“Freedom of speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital city square where issues crucial to humanity’s future are discussed” is how Elon Musk explained why he spent $ 44 billion on acquiring Twitter.
This phrase – “the digital town square” – has a long and messy history in social networks. Facebook and others have proven that throwing millions or billions of people into a single unrestricted space is a mostly impossible and mostly horrible idea. But maybe we just defined it wrong. In reality, a town square is not a place where everyone stands in a crowd and yells at each other while advertisers throw things at them. It is a place where groups of people find each other and spend time together. And yes, perhaps the issues that are crucial to the future of humanity are debating. Just not with everyone else.
Twitter should not try to optimize the public arena, a conversation of 200 million people that will never make sense. Instead, the company under Musk should focus on the private side of the platform, a sadly underdeveloped messaging and communications system that could make it the best messaging app on the market.
Twitter should invest heavily in turning DMs into a powerful, searchable, encrypted messaging system. It should finally roll out the much-maligned “long tweets” feature that lets people post more than 280 characters. It should continue to work on the community function so that people can chat about things they are interested in, instead of gathering their followers’ timelines with things they do not care about. It should integrate Revue newsletters and focus on making Spaces more useful and reliable. It should worry you less about ranking your timeline and more about giving you ways to talk and people to talk to.
It is true that Twitter is the best platform on the internet to build an audience and then send that audience to other places. You build an audience on Twitter, sound the joke, and monetize it on Substack or YouTube or a number of other places. Twitter should keep leaning into it because that’s what gives the platform its cultural cachet – after all, what’s cable news if not just a bunch of people in suits reading tweets?
But most people do not want to communicate with 200-some million people at a time, and even those who do will not only do it. Instead of focusing only on connecting people to the public square, it should focus on connecting people to each other. Twitter should catch up with where Facebook and others have gone over the last few years: towards a more private version of the Internet, where hanging out online involves less shouting your angry thoughts into a swarming mass of thousands of equally angry strangers and more actual spending time with people you care about.
When Twitter rolled out Communities, David Regan, a product manager, wrote it “We have not done enough to help connect people who are into the same things.” This has been a long-standing issue for Twitter, which has tried Suggested Follow lists and Trending Topics and Fleets and a thousand other ways to give people things to do on the platform. Communities are the first real approach that just gives people a safer and quieter place to be together. Therefore, Facebook believes that Groups is the future of the platform; that’s also why Telegram has grown so fast and why WhatsApp launched Communities just to keep up.
There is plenty of competition in the group chat area, but Twitter is entering the fight with an advantage: communication is happening on a sliding scale. Sometimes you want to text your best friend, other times your group of friends, other times your whole company, other times the world. Most messaging platforms are characterized by one, maybe two of these things. Twitter could bring its fast, simple communication tools to the full scale. And by placing it all in one place, in one app where users only need one username, it can be the best communication platform on the planet.
To be clear, none of this is easy! Many content moderation issues can be more difficult in these semi-private and private spaces, though Musk and Twitter could learn a lot from platforms like Reddit and Discord on that front. And for a platform as globally visible as Twitter, these problems will be exacerbated, especially as government regulations around the world become stricter.
Before Musk came into the picture, however, this sliding scale approach seemed to be roughly the way Twitter was heading down. As long ago as 2016, then-CEO Jack Dorsey said that “at its core, Twitter is public messaging,” and that speed and utility were more important to the platform than character restrictions or specific timelines. In practice, the company has long focused on one-to-many messages – to the detriment of everything else. Over the last few years, the company has finally started posting products regularly, and many of them should make Twitter feel a little smaller to users. It launched Communities through which you can tweet, but only to a group of people who are interested at the same time. It started testing Flock, a way for you to just tweet to your close friends. And finally, for the first time in ages, it seemed to remember that DMs exist and are starting to roll out a few improvements.
Of course, projects like Bluesky mean that Twitter can be even bigger than Twitter in the long run. It could become a universal standard on which many different kinds of experiences can be built. For Musk, who regularly discussed starting his own social network before deciding to just buy one, the idea of a decentralized social platform should be enticing.
In general, much of Musk’s focus on Twitter has been on the algorithm. The theory behind open-source it, as far as I can see, is to give users transparency and choices about what they see and where. But the better strategy is to let people build their own experiences with better tools than just the follow button. Help them and let them find out who they are talking to, what with and how, in as many ways as possible. This is where people will talk, where they will feel free to actually express themselves freely. No algorithm will ever do better than that.