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A Modest Proposal for Elon Musk

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A Modest Proposal for Elon Musk

Set a 280-character minimum for tweets. April 26, 2022
Technology and Innovation
The Social Order

The public is guessing what Elon Musk will do with Twitter when he acquires control, assuming his $44 billion acquisition of the social media platform is finalized. One thing seems clear: the standard profit motive is scarcely relevant. Private acquisition tends to involve extra motives, especially for socially significant businesses such as the news media or social media. Musk seems to be buying Twitter in no small part to set the rules—and specifically to reset the standards of free speech established in social media and public discourse in recent years.

The question troubling some of the public seems to be whether Musk will restore former president Donald Trump’s account. That is a trap that will be hard to avoid. But beyond the issue of Trump, Musk’s assumed motives behind buying Twitter seem obvious. As ex-Reddit’s CEO Yishan Wong recently speculated, Musk may indeed long for the days of the early Internet. Twenty years ago, Internet mavens wanted merely to change the old world, the blogosphere was a frontier where people could freely express themselves, and censorship by large corporations controlling the means of discussion was unheard of. Today, social media have become a cultural battleground where speech is circumscribed, often by authorities—especially speech that these authorities reject—but also by many users, who seek to silence or suppress speech of those they deem unworthy of it. Judging by his first statements, Musk is determined to do something about that. Yet new features regarding bots or algorithms may not address the core problem with Twitter and with social media in general. The only way to fix Twitter may be to turn its basic design upside-down.

The Internet emancipated authorship: it gave everyone an opportunity to communicate his views far beyond physical reach. Before the Internet, in the entire history of civilization, only about 300 million people could communicate their opinions beyond their physical reach. Now, 5 billion people can do so. Moreover, what had appeared to be a technical opportunity turned into a pressing necessity. Social networks’ business model depends on engagement. The more time users spend on social media, the more personal preferences they expose. Both personal time and personal data have become commodities for platforms designed to extract as much of them from users as possible, thereby getting those users to engage ever more. Every feature—be it a like, a repost button, or a newsfeed algorithm—aims to boost this engagement.

Since users’ physical time is limited, more engagement means shorter interactions and faster exchanges. On social media, quick replies with shorter messages inevitably result in an outpouring of emotion. Conversations increasingly involve not a sequence of well-thought-out sentences but emotional signalling full of exclamations, interjections, and their digital substitutes (emojis, memes, gifs, and videos). Post-literacy has collapsed into digital orality. This medium is hardly suited for thoughtful expression, but it is a good vessel for emotional rampages. The form invites a certain type of content. Thoughts have been replaced with attitudes that, to be noticed through the noise, tend to the extremes.

Rage and polarization, then, are embedded in the very business model of social media. These are not inevitable products of human nature or of our political condition: they are a media effect, propelled by the technological properties of the medium and the financial necessity to maintain them. Because the platform design causes people to lean to the extremes for better engagement, social media turn living humans into users with distorted identities for profit.

Two strategies can reduce polarization: media literacy and media engineering. Media literacy helps people understand that rage and animosity are the product of media, not their interlocutors. Awareness about the distinction between media’s effects and human nature, ideally, would encourage people to moderate themselves and tolerate others. But media literacy will not eliminate the spurs of rage and polarization. Almost 5 billion people use social media. The problem can be solved only with a solution that will affect the behavior of billions. If someone manages to slow down the exchange for 2 billion—the total population of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—then polarization would subside. A solution of this scale is possible only at the level of media engineering.

What would such a solution entail? At the core of any participatory digital medium lies a fundamental factor that makes instant participation possible: the speed of message delivery. Reversing this trend is the key to making media saner.

Electric communication cancelled space and released time, formerly needed for a message to travel. “Information moved at electric speeds also sends the sender instantly,” wrote Marshall McLuhan. “Not just the broadcaster but his public go to Peking and return, and everybody becomes totally involved in everybody.” Electric media give humans the god-like conditions of a “disembodied spirit,” or “the angelic discarnate man of the electric age who is always in the presence of all the other men in the world.” The electric speed of engagement of everyone with everything and everyone has reversed “all the old relationships of speaker and audience.” Reactions to any occurrences are no longer limited by either physical or social distance. With instant access to everyone and each other, everything becomes debatable.

McLuhan foresaw the consequences. According to him, electric speed has turned the world into a global village “where everybody is maliciously engaged and poking his nose in everybody else’s business.” “The global village is a world in which you don’t necessarily have harmony,” he concluded. “You have extreme concerns with everybody else’s business and are much involved in everybody else’s life.” On another occasion, McLuhan wrote, “The global village absolutely insures maximal disagreement on all points. . . . The spaces and times are pulled out from between people. A world in which people encounter each other in depth all the time. The tribal-global village is far more divisive—full of fighting—than any nationalism ever was.”

Media engineering to reduce polarization need not mean participation or filtering, for then the possibility of censorship emerges. Engineers should instead target the speed of engagement. If instant engagement inevitably favors emotionality, disagreement, rage, and polarization, then the inhibition of engagement affords space for deliberation, rationality, tolerance, and collaboration.

History suggests as much. The Soviet anthropologist Boris Porshnev hypothesized that speech emerged among primeval humans along with the inhibition of reflexes to environmental triggers. The inhibition of reactions was a prerequisite for communication and thinking. Culture itself is the inhibition of natural reflexes. Delayed reactions allow observation, consideration, and planning. Imagine two people playing chess via snail mail. Normally, chess is a race against time, but when players cannot respond immediately and must think about their next move, a miracle happens: they think thoroughly. The inhibition of response leaves—indeed, creates—room for deliberation.

Generally, all communication media before electricity developed to speed up communication through space but kept reactions delayed in time. Writing and print favored deliberation because they allowed huge distances to be covered at the cost of slowing down message production (as compared with spontaneous speech). As media-ecologist Paul Levinson put it in his book Human Replay, “Until the telegraph, not a single technological medium permitted such an immediate interchange of information.” Even letter exchange, a form of writing directly based on interactivity, made “each party respond to the other in segregated absentia.” The first electric communication medium, the telegraph, allowed “anyone to hook into the system to immediately interact with anyone else hooked into the system.” As Levinson concludes, “The telegraph thus broke once and for all the observational yoke that had been the unavoidable burden of all previous technological extensions [of humans] across time and space.”

With electric and now digital media, the response time in communication has caught up with the reaction time of natural reflexes or spontaneous speech (hence “digital orality”). The individual’s nervous system has extended to the size of the planet, as McLuhan predicted. Through digital media, we can instantly react to events with no space constraints or time delays. But this comes with a price. We are returning to our primitive instantaneous mode of communication, in which semantics tends to be replaced with signalling—except now, the tribe is global. Instead of sharing observations, users share their exaggerated identities in the growing noise of everyone’s omnipresence. The design of social media facilitates our basest attitudes, not our thoughts, in order to sell us to advertisers and politicians.

Is it possible to reverse this process? Technological solutions do exist. In 2020, Twitter tested prompts that encouraged users to pause and reconsider a potentially harmful or offensive reply before they hit “send.” When given such a prompt, 34 percent revised their initial reply or decided not to send their reply at all. Twitter also began prompting users to read an article before retweeting it. But these all were drops in the bucket. For a radical change in settings affecting billions of interactions, a solution is needed that will strike at the core.

So here is the promised piece of advice to Musk: require a character minimum for tweets. The fundamental feature of Twitter is its limit of 280 characters for a post. Brevity was considered a virtue for a writer in the print era, but on Twitter, brevity has nothing to do with a sender’s virtue. Quite the opposite: short tweets tend to be short on rationality. In this medium, brevity is a business gimmick that makes the news feed faster and easier to engage with. What is needed to reverse radically this feature of social media is an opposite limit: tweets must not be shorter than 280 characters. A quantum of media must become time-consuming again, inhibiting responses via a technical delay into which thoughts, not emotions, might be squeezed. Alternatively, Twitter could prioritize longer posts, or give perks to users authoring thoughtful content.

This would encourage an unthinkable outcome for social media: requiring a user to think about what to write. And that renders it extraordinarily unlikely. After initial hype, such rules would undermine engagement, which lies at the core of Twitter’s business model. It could accelerate the takeover of non-textual media, such as TikTok. But solutions that slow down social media engagement cannot be driven by market imperatives. A source for such solutions, though, might be the arbitrary will of an eccentric owner—one who does not care much about the platform as a business and whose ambitions are peculiar enough to include sending humans to Mars.

Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images

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