I shake my head at the upheaval surrounding billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of social media outlet Twitter.
On one side you have conservatives who praise the native South African for using the bully power of his wallet to take over a platform that vexed them by taking away access for people like former President Donald Trump and other merchants of misinformation.
On another side you have liberals who criticize Musk for saying he will reopen Twitter to Trump and others who had been de-platformed for their misdeeds. They are leaving in droves and encouraging others to do the same.
Financial experts wonder why Musk paid $44 billion for something that in August of this year was worth only about $14 billion, according to GO Banking Rates, and had revenue in 2021 of only $5 billion. Musk is offering a monthly subscription option to users, but users ask why they should have to pay for the “free speech” he promised.
Politicos wonder what Musk is trying to accomplish in joining the likes of other bigwigs trying to control the public discourse. There have been more than a couple attempts by right-wingers to create Trump-friendly Twitter alternatives. Truth Social, Dissenter, Gab, and Parler are just a few.
They’ve mostly failed because top talent tends to go to the top sites — like Twitter — and the also-rans don’t have the expertise to make user-friendly sites that won’t also leak your personal information to the average 12-year-old with a Chromebook. And they have failed because most advertisers want no part of controversy. Founders cry about “cancel culture,” but that’s just how things work.
Finally you have folks like me who are content to wait and see what happens because we know Twitter and most other social media platforms are chaos magnets.
My first experience managing a social platform came when I was multimedia editor at a newspaper in Alabama’s capital. We had a popular message board where readers could go back and forth about what was going on in the city and its bedroom communities.
Sports was a big topic. Fervor for Alabama and especially Auburn football at that time still amazes me (when I was asked which team I followed and answered, “Clemson,” I was typically dismissed with, “Oh, we already beat y’all” by members of both fanbases. I regret I wasn’t still there in the Deshaun Watson-Trevor Lawrence years.)
Being a moderator for the board mostly meant tweaking the content filters built in to the system to catch obscenities before they could be posted. I’d weigh in if a user complained, but normally the system policed itself. Who had time to sit and read all those posts?
Our Auburn beat writer had his own successful message board and leveraged it into a job with a rival media outlet. I was asked to oversee the board he had run, also. That’s where the fun began.
His faithful users resented his departure and blamed me because I was a representative of the company that had “gotten rid of” their favorite. They resented that I updated the content filters to match the one on the newspaper’s main site. A few resented me because I wasn’t an Auburn fan like most of them, and there were probably a couple who resented my being African-American.
Their challenges were aggravating at times, but I generally kept a professional demeanor. You might even say jovial. But then the former writer started a new site and began asking his supporters to leave the site I was in charge of to come to his new one. One user became so concerned they sent me a screenshot of messages between users who were privately discussing undermining the old site.
Why did I ever mention that I knew what they were doing? Suddenly, I was attacked for violating their freedom of speech, stealing their personal information, contacting their places of employment and trying to get people fired.
I had done none of that, of course, but the watering hole had been poisoned and users began to leave it. The newspaper’s Auburn forum withered, and the new forum thrived until the same writer left it for yet another competitor.
And that’s the problem with these platforms. They aren’t built for longevity. For the most part, they live fast, die young and leave behind a few good-looking bank accounts — and a lot of ugly empty ones, too.
Assigning too much relevance to any of them is a waste of time. And money. I could’ve told Elon Musk that, but guys like him only listen to people who congratulate them on being smart enough to be born rich.
Terry E. Manning is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.