Twitter Is Not the Public Square

Published: 2023-02-09

When the topic comes up about why I avoid social media sites such as Twitter, a common response I hear is "I'd love to do that, but Twitter is an important platform and it really is the modern day public square". I'll also hear things like "I'm taking part in public discourse" as well as something along the lines of "I am extremely well-informed because I am an active on Twitter." I'm paraphrasing and exaggerating only slightly with these quotes, but this conception that Twitter is the public square and essential if you want to participate in public discourse is absolutely absurd. To be clear, this post wasn't motivated because Musk is the new owner of Twitter. I've had these views well beforehand but only recently felt the need to fully articulate them because it's under new ownership and there's a lot of talk about whether or not Twitter is useful. Also, a lot of these talking points also apply to social media in general, especially Facebook and YouTube.

This might be news to some people but Twitter is a private platform. You absolutely do not have the right to be on it or to use it. It is well within the company's legal right to ban you for any arbitrary reason of which you have no recourse. It is not governed democratically by the people, rather it is a profit-seeking corporation whose goal is to attract as much of your attention as possible so that it can feed you advertisements. The only internal oversight that exists within Twitter is to ultimately ensure the company's bottom line. In order for you to have a voice on the platform you must agree to it's terms of service, including the requirement to have your data collected so they can shovel more ads down your throat. You can only use their app to access the service. It actively works against your best interests. The fact that this is the go-to place for politicians to say stupid shit, to rile up their base, and to sling insults at the other team for a decade is asinine.

Cal Newport recently said on his podcast that instead of this public square metaphor, it's more accurate to say that Twitter resembles more of the Roman Colosseum where gladiators from your tribe engage in combat to the death with gladiators from the other tribe, all while the crowd cheers on screaming for more violence. This is such an accurate analogy. Though other social media platforms possess this character to a degree, no other platform gains as much media attention nor come close to the arena anology as Twitter.

A public square is where the community members gather and can exchange ideas, stories, and other information. However the platform especially attracts news junkies and social media addicts that enjoy being outraged by exaggeration and nonsense ("enragement equals engagement"), whether they admit it or not. I understand that there's something innately human about being attracted to content that gets you to emotionally rattled or becoming enraged. Maybe it's something we seek out regardless if we're conscious of it. Whether intentional or not, the algorithms that determine what you see next picks up on this behavior because, again, the goal is to keep you engaged. The news industry has been aware of this as well. Anger and fear gets more viewers and therefore generates more advertising revenue than stories that invoke positive emotions.

There is this delusion that getting the most up-to-date news is somehow useful. The reality is that oftentimes this information isn't entirely accurate or outright false. The live updates and initial reporting on the events like Boston Marathon bombing or the September 11th terrorist attacks, for example, were almost entirely inaccurate. On platforms like Twitter, there is far too much noise and very little signal.

Ezra Klein wrote an New York Times opinion piece titled The Great Delusion Behind Twitter where he points out that Twitter makes it "easy to discuss hard topics poorly [...and] forces nuanced thoughts down to bumper-sticker bluntness". It is not a place for understanding - it is a place to satisfy the craving to be vindicated by your in-group and insult those in your outgroup. Klein also points out that "users mainly see (and produce) speech that flatters their community or demonizes those they already loathe. The quote weet function encourages mockery rather than conversation."

But maybe despite all this, there is still some inherent useful for Twitter. Admittedly social media in general has been a great way to connect with people and share information. However, it's also allowed people with ridiculous and stupid ideas to not just connect with one another, but to amplify their nonsense to an greater extent than they ever could by themselves. Twitter is not conducive to democracy - it's counterproductive to democracy.

A town square is made up of a local community. The words "local" and "community" do not come to mind when I hear that there's 400 million users on Twitter. The only thing that 400 million users have in common is that they're on Twitter. They're otherwise disconnected in space and time. When I heard people say that Twitter is the public square, I used to respond that it's like saying a shopping mall is the public square, because it's privately owned with other companies paying the building owner to set up shop and try to milk as much of your money (attention) as possible. I now think that even this is inaccurate - because it's worse. Humans did not evolve to engage with hundreds of millions of other humans on a platform and amplifies less constructive elements of human nature like tribalism.

So no, it's not correct to refer to Twitter as the modern day public sqaure and to continue to use Twitter to vote "yes, I'm okay with this business model and I'm okay with what it's doing to society". You're creating value for the owners of Twitter by continuing to use it and engaging on it. Some may not have a problem with this (which is fine), but I've come across countless others deluding themselves.

The solution? Avoid Twitter. There's other way to connect with people online that isn't a firehose of hundreds of millions of people trying to talk and shit on each other at once. Decentralized social media platforms exist that have a higher signal to noise ratio, however I recommend a good old fashion personal website for when you feel like sharing stuff with the world. At the very least, stop using the "public square" analogy. It's annoying.

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