As you may have heard, the world’s richest man recently bought the world’s worst social-media platform. Personally, I think that one of the awesome things about having a ton of money is never having to care about Twitter and what people are saying on it, but it seems America’s billionaire class disagrees. Even Jeff Bezos can’t seem to log off.
There’s understandably been a lot of consternation over what new management would mean for Twitter itself. For my part, I subscribe to the Jon Lovett school on the takeover: “Elon Musk owning a stake in Twitter—no one can convince me that this is interesting. What’s he gonna do, ruin Twitter? How would we know?”
Twitter is a medium restricted to 280 characters on which, for some ungodly reason, people try to discuss and debate contentious and complicated issues like politics, religion, and race. It’s a giant arena full of strangers stumbling across the opinions of other strangers that they don’t like, and getting very angry about it. The platform has also manifestly failed to even understand, let alone police, bigotries like anti-Semitism. Courageous individuals have used it to advance important causes, but they have often had to fight the medium every step of the way.
While it’s always possible to make something this dysfunctional worse, it would be a difference in degree, not in kind. But new management also offers the opportunity to completely shake things up. And if Musk wants to do that, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit to be picked when it comes to improving the platform—all of which would accord with his stated goals of fostering free speech and increasing transparency.
Eliminate the “Trending Topics” tabs and sidebars. Somewhere in the bowels of Twitter HQ, there is a team of people tasked with picking “conversations” that are popular on the platform and adding them to the “Trending Topics” section with euphemistic captions. This is how “grown adults engage in conduct that would get them banned from Chuck E. Cheese for life” becomes “people discuss whether it’s permissible in some circumstances to eat small children.” Ostensibly a curation of whatever users are talking about at the moment, the trending section often serves as an apt illustration of how the site indulges humanity’s worst instincts. One way to fix this would simply be to make it more honest:
This would be entertaining, but it would be better to stop pushing “trending” content on users entirely, since if they or those they follow are not already tweeting about something, there’s no reason they should be compelled to see it. Users could have the option to add trending content to their experience, but it should not be enabled by default.
This brings us to the most important principle for running a nontoxic social-media platform, which is …