Why Twitter Can’t Be Neutral Ground
Monday Notes
Why Twitter Can’t Be Neutral Ground
Both right and left partisans mistakenly think Twitter can be a global public square.
Published on: Dec 12, 2022  |  

There’s something revealing about the reactions that have accompanied Elon Musk’s release of the so-called “Twitter Files”—his giving thousands of internal emails and papers to journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss to document how controversial moderation decisions were made on the platform before he bought it. It's something revealing, and maybe something even hopeful.

The partisan fight has been fierce from the moment Musk announced his intention to lift the curtain on his predecessors' management decisions. The partisan disconnect between the sides—one claiming that there is no news value to the revelations, the other claiming that the revelations prove a vast liberal conspiracy is arrayed against conservatives—is jarring. But such disconnects are no longer truly shocking. Two sides talking completely past each other, operating from a completely divergent set of interpretations of reality, is just how things work in our polarized world these days. It’s ugly, but to be expected.

What’s more striking in the reactions is that we still seem to collectively hope for the existence of some kind of neutral territory for debate. Let me explain.

Most of the outrage on the right seems to be targeted at the very idea that Twitter employees would deign to censor speech on the platform. I’m less troubled by the censorship itself than by the righteousness that seemed to accompany it. But even that righteousness is coming from the same place as conservatives' own sense of outrage—a yearning for an ideal that probably can't be realized.

Here’s my first principle argument: Twitter has no choice but to control exactly what gets published on its platform.

This statement only seems outrageous if you buy into the idea that Twitter is akin to a global public square—a proposition held both by Twitter’s management pre-Musk, and by Musk himself today (who claims he is restoring Twitter to its original purpose). But the statement makes more sense if you swap out the metaphor: instead of a public square, Twitter is better thought of as a large bar or a club. A bar or a club is successful insofar as it is popular. More visitors means that each person’s stay will be more rewarding. More people means more chances for serendipitous encounters and interesting conversations—a good time.

Twitter is also a business. Unlike a club, it doesn’t make money by charging admission. Instead, it sells the attention of its visitors to advertisers. The logic, however, is mostly the same: more visitors means more money. Its visitors must remain entertained and should enjoy themselves for the business to survive.

But there's no such thing as the universal bar or club, and there's no hope of attracting all the customers at once. Cheers purported to portray an idyllic local watering hole, but some of us might prefer to spend our Saturday at Studio 54. And there is no solution to bridge that preference gap. More guys like Norm at the disco makes the disco less appealing. And no one wants cocaine-fueled orgies at the neighborhood bar.

Bars and clubs can be lots of fun, but they can also be unsavory and even a little dangerous. Getting the balance just right is often the key to an establishment being truly great. Some vice and crime adds to the atmosphere. Meeting oddballs and scumbags makes for a memorable night. Every bar and club owner needs to make a judgment call about what kind of establishment he or she wants to be running. Mainstream or edgy? Hipster dive or normie date spot? Sports bar or strip club? And whatever the decision, it can’t get too out of balance, or too out of hand. No one likes real anarchy. It's bad for business.

Twitter’s former guardians implemented an increasingly baroque set of policies in order to ensure a comfortable destination for a set of customers the managers wanted patronizing their venue. Elon Musk didn’t like those policies, and is in the process of coming up with new ones. Despite all the caterwauling online, he is not going to let Twitter actually become properly anarchic. He has said that moderation will persist. He is just going to attract a different clientele.

Yet both sides are defending their approach by appeals to a kind of neutrality.

Reading the most recent Twitter Files dispatches this weekend, you can see that some at Twitter last year did feel that the organization was going too far in deplatforming Donald Trump—that in doing so, they couldn’t credibly claim to be neutral. But others had much less trouble, warmly embracing Twitter’s new role as “arbiter of truth.” ("Truth" is, of course, beyond politics, and as such is the ultimate neutral ground.)

Musk’s defenders, however, are not much more perceptive or subtle. In their telling, Twitter is being restored to its previous neutrality now that its management has been liberated from the censorious libs. They may currently think they Musk will be less heavy-handed in how he moderates. But as I argued above, to run a site like Twitter is to cultivate an audience. Even leaving a site completely unmoderated is a choice in and of itself, and doing so cultivates a specific kind of audience, too. Musk may want to try to repeat the experiments already run by sites such as 4chan. The result may be more "free" but it won't be more neutral.

At the end of the day, I’m not even sure that the kind of neutrality that both sides seem to fantasize about is at all possible. And yet, that neutrality clearly remains a powerful fantasy in our collective imagination. And maybe that’s something that can give us hope—that despite all the partisan rancor, and our collective inability to argue over a shared reality, we still dream of a space where we can. Maybe, just maybe, that shared delusion of a shared space is what will keep us hanging together in the end.