Culture & Society

How to Wreck (and Reclaim) the Digital Town Square

Elon Musk is undermining Twitter’s status as the ‘digital town square,’ but can something else take its place?

The wrecking crew. Elon Musk enters Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on October 26, 2022, days before his takeover of the company was completed. Image Credit: Twitter account of Elon Musk/AFP via Getty Images

My recent comment on Substack Notes just about sums it up: “I have lived long enough to read the phrase ‘legacy social media.’”

That’s right. Substack (a platform I’ve used for the past few years to host some of my writing and podcasting projects) now has its own social media platform: a Twitter-like microblogging feed, only better—so far. We’ll see what happens. But I think the time is past due for someone else to take over from Twitter and become the new “digital town square.” Substack may be in the best position to do that.

You can see why it matters for us, the writers—but why does it matter for you, the readers?

Well, my note above is in response to this one from Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie, in which he comments on how “legacy social media” has influenced how we debate ideas. The key quote, from another Substacker of course, is: “The big thing that modern media and modern politicians have learned is that if they can keep you angry, they’ll hold your attention.”

I think there’s something to that because how people can reach an audience and make a living does influence what they are encouraged to say and rewarded for saying.

A Natural History of Digital Media

I have been running a Substack since 2004. That may seem like an odd thing to say since Substack was founded in 2017. But for 19 years, I have been operating a subscription-based email newsletter linked to a website—which is to say, exactly the same thing as a Substack. I was very glad when someone finally created a platform that would provide the technical and administrative support for this, so I no longer had to cobble it together on my own. The point is that a lot of other writers are now doing the same thing.

I started during the blogging era, when the center of activity in the new upstart digital media was a webpage on which the proprietor published his comments on the world, along with links to interesting online news stories. Blogs were free, which made this era the heyday of the amateur—not just random people on the internet, but often a real expert or professional with a day job who posted commentary online as a hobby.

The blogs showed that online media could be a counterbalance to the big “mainstream” media. Does anyone remember Rathergate, when a bunch of bloggers dismissed by a network executive as “a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing” fact-checked a media legend out of his job?

The blogs were eventually superseded by the rise of social media. Instead of having to compose a “blog roll” of interesting sites to visit, it was easier to have one site—usually Facebook or Twitter—where you could get a single feed of all the people you found most interesting and get recommendations from other readers you chose to follow.

The hitch with both forms of digital media is that they were free. Both blogging and social media were built on the unpaid work of millions of contributors who created the actual content that drew people to these sites. This helped lead to the decline of newspapers and other older forms of advertising-based traditional media. It also helped create some of the perverse incentives people are talking about today.

To make any money on “legacy social media,” you have to have a truly massive follower count. You have to put on a show, and that often leads to the kind of behavior we’ve come to expect from the social media era: the appeals to anger and outrage, the need to always be in some kind of petty fight to keep up the artificial drama, the eagerness to lead online pile-ons against hated enemies or to appoint oneself as the ideological police looking for deviationists to purge.

Enter Substack, which in the last few years has been quietly setting the media industry on fire because it opened a whole new way of making a living and has been a way for some of the people manning the decks on the sinking ship of the old media to find a lifeboat. But can Substack create better incentives and encourage a better quality of discussion?

The Twitter Files

Elon Musk has certainly given them an opening. When he bought Twitter, Musk wrote that he did it “because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner.” Since then, he has done just about everything possible to make Twitter unsuited to that purpose.

It is questionable whether ideas were ever debated on Twitter “in a healthy manner”—it happened now and again, but it was not the norm. However, it had its moments. Anonymous posters could be trolls, but then again, any random person could challenge a famous pundit, people could and did say things that weren’t part of the mainstream conversation (and efforts to stop that from happening tend to be exaggerated), and often a person of no particular national significance would turn out to be witty and have interesting things to say.

More to the point, for those who debate and report on the big issues, it was a chance to be noticed by other prominent commenters and to interact with people we may not have otherwise met. It was a place where I could correct a New York Times editor about Virginia politics or spar with a New York Times reporter about his coverage of global warming. Even some of the articles I have written over the past 10 years have started with an editor seeing one of my tweets and asking if I could flesh it out into an article.

Twitter has been the D.C. cocktail party of myth and legend, except that it is going on 24 hours a day, you don’t have to live in D.C. to be part of it, and you don’t even need an invitation to attend. It served an important function for social networking and the transmission of ideas and influence in the American media, which is how it got its reputation as the digital town square. But as it became larger and more influential, Twitter faced the Moderator’s Dilemma. As Chris Leong, writing for the blog, Less Wrong, states:

[Suppose] you concede a need to at least occasionally intervene in a particular kind of dispute such as banning the white supremacists or deleting comments that contain racial slurs. It is really, really good to be able to do this. On the other hand, once you intervene in a particular manner, you create the expectation of intervention…. Quite quickly, you’ll find yourself being forced to render a verdict on a whole host of ideologies, not just the clear-cut examples.

Most of the trouble in a forum is caused by a small number of people who are acting maliciously. But as one gaming forum moderator observes, “Broken people cannot be fixed by rules. If you make the rules loose, they will find weak spots and exploit them. If you make the rules tight and specific, they will rules-lawyer you to the brink of insanity.” The trolls will use rules as another medium for trolling.

This problem is relatively easy to deal with in a forum with a few hundred active participants, where one or two good moderators can keep the discussion civil. But you can’t scale this up to a size anywhere near that of a national-level digital town square. Content moderation at scale is hard. It is necessary at some level because a totally unmoderated forum will be quickly overrun by trolls. But it will be very imperfect and a permanent headache for the forum’s hosts.

Enter Elon Musk, who instead of making any of these problems better, dialed them all up to 11. The problem with Musk is not so much that he changed the rules or incentives. Rather, there have been no rules other than his own personal whims. He has been conducting the moderation of Twitter the way a guy with a few hundred active users does: personally. And he hasn’t been a good moderator, a fair and calm hand at the helm making decisions with clarity and consistency. Instead, he has been touchy and erratic, careening around at random.

He shut down the Twitter accounts of professional journalists for reporting on a story he didn’t want them to discuss. After making a big exposé out of coordination between the U.S. government and previous Twitter management, Musk’s Twitter has been assiduously cooperating with foreign authoritarians, shutting down critics of the Modi regime in India. Then Musk had the effrontery to have National Public Radio labeled as “state-affiliated media.” After a backlash, Musk dropped the label for NPR—but also eliminated it for actual state-controlled propaganda outlets like Russia’s RT and China’s Xinhua. Musk explained, “All news is to some degree propaganda”—which happens to be a key talking point of Russian propaganda.

The story of Musk as a free-speech champion came full circle with his treatment of Matt Taibbi, one of the journalists he tapped to expose the so-called Twitter Files. As he began to regard Substack as a competitor, Musk started blocking links from Twitter to Substack. Taibbi, who makes most of his money from his Substack newsletter, questioned and criticized this policy—and Musk reacted by having Twitter “deboost” Taibbi and hide his contributions to the Twitter Files reporting.

The Blue Check Culture War

A lot of Musk’s management of Twitter is driven by his own personal resentments and the weird hobbyhorses he picks up from right-wing Twitter trolls. One of these is his resentment of the supposed arrogance of people who had blue check marks by their names. Under the old management, these blue checks were supposed to indicate that our real identities had been verified and we were “notable” in some way. Musk removed the blue checks for all of us who had arguably earned them on our own merits and gave them instead only to Twitter Blue subscribers—i.e., the people he managed to talk into paying for what had always been a free website.

The prestige of the check mark was vastly overestimated to begin with. But the problem is that whatever prestige it carried had been earned by those who did something “notable” to get one. So to avoid completely devaluing it, Musk has kept the check marks for a roster of celebrities who have not paid for them, in some cases because they are dead. This produced a unique milestone in the annals of marketing: a moment at which Musk got a who’s who of celebrities to publicly declare that they did not buy his product and would never do so.

The blue check saga underscores the basic problem of Musk’s Twitter: It is run in a way that is hostile to the very people who give the forum value. Musk never realized that the value of Twitter was created by us, by its users, and yes even by the old “notable” blue checks. If this was the digital town square, it’s because we had made it so. And then he declared a culture war against the people who made Twitter work.

If Not Twitter, Where?

But the question has always been: What is the alternative? I think Substack, and particularly its new Notes social media feature, is uniquely poised to provide a refuge from Twitter’s growing problems.

Part of the reason is that Substack has quietly become the one other place where everyone in the media business is already hanging out. Many of my colleagues are on Substack as readers of other people’s newsletters. Many have started Substack newsletters as sidelines or, you know, just in case something goes wrong with their main employer. (It’s a good idea. Respected journalist Tim Mak, for example, just got caught in a wave of layoffs at NPR, so he opened a Substack devoted to war reporting in Ukraine.)

The main hurdle for establishing a new digital town square is simply to get people to show up there. For a critical mass of people who are actively engaged in the political debate, Substack has largely achieved this goal. There aren’t good numbers yet on the total number of users on Notes versus Twitter, and I am sure that Notes still has a very long way to go. But a small number of “power users” generated most of the content on Twitter, and my own impression is that a large number of power users in media and politics are now at least dividing their time between Twitter and Substack.

But Substack is also going to have to face up to the same old Moderator’s Dilemma. As of now, the company is trying to maintain a relatively hands-off approach. This worked with newsletters, which are easy to keep separate from each other in the eyes of Substack’s customers. Substack has been host to a variety of anti-vaccine newsletters, for example, but they are not that widely known to anyone but their own subscribers. When these writers and their readers are drawn into a social network and mix with other Substack readers and contributors, they will naturally begin to clash, and to do so with all the zealotry of devoted conspiracy theorists. So Substack is already facing pressure to engage in more aggressive and censorious moderation.

It has to be prepared for different factions that will complain that it moderates too much, or not enough, or that it cracks down on one side of the debate more than the other. It’s going to have to accede to the necessity of making a few broad judgments about what is acceptable—but to keep those judgements few and broad, to make cutoffs in the obvious cases and leave the non-obvious ones up to readers to decide for themselves. This is a line that has proven difficult to draw, but starting a social media component, which encourages all readers and contributors to interact, accelerates the point at which Substack will have to confront this problem.

But Substack carries one big inbuilt protection against being overwhelmed by trolls. For now, at least, its users are dominated by people who are already writing their own newsletters. This means that they are more likely to have something substantive to say, rather than just showing up to shout abuse—and they are more likely to be concerned about their reputations.

The prospect that engaging in social media might actually be profitable, and not just for those with really massive follower counts, is the big differentiation from Twitter. The promise of Substack is that the work and even some of the grief and friction of engaging in social media discussions will be rewarded because at least some of your followers will be converted to paying subscribers.

That’s the big contrast with social media as it has been run so far, where we have been expected to provide content for big companies that monetize our traffic and give us little or nothing in return. The incentives for Substack are much different and were summed up recently by Hamish McKenzie: “In terms of business objectives, our overriding focus is on the writer’s business, since we succeed only if they succeed. And we’re happy only if they’re happy.”

From the perspective of a writer, that sounds terrific. But again, why should you care as a reader? Because these incentives shape the kind of writing offered and the kind of discussions we tend to have on big issues. The promise of Substack is that it creates an incentive for more thoughtful and substantive contributions—rather than amplifying the freakiest parts of the usual political freak show.

The internet is still a relatively new medium, and we are all still adjusting to it and finding out how to build digital town squares with reliable information and useful discussion, and a minimum of disinformation and manipulation. There is a lot of innovation that needs to be done to get it right, and it will never be perfect. But the rise of Substack is a promising new step in that big experiment.

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