by Andrew Orlowski
Tuesday, 26
April 2022
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15:18

Elon Musk is wrong: Twitter is not a ‘public square’

The billionaire has a rather quixotic view of the social media platform
by Andrew Orlowski
Credit: Getty

Saudi Arabia’s public squares echo to the sound of sword on bone. They flow with human blood. “Seven men, two of whom were under 18 when arrested, were shot in a public square”, Amnesty reported. “They were not officially informed of their execution, but found out about it through friends and relatives who had sent them photos of seven mounds of earth being erected in the public square.”

Perhaps that’s what attracted Al Waleed bin Talal, the grandson of the first King of Saudi Arabia to Twitter (Waleed was until last month social media giant’s largest shareholder). Twitter is a global theatre for hazing, ritual humiliation and punishment, where hierarchies congratulate each other, preen and remind us of their status. Like a public execution, Twitter draws a crowd that can’t help but gawp. Twitter is also a “digital public square” according to its new owner Elon Musk, who has agreed to buy Twitter from shareholders including Al Waleed. Or at least he says so — he has used the analogy frequently in his brief, debt-financed blitzkrieg takeover bid.

“Twitter has become the de facto public town square, so, it’s really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they’re able to speak freely within the bounds of the law,” Musk said last week.

But Twitter is a “public square” only in the synecdochic sense of being a public square. It can be like one, but it can never be one. In a real-world public square, a stranger or a lowly denizen could join the assembly and, by using reason and wit, win over the crowd with an argument. For after real-life engagements, people may cheerfully relinquish their position, and mutual forgiveness allow both sides to move on.

This happens online, rarely, when a common affinity is shared: membership of a church, or a street, or following the same football team. But never on Twitter, for too much is at stake: it’s too big, and it’s too flat, and so hierarchies of status develop instead. In the echo chambers of Cathedral opinion – in the media, the law and the governmental blob — status matters a great deal, and so Twitter matters a great deal too; they talk of little else.

There are unwritten rules about how these status hierarchies work. A user with 50 followers will be bullied by one with 500. One with 500 followers will be bullied by one with 5,000, and so on. For example, last week saw a drive-by shooting of the barrister Steven Barrett, who happens to be a conservative, by the high-status Twitter lawyer ‘The Secret Barrister’, who has used platform to develop a career as an author and enhance his influence, particularly as a campaigner. Still, The when the big beast of the Twitter legal jungle, Jolyon Maugham QC, came after The Secret Barrister over a separate issue, it was the latter who backed down.

A real public square allows the lowliest individual to express themselves, unlike Twitter, which rewards the brashest characters who make lots of noise, and who have little self-awareness, and even less shame can flourish. Like Maugham, like former President Donald Trump – two needy peas from the same pod – and for that matter, like Musk himself, the richest and noisiest man in the world. No wonder he bought it.

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ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago

‘IF LIBERTY MEANS ANYTHING AT ALL, IT MEANS THE RIGHT TO TELL PEOPLE WHAT THEY DO NOT WANT TO HEAR’ *

(*’You’ know who’.)

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
4 months ago

Not a fan eh? Musk gets under the skin of the Left because he embodies free market, buccaneering capitalism at its best.
If he open-sources the Twitter algorithm for full transparency of human communication then, well…!

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
4 months ago
Reply to  Justin Clark

(Edit: I’ve removed my statements regarding Musk’s involvement in Paypal and Tesla in response to information on the matter from Carlos Danger, below. The rest of the post remains as-is, since nobody has rebutted the claim re the viability of Starlink.)
His Starlink project is completely mad in every way. It “works” because the oracle of capitalism’s chief talent is bilking tax payers of their money to fund wild unsustainable vanity projects. Putting satellites in close orbit is not just dangerous (read about the Kessler syndrome), but financially doomed. The Irridium network he competes with relies on 3 satellites triangulating at 30 000km from Earth. His business model, which requires more than 2000 satellites in close orbit, is allegedly “game changing” because it reduces latency by a few hundred milliseconds.
Keep in mind that less than 50% of the earth’s surface is land, which means that the few people who do use the service must pay for the 1000 or so satellites hovering above open water, where there are no customers.
That he continues to get away with what he does is testament to the broken nature of the financial system and the unsustainable abundance of cheap money, not “buccaneering capitalism at its best”.
(To all the predictable downvotes, I challenge you to actually counter the points I’ve made rather than imagine a downvote is an appropriate substitute for an argument.)

Last edited 4 months ago by hayden eastwood
Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
4 months ago

The points you have made are largely not correct, not persuasive, or both. I’m no fan of Elon Musk (I can’t stand the guy), but as a lawyer in Silicon Valley I’ve been following him since he sold Zip2 to Compaq in 1999 and can attest that he is a skilled entrepreneur with a remarkable track record (including some failures).
To respond to your points (much of my response is from personal knowledge):
Elon Musk was a co-founder of Paypal if anyone was. Paypal was the name later given to the merged companies Confinity and X.com. Elon Musk had cofounded X.com. He was appointed CEO (not CTO) after the merger but didn’t last longer than a few months as Peter Thiel didn’t like his branding strategy or managing style.
Elon Musk is considered one of five co-founders of Tesla as the result of the settlement of a lawsuit over that issue. Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning had started Tesla in 2003 and then hired Ian Wright, but the company went nowhere until Elon Musk funded it in 2004 and J.B. Straubel joined. Only Elon Musk and J.B. Straubel have had any real influence on the company, although Martin Eberhard did run it for a few years.
Some Tesla shareholders are not happy with what Elon Musk did at Solar City but shareholder lawsuits are not uncommon. I don’t know the details of that case but from what I do know Elon Musk’s strategy and behavior seems reasonable. We’ll see what happens, but even if that becomes a black mark it will be a minor blot on his record.
I too am critical of Starlink but it is far from being “mad” or a scam to bilk the government. Yes, some of the satellites are over the ocean rather than land but they provide internet service to airplanes in flight and ships at sea.
Years ago a website called The Truth About Cars had a deathwatch on Tesla that I gleefully participated in. Many people (including Bill Gates, as we found out a few days ago) have shorted Tesla stock. We have all been shown up by Elon Musk.
And it’s not because of grift or guile. It’s because of his ability to take huge risks, to work at a killing pace, and to make his unique visions real. Elon Musk has many faults (including poor social skills due at least in part to Asperger’s), but his strengths are real and extraordinary.

Last edited 4 months ago by Carlos Danger
hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
4 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

I speak as someone who was formerly a big fan of Musk. I changed my mind when I wanted to use Starlink for my remote sensing projects in African wilderness regions, for which the research I did unearthed what to me looked like a completely unworkable product.
Your points on Starlink, in this regard, are tangential because they don’t address my key claim that Starlink is not commercially viable without government subsidy.
As you point out ships and planes can use it, but they are very few in number and cannot hope to cover the costs of launching 1000 satellites over the Oceans.

On your points regarding whether Musk was or wasn’t a founder of Paypal and Tesla, I defer to you on this as I don’t know the details of the backstory. I will only say that, as a former fan, I was surprised to discover that his role in these companies was far more contentious than I had previously been led to believe by mainstream media. And, in conclusion, I no longer see him as this messianic tech genius, but someone who is a charismatic salesman in the mould of Elizabeth Holmes.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
4 months ago

You had asked in your post for anyone who downvoted you to explain why, so I did. You have your own views and that’s fine. It makes for a more interesting world when views differ.
I have two minor points in response, and one major one.
First minor point — you had said that Starlink is “completely mad in every way”. I’ve looked into it more and disagree. I’ll leave it at that.
Second minor point — did you see that the Delaware Chancery Court ruled in Elon Musk’s favor, thinking in its 132-page opinion as I did. The other Tesla directors settled for $60 million. Elon Musk fought the case at the risk of losing billions. But he won. Typical.
Major point — you said that you used to be a fan of Elon Musk and considered him to be a messianic tech genius, but now consider him to be a charismatic salesman in the mold of Elizabeth Holmes. That seems a fair evaluation.
I think Elon Musk, Elizabeth Holmes, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and others like them are both overrated and underrated. Their fans rate them too high. Their enemies don’t give them enough credit.
Flawed though they are, we need more people like them. While we need to weed out the criminals, convicting Elizabeth Holmes was a big, big mistake. She, and others like her, deserve better.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
4 months ago

Not being on Twitter I don’t really understand why the number of your followers makes any difference if the point you make is duff. Perhaps someone can explain.

Kieran Saxon
Kieran Saxon
4 months ago

Agree that Twitter has made things worse by promoting some accounts over others, creating tools to reinforce that and thereby creating de facto tiers.
Of the two accounts mentioned in the last paragraph, Maugham is still on the platform and benefits from ‘blue-check’ status, and Trump is banned.
Elon is right, Twitter *is* the public square, but a certain group have megaphones, whilst others have been escorted off by the police.
That’s why he’s bought it. Whether he can fix it? Time will tell.

Cantab Man
Cantab Man
4 months ago

I do find a bit of schadenfreude in the fact that progressives are now suggesting that Twitter is a hate-filled place that’s consumed with evil hierarchies…until we realize that it’s currently filled with 2 Democrats posting for every one Republican (US stats on the user base).

Why progressives self-flagellate on and about Twitter is a mystery…but they stoically carry on.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
4 months ago

My own comment on here (utterly uncontentious) has been edited out of existence by the WordPress bot. More evidence – if such were needed – that online censorship exists and stifles what I hope is reasoned discussion.
[Update – the WordPress bot finally approved the original post.]

Last edited 4 months ago by Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
4 months ago

Saudi Arabia’s public squares echo to the sound of sword on bone. They flow with human blood. “Seven men, two of whom were under 18 when arrested, were shot in a public square”, Amnesty reported.

Indeed, I am glad that Amnesty International still occasionally looks in on those violent countries that routinely murder, torture, and otherwise mistreat their own citizens. But it never really makes headlines, does it? Amnesty’s PR operation is too busy these days prioritizing the “human rights” of Twitter users, this being the latest (taken from the BBC website):

But in a Twitter thread, Amnesty International said: “We are concerned with any steps that Twitter might take to erode enforcement of the policies and mechanisms designed to protect users.

Amnestwit International.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
4 months ago

I so agree. I used to contribute to Amnesty International in the 90’s. A number of years ago they seemed to stop caring nearly as much about the killing of journalists in Russia or FGM in Yemen, and instead moved on to things like getting rid of solitary confinement in Canada (where I live). I worked in prisons. The only thing stopping a violent man serving a life sentence from killing another prisoner who he has a grudge against, or shanking a guard who denied him a privilege is the threat of solitary. I don’t know if there is a better answer than solitary. But I do know that having some uber-woke organization expound on things they know nothing about without suggesting a better alternative is putting people at risk.

Gary Taylor
Gary Taylor
4 months ago

So the public square analogy isn’t absolutely perfect. Is that all you’ve got?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
4 months ago

What a pathetic piece of ‘journalism’.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
4 months ago

Lesley this has got to be the most unhelpful comment you have made. It would add to the discussion if you explained why you find it objectionable.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
4 months ago

What it have been better if I said ‘superb’? Plenty of people say ‘excellent piece’ frequently. Why have I triggered you? Are you on Twitter?

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
4 months ago

The author’s contention is that Twitter is not comparable to a public square because high status people with lots of followers can drown out people with worthy points of view by virtue of their supporters, who often behave like mobs. Why is this contention, in your view, “pathetic” ?

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
4 months ago

Post removed – accidentally double-posted.

Last edited 4 months ago by hayden eastwood
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
4 months ago

I will reply to one of your posts – stereo isn’t necessary. I don’t like his snarky style and I don’t like the pompous use of words like ‘synedochic’ which forces most people to Google. I also don’t like the tone, which is not balanced and doesn’t sound reasonable – to me.
Currently high status people with lots of followers (mostly ‘Progressives’ because of Twitters manipulative censorship strategies) drown out others, but they don’t necessarily start as high status. Some get there by setting up public profiles and working them. Ordinary people get to have their say in response to others and these tweets are often retweeted by high status people – like Elon Musk.
Musk might be a flawed genius (who isn’t), but a genius he is.
Today it is reported that conservatives are being followed by tens of thousands of new people and the opposite is happening to Progressives. Destroying the evidence before the new boss comes to town?
Viva Elon.

Last edited 4 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
Ian
Ian
4 months ago

Ah that’s better!
And agreed. I thought his piece had an agenda.

Last edited 4 months ago by Ian Stewart
Ian
Ian
4 months ago

You’re usually more informative in explaining your views.

Jack Mizrachi
Jack Mizrachi
4 months ago

YOURS : s i m p l y an opinion, nothing more……

Richard Harris
Richard Harris
4 months ago

Twitter is not a Public Square. A public square is a public square.
It’s just that there are very few really public squares, anywhere.
Perhaps someone can tell Elon about PIAZZER, which intends to bring public meeting back to public space.