The Internet Is Having Its Midlife Crisis

The Internet Is Having Its Midlife Crisis

The jokes and memes about Elon Musk’s Twitter purchase as proof of a massive midlife crisis are at least partly on point. The internet, for one, is having its own midlife crisis.

Many of us who have grown up along with the web are now reaching middle age, and we have enough experience with the internet to know what it does well and does poorly. And as with any midlife crisis, the internet can spiral into the abyss, continuing its own self-destructive pathway, or we can seize the moment to build a better internet founded on the essential principle that the internet belongs to all of us.

Twitter isn’t just a platform. It’s how some of us live, work, and survive. Many have long argued that Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms are public utilities—they provide an essential service to the public by enabling the flow of communication that supports communities, commerce, and access to critical information. The fact that one of the world’s wealthiest men can buy Twitter and screw it up has prompted an epiphany for many of its most loyal devotees: activists, journalists, politicians, and yes, trolls. We need to reshape the internet to support this public spirit—or at least refashion a small slice of it. But that requires grappling with questions that have vexed decades of internet policy thinkers; namely, who foots the bill and who sets the rules of engagement?

Here’s one proposal for when Musk finally realizes he’s responsible for destroying something he once loved enough to pay $44 billion for and that the best option to save Twitter—or his own solvency—is to give it up. It’s not unlikely that circumstances will unfold such that Twitter happens to go for a (comparably) fire-sale price like Myspace. And when it does, a combination of global civil service organizations and public service broadcasters should step in to collectively own the platform.

Think Twitter owned, but not necessarily operated, by, for example, organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Oxford University, and Radio France instead of Musk or corporate shareholders. Think “New Twitter,” but without all the bad “New Coke” jokes (although the Musk Caffeine-Free Diet Coke obsession helps make a real case for the branding). The New Twitter is Twitter reborn as itself, not much different than it is now, imperfect and essential, but no longer driven by the market’s expectation for ever-growing profits and scale.

Twitter in its mature form was a publicly traded company, and as such, susceptible to all the capitalist incentives to maximize profit—but at least it belonged to its shareholders. This corporate structure yielded a highly imperfect company that provided a platform for #blacklivesmatter and white supremacists, #metoo and the manosphere, journalists and conspiracy theorists alike.

Twitter was only free in a nominal sense, given that our attention and our data were footing the bill—somewhat precariously, it turns out, given the lackluster advertising revenues. But the fact that Twitter didn’t cost actual money eliminated a barrier to entry that enabled marginalized groups to use it. When Musk threatened to charge for verification, it only compounded the similarities between Twitter and other public utilities like water and electricity.

Generally, the idea of the internet belonging to all of us has a policy corollary: The government needs to provide regulatory guidance to prevent the worst excesses of capitalist egress and abuse, serving as a steward for the public.

That’s where the hiccups start. Government regulation of the internet sounds ominous, with China’s Great Firewall and the ability of autocrats across the globe to literally shut down the internet service providers in their counties, or call upon Facebook, Google, and Twitter to do their bidding—or else.

We also have little precedent for public and collaborative digital spaces, though the ones we do have—Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, and the Mozilla Foundation—provide essential backbones to what the internet can do best: spread knowledge at scale. But this isn’t profitable, and these organizations are all philanthropically backed. These are not so much a public square but a starting point for public knowledge.

They also wouldn’t exist without free labor. For example, Wikipedia is supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, but it’s also built on the bedrock of its volunteer and mostly white, male, and anglophone editors, and the Mozilla Foundation depends on coders who buy into a free and open-source vision of the web. The Internet Archive is in essence a big public library, and libraries have never been supported by the market, depending instead on philanthropists or public dollars to exist.

Using that model for inspiration, “New Twitter” could be a global communication platform owned and operated by a coalition of public service–minded stakeholders. But to keep Twitter, well, Twitter, it needs to retain some core properties and features of the platform that people have valued. Namely, the platform needs to be free, it needs to have scale, and for better or worse, it needs to be a place for free expression. Twitter would need to have a long leash, much like well-supported public broadcast providers in democracies across the globe that have remained at arm’s length from government censorship.

Some have already advocated for such a digital public service infrastructure. University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor Ethan Zuckerman makes the argument that social media in its current, profit-driven form isn’t good for democracy and that a digital public needs digital tools specifically designed to foster democracy. He acknowledges that this infrastructure won’t make money and needs public funding to support it.

Similarly, Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble, is pushing for the digital equivalent of public parks. He rightly points out that Twitter and other platforms are the communal spaces that only feel like public spaces but are owned by for-profit tech companies.

But these versions of the web that begin with democracy don’t sound particularly fun—and you need fun to keep users. Mastodon, one proposed alternative to Twitter, was designed to be decentralized and democratized, and to promote civil discourse as defined by a community. Many have found it to be preachy, unwieldy, and an anodyne substitute at best.

Perhaps the economics of the attention machine and democracy cannot go hand in hand. Yet there’s a long legacy of communication technology, from the telegraph to cable television, that has been this mix of private–public partnership: produced and maintained with the support of Uncle Sam but the stewardship of RCA, AT&T, and Westinghouse. There are few contemporary examples, in part because so much tech is funded indirectly: The venture capital companies fund other companies making things.

I suggest a slight revision to the digital public space approach—let’s imagine New Twitter in the U.S. as a public–private partnership. These are often most demonstrable in stadiums and sometimes take the form of NCAA booster clubs or local banks that split costs with the public. Stadiums are fun, they bring people together, and they are also imperfect: unruly, corporate, loud—and yes, crowds can easily become mobs. But so can our behavior on the internet.

Sure, maybe New Twitter (or should it be Nu Twitter?) is a pipe dream. But dreams inspire us to think bigger. The internet is both shaped by and shapes humanity—it’s a funhouse mirror that reflects, amplifies, and distorts our very best and worst impulses.

The beauty of globally distributed ownership of New Twitter it is that it would be messy, situated in specific cultural and national contexts, and decidedly imperfect. But if reimagined as for the public rather than for profit, we might be able to think about the internet as an essential human right, like air or water, something we all need to protect in order to survive.

Future Tense
is a partnership of
New America, and
Arizona State University
that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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