this into being a tool for pure free speech.
So is the answer to go back to newsfeeds void of manipulation or suggestion, in reverse chronological order only featuring messages from people users already know to follow?
I am all for advocating for Twitter to give users a genuine option for one versus the other (not a fake genuine option, which it has repeatedly done in the past), but even with this option, pure free speech cannot be attained. Some users may want timelines untouched by algorithms, but clearly a lot of users enjoy the opposite. And so long as there’s a group willing to have their experience altered by algorithms, the grand idea of a town square is impossible.
To remove algorithms completely would be the opposite of progress. It would also be the opposite of competitive. TikTok has three times the users Twitter does, and its success can be credited in large part to algorithms. I don’t see a world in which Musk goes all the way with his town square analogy at the cost of user engagement and the profitability of a platform that is already on rocky financial terrain.
It feels obvious that, like it or not, algorithms are here to stay. It is also hard to deny that algorithms and free speech are wholly incompatible. Those of us who work in tech are acutely aware of this fact. It is at best naive and at worst disingenuous to pretend we are not.
Where we go from here has to be based in honest conversation.