Not content with being one of Twitter’s most notorious users, one with posts so bad he was fined by the SEC, billionaire Elon Musk is now a member of the board of directors of Twitter and promises big changes ahead for the company. Whatever Musk’s vision is, it won’t matter because neither he nor any billionaire can save social media. Only we can.

huge brains

A defining facet of our modern western world is the belief that the skills of the tech industry are superior to all other forms of human thought and that having billions proves how smart and talented you are. Every week, it seems, the worst internet users dream up high-tech solutions to the planet’s most complex problems. This is how Uber reinvent the bus or multi-level marketing, uh, cryptocurrency is touted as a panacea.

While not unique to Elon Musk, I think he uniquely embodies that rich STEMlord mindset, and to his credit he at had success. Turns out the rocket really is something you can improve with lots of money and people. But like so many billionaires, Elon’s failures never seem to diminish the myth of his infallibility.

Tesla, for example, made electric cars exciting. Tesla has also had several production issues and its cars have been involved in worrying accidents. Tesla is also currently sued for discrimination by 4,000 black employees. Elon’s napkin doodles led to the Boring Company, which promised a revolution in rapid transit. What he delivered was a short tunnel with cars on rails that will somehow change the way the world moves.

And let’s not forget his short-lived efforts to rescue tourists trapped in a cavewhich ended in a nasty argument with the guy who managed to save them, on Twitter, the very platform of which he is now a majority shareholder.

It’s never really about free speech

We don’t have to wonder too much what big ideas billionaire mastermind Elon has for Twitter. He’s been telegraphing it for years and outright shouting it for weeks. Like many powerful men, his main concern seems to be (a complete misunderstanding of the concept of) freedom of speech.

On March 26, he quote-tweeted his own Twitter Free Speech Poll on Twitter saying, “Given that Twitter serves as the city’s de facto public square, failure to adhere to the principles of free speech fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done ?” He followed up with “is a new platform needed?” Hours later, he responded to a tweet asking if he would build a new social media platform around free speech with, “I’m seriously considering it.”

Claiming that “free speech” is an issue on Twitter is a little confusing because there’s so much awful talk on Twitter. Along with Facebook and YouTube, Twitter has been repeatedly accused of ignoring hate speech and becoming a breeding ground for mis/disinformation campaigns. Elon says he worries about democracy, but the hands-off approach of these companies has spurred the erosion of democratic values. So what is the real problem?

When a man (and it’s almost always men) starts speaking out against free speech on social media, what he’s really talking about is content moderation – the decisions companies make from social networks about content allowed on their services – and the reason he’s crazy is that he doesn’t want to get in trouble for being mean to others.

Every awful user, every flame war, every post of viral disinformation is grist for the mill.

Incidentally, this is why “free speech” social networks like Gab and Truth Social all eventually fail. The platform is filling up with bullies, but their favorite targets for bullying aren’t following them. Because why would anyone want to go to a place that welcomes bullies?

Now when a rich man starts ranting about free speech on social media, which he generally means that he must control the moderation of the content. Who says what, and what is allowed, should be consistent with the rich man’s personal philosophy.

We can guess the cause. Social media has been great for the rich and famous. Musk and other notorious Twitter personalities are getting immediate access to adoring fans. But it has also come with increased scrutiny and criticism because, blue checks and algorithms aside, one Twitter account is the same as another. Non-fans can complain just as loudly.

It just won’t sit well with someone who thinks that because he’s rich he’s smarter than everyone else and can buy a seat on Twitter’s board to prove it.

fight the power

Those of you who know me have already guessed that this is where I’ll be pivoting to talk about Mastodon, a free, decentralized microblogging platform that’s part of a larger constellation of interoperable federated services called Fediverse. I apologize in advance.

The Sins of Twitter aren’t unique to Twitter, and the Fediverse includes a lot more than Mastodon, but let’s focus on those two for now.

When it comes to content moderation, Twitter and Mastodon have some things in common. Both services allow you to block or disable individual users and report misbehavior to higher authorities who can take greater action, such as banning a user. Both services also allow users to opt out of terms and hashtags, filtering the content they see.

These tools emphasize individual responsibility. You have to take care of yourself.

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That’s where the similarities end because Mastodon, unlike Twitter, has tools that support the community. Each individual instance of Mastodon has its own rules and moderators to enforce those rules. Sometimes these rules are narrow and their application strict, and sometimes not. This is a reflection of the community served by these instances, and users can find ones that match their own desires.

Where communities have conflicting rules, there are tools for individuals – Mastodon users can disable and block entire domains – but also community tools. Mastodon instance admins can block the domains of all their members, extending protection to everyone. Moderators can exchange information about bad instances among themselves and also respond to domain blocking requests from members of their community.

Unless you’re Elon Musk and can buy shares of Twitter until you get a seat on its board, individual users don’t have much say in how Twitter works. . Your choice is either to accept decisions you don’t like or to stop using Twitter. Mastodon lets you leave an instance you don’t like and continue using the service somewhere else that suits you better.

Now, Mastodon and other Fediverse services have not overcome the toxicity, racism, and hate that is so prevalent online. There are “free speech” Mastodon servers whose operators allow users to do whatever they want. There are crappy people on big servers and crappy people on self-hosted servers. What’s important is that Mastodon’s design recognizes that issues with social media are social problems and cannot be solved with technology alone. It has flexible tools to enable personal and community response.

Anyone can fix it

Even if Musk were the benevolent billionaire philosopher-king he imagines himself to be, he wouldn’t be able to fix Twitter. This is because Twitter issues are also integral to how social media companies make money. Every user awful, every flame war, every post of viral disinformation is grist for the mill, and social media companies are weighing how much to allow and how much to quit, all in an effort to keep the money flowing. flow.

These services are designed to continue to be used; not because they are good for us, but because the longer we scroll, the more advertisements and paid messages we will see. The more we promote and share, the more data companies have to better target their advertising. But when revenue growth isn’t the only measure of success, worlds of possibilities open up. Choices can be made in the name of morality and above all: bad ideas can be abandoned, not perpetuated in the name of profit.

Mastodon, and many other Fediverse services, are free. The servers and code are maintained by volunteers, with crowdfunding sometimes used to offset these costs. Mastodon also eschews features that would support the social media business model. The big tech manual doesn’t work, and it’s not supposed to work. The goal is to support communities, not exploit them, and to empower the very people of those communities. Mastodon is still far from perfect, but people are trying to improve it.

Despite what Silicon Valley would have us believe, there is no product or process that will make the world a better place, and just being a billionaire doesn’t provide the wisdom to change that. There are no easy solutions to big problems. What we can have is the opportunity to do the work that makes things better, from Twitter to the climate crisis to the rise of global authoritarianism. It’s all about work.

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