Zeroeth Draft: Thoughts on Twitter

The following is one-pomodoro’s worth (a 25 minute timer) of brainstorming on what could later be a blog post on either Twitter, or free speech, or communities, or all of the above. But after writing it I’ve decided to publish it completely bare.

I’m doing this because it’s an interesting example of the “raw material” that I would hope to refine into “good” writing, but also to generally lower the standards of what’s acceptable so that I’m more likely to post more often.

Word-vomited out between 2.35pm and 3pm on Sunday 6 November.

Trying to write a post about what’s happening to Twitter would be a sucker’s game, the situation is changing — deteriorating — so rapidly that trying to get your thoughts ahead of it isn’t going to work.

The people who are making the most noise about “free speech” absolutely do not actually care about free speech, they care about their speech. The tell is in what speech they defend, and what speech they’re strangely silent about defending.

People complaining about a “lack” of free speech are actually complaining about the existence of “standards” of speech. It makes a bit more intuitive sense if you use the word “behaviour” instead. There are some behaviours that are illegal, and a huge amount of behaviour that is “free” (as in, “not illegal”).

However, “behaviours that are acceptable” is a much smaller subset than just the behaviours that are “not illegal”. The point is that it’s not up to “police” or “the law” to enforce those standards, it’s up to society. You can’t “do anything you want as long as it’s not illegal”, because the bar for what’s acceptable in society is higher than just “not illegal”.

A community is a group of people who have come together with a common interest, and a common set of standards. That set of standards is a narrower bar than just “anything that’s legal”, it has to fit with what the community is interested in, and the behaviours it wants to see.

This is what brings me back to moderated content on social media — no community can survive a complete lack of any standards of behaviour. Or, to rephrase: any community of people can be destroyed with the right application of entirely legal behaviours or entirely legal speech.

So if you want to keep a community, you have to set your standards at a bar higher than what is simply “legal”. And enforce them yourselves.

And so that’s exactly what we’re doing: we all agree that it’s not a government or a police force’s job to choose and enforce exactly what’s acceptable or unacceptable in society. That’s the part that we have to do ourselves.

People who are pretending to lose their minds over “cancel culture” are playing a clever game, they’re claiming it’s about losing their free speech, but it’s actually a much more democratic process than that — it’s a fight over what we consider acceptable or unacceptable in the broader set of legal activities in society.

There are a couple “memes” that explain this idea so much better than I can myself, there’s the parable about the barkeeper throwing out the Nazi to prevent his bar becoming a “Nazi Bar”, and there’s also the meme-image explaining that, if you say your community is welcome to both “sheep and wolves”, you’re actually just welcome to wolves.

If your community is open to both “assholes” and “people who don’t want to hang out with assholes” then, over time, your community will completely organically become a community of assholes.

Other essayists have made the excellent point that Twitter’s entire product was the content moderation. People for the most part hang out on Twitter because they can closely associate for the most part with the people they want to hang out with. If that weren’t true, you wouldn’t value it. And of course, it’s swung back and forth over time.

Twitter is about to take a big swing towards assholism. It’ll be there for a while, and Elon Musk will lose a gigantic amount of money. A lot of commentators have pointed out that there are ways he could improve things, but I think with the firing of half the staff, the ship has sailed on the ability to improve Twitter for the forseeable future.

Mike Masnick has a great piece on speedrunning all the lessons of moderating content on a social media site. If only Elon had moved slightly more deliberately and more slowly, he might have had a chance to learn some lessons, but he’s hamstrung himself so quickly that I don’t see much chance of the site changing direction from “straight down”, for some time yet.