As you’ve surely heard by now, Elon Musk is buying Twitter for $44 billion.
Oh, and life is over, according to my Twitter feed. It’s full of people lamenting the End of the World as We Know It. Rational, smart people are mulling consolidating follower lists and hopping to other platforms, while others are suggesting that the good old days have come to an end.
Analyzed in a vacuum, this would have been a confounding about-face for members of the media—sharp, progressive people who have spent the past decade (correctly) critiquing Twitter for its rampant tire fire of misinformation, abusive behavior, and terrible jokes, all of which made their daily life a little bit worse for existing. But the new message was clear: Twitter could become an even more dangerous place in the hands of a rules-ignoring billionaire who was championing a platform built on his unnuanced proposal of free speech (and who used a significant part of his own platform to make jokes about the adolescent-sacred numbers 69 and 420.)
I’m sympathetic to those fears, and any tipping of the scales that could amplify Twitter’s most damaging behaviors. (I stand by my belief in Twitter as something that should be either a government-owned utility or an artifact to be turned off and forgotten about by society altogether, but I’m exactly $43.999999 billion short in making either of those dreams come true).
Yet I’m actually far less worried that Musk’s big new ideas will harm Twitter than I am that he’s not thinking monumentally enough to fix it. For everything we can criticize about Musk, let’s remember that he created the world’s first good electric car and forced a $3.8 trillion industry to think beyond fossil fuels. Then he launched a reusable, self-landing rocket company that—forget the colonizing space talk for a moment—allows us to get critical satellites and NASA research hardware into orbit with less waste and cost.
These ideas were moon shots made real. Musk’s ideas for Twitter aren’t bad. They’re just small. Twitter needs a moon shot, and Musk is suggesting perfectly reasonable improvements that fall short of his best, most focused work behind his most impactful companies. Because so far, the three best ideas Musk has shared for Twitter? They are already in the works by Twitter.
Everyone on Twitter does deserve the same blue check mark
And authenticate all real humans
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 21, 2022
Let’s start with Musk’s crowd-pleasing promise of a verification check mark for everyone.
In 2020 Twitter’s founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey made a joke. If you wanted to be verified, just @ mention Kayvon Beykpour, the former founder of Periscope and the company’s head of product.
“There’s a guy named Kayvon, and he handles all the verification, which is the blue checkmark. So if you either DM him, or mention him, you have a high probability of getting a blue checkmark. So it’s @K-A-Y-V-Z. Verification, he’s the verification god. So just go to him and he’ll get you sorted.”
This joke was funny to exactly one person: Dorsey. Because Beykpour didn’t want to be inundated with requests. And everyone else? They just wanted to be verified.
Dorsey’s joke ended up being less funny than it was elitist; the gag was a stone’s throw from “Let them eat cake.” In the era of social media, if you aren’t a journalist or an inexplicably semi-famous person (perhaps you won a Nobel Prize, perhaps you founded a direct-to-consumer sustainable loofah company), you basically don’t have a shot at getting verified.
The desire for a blue check mark is more than an ego play. It’s certification of your online identity—that you are who you say you are. It’s ostensibly a driver’s license or passport for the internet. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a good driver spreading positive vibes or a bad driver posting alt-right content. Every onlooker should know this person is who they say they are. And if you’re afraid of a bad driver looking official because they have the blue check mark, that’s only because Twitter has leveraged it as a special badge for so long, creating a cultural cachet around the same thing that we wish we didn’t have to go to the DMV every two years to renew.
In Twitter Blue, Twitter’s beta-stage premium subscription model, the company suggests people can pay to be verified and receive the blue check mark. That’s a fine solution to anyone who can afford another monthly subscription. But it’s also another access gate. No one should have to pay a private company to prove who they are, let alone a private company that leverages our identities to lead a global conversation.
Have a real edit button to fix typos
Do you want an edit button?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 5, 2022
When Musk was first (publicly) considering buying Twitter, he asked a question that received a wild amount of attention: Should we be able to edit tweets or not? A majority of millions of respondents said yes.
Again, we see Musk winning over the masses by teasing a relatively popular observation: that all of us make typos on Twitter. And it’s stupid that we need to delete a tweet entirely in order to fix these mistakes. In fact, Twitter agrees. It has been working on an edit button since at least 2021, according to my earlier discussions with the company. Twitter reiterated this earlier in the month as well.
The question is, does an edit button undermine Twitter’s value as a giant social ledger, a receipt for statements made by politicians and other public figures? At first glance, maybe. What if someone erased a racist remark, or published misinformation that went viral, only to quickly change it once it reached a threshold for scrutiny? Editable tweets seem innately abusable in this way, and designed the wrong way, they would be.
But as independent designers have recently demonstrated, we have plenty of options to track changes when a tweet is edited. Twitter could allow updates while leveraging its UI to highlight these changes. It’s far from an impossible problem, and even Facebook/Meta has tackled it reasonably. As such, whenever editing tweets does roll out, don’t be surprised if it feels less revolutionary than overdue. Because if launched properly, editing tweets will feel as mundane as editing a Word document.
An open algorithm could heat check Twitter’s decision-making
Twitter algorithm should be open source
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 24, 2022
It’s easy to forget now, but Twitter used to be a pure feed of the latest posts by people you follow. There were no posts that magically floated to the top of hundreds of thousands of people’s feeds, garnering extra eyeballs and likes. And while this was impractical in many ways—perhaps The New York Times breaking news on the invasion of Ukraine does deserve a bit more prominence than a friend’s observance about breakfast cereal mascots—the system was unequivocally fair and logical. Each person’s voice stood in the same line and appeared with equal weight.
In 2016, when Twitter announced it was going the way of Facebook with an algorithmic timeline, many were worried that the move would break Twitter in the same way it broke Facebook. Half a decade later, I’d argue that it has. Certain figures top my feed again and again—figures I don’t want to unfollow but who I don’t need to see over everyone else at all times. Meanwhile, the “show less tweets” button meant to fix this functions just like the “elevator close doors” button of the internet. As far as I can tell, it’s an illusion installed simply for a sense of control to ease our sanity. It’s there. You can tap it as often as you like. But it doesn’t work. And what can you do about it? Nothing.
Twitter says it is actively researching how to share more of its algorithmic data. But just because that algorithm can be scrutinized doesn’t mean it’s fixed. You could likely fill Twitter with people just arguing over what the algorithm should and shouldn’t prioritize. That’s why, in a white paper last year, Twitter argued that users need more control over algorithms in a term it calls algorithmic choice.
Musk’s proposal to open source the Twitter algorithm entirely is arguably his best idea for Twitter—and the idea that pushes the platform out of its current comfort zone the most. It would allow the world of programmers to scrutinize Twitter’s code and processes, auditing the levers that shape discourse. Ultimately, this auditing would clarify the decisions that Twitter makes, to boost or bury a tweet, to the public.
You don’t have to like Musk to like this idea. While critics point out that these recommendation algorithms are almost impossible to dissect, and even useless to analyze, those takes overlook a simple truth: Open-sourcing software is generally considered a best practice in the coding community, and the reason we don’t see it more often is that corporations want to protect their IP and sidestep public criticism. For people concerned about Musk taking charge at Twitter, a public algorithm would serve as some hope to auditing his changes as well.
Musk needs to go big or go home
Whether you’re a Musk fan or not, the aforementioned ideas for Twitter are all promising ways for the company to iterate toward a better-functioning, less socially toxic product. But the problem is that Twitter already knows all of this! Its design team, expanded and diversified under its ex-chief design officer, Dantley Davis, last year, is as thoughtful as it is talented. And so it actually has expanded verification, an edit button, and more universal verification in development now.
While I agree these ideas can make Twitter better, I still do not know that they add up to a Twitter that anyone would classify as good, or positive, or necessary for humanity. I cannot claim these ideas are nearly enough to fix the gargantuan, encompassing problem that is modern social media—a world in which any single voice can both echo around the globe in seconds, carrying with it any agenda, falsehood, or prejudice, and in which a voice can specifically target a stranger with remarkable efficiency, striking them with hate like a cross-continental sniper.
Twitter is awful, and we need more than the Elon Musk as we know him on Twitter to solve it. He may be a tweeter of unparalleled popularity, riding adolescent memes and plebeian-friendly polls into our collective consciousness. But the Musk who has any shot at repairing Twitter is the Musk who reads Russian rocket blueprints, squeezes solar panels into roof shingles, and creates vehicles that go from 0 to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds without ever needing an oil change.
Until everyone realizes the true direness that is Twitter, it’ll be more feasible that I’ll die on Mars than anyone will fix the platform here on Earth.