A friend messaged me today about the sad state of affairs when we are reliant on billionaires for communication channels. It was of course in response to Elon Musk purchasing Twitter. The widespread emotional response to this purchase got me thinking about several things:
Firstly, that we have long been at the whims of the ultra wealthy for our access to communication. Zuckerberg and Jack are the modern versions, but before this it was Ma Bell, and before that it was the Church. History is littered with examples of power being based on access to voice. It’s no accident that the first amendment to the US constitution was an attempt to keep that right unbound.
Secondly, it’s fascinating to me how a billionaire purchasing a tech giant triggers a wildly different emotional response compared to someone becoming a billionaire after founding a tech giant. We’ve lived with the weirdness of Zuckerberg and Jack for a while now. And the outright awfulness of Murdoch. They’ve gotten their share of our ire, but it will be different with Musk because of psychological forces at play. We don’t treat as identical a crime of action as we do a crime of inaction. Someone who pulls a lever that sends a train into a dozen bystanders is not prosecuted identically as someone who could have pulled a lever to divert a train from a dozen bystanders. By purchasing a tech giant, Elon has pulled a lever. He will be given far less quarter from the public, a distinction that I don’t believe he is wise enough to fully grasp.
The third thing that came to mind is that most users will stay with Twitter because of the same craving of a bully pulpit that caused Elon to purchase Twitter. That is, we are little different from him. If we were less like Elon, we would be content to send our thoughts and cat photos to our close friends using gmail, or Whatsapp, or group SMS. We would write on our blogs, knowing that few people would ever read what we wrote (and we wouldn’t even Tweet or FB a link to the blog). We would start a newsletter and send it to our eight subscribers.
But we don’t. We have a billionaire mentality as well. We want to broadcast to the whole world, command everyone’s attention, amass as many followers as possible, acquire, acquire, acquire, preach, preach, preach. It is an age of excess, and we are its inhabitants.
If I spend less time on Twitter going forward, it won’t be because I’m mad at Elon Musk for purchasing the platform. It was already owned by weird people doing weird things, people with far too much power who pay far too little in taxes. Jack sat numbly by while Trump violated the Twitter terms of service and sowed discord and false information. Zuck and Jack both have allowed bots and sock puppets to abound in order to show user growth over actual user experience. One type of terrible will be substituted for another. It isn’t that the outrage is misplaced, it’s that it should’ve already been at current levels.
No, I hope I spend less time on Twitter because I already wanted to spend less time on Twitter. I hope I spend more time blogging to nobody, because that’s where I do my best thinking. I hope I spend more time on tumblr, because it’s owned by a friend who has a massive heart to go with his huge brain. I hope I send more private thoughts to close friends and less time trying to win over new ones. I have an excess mentality as well. We were all born with some version of it. Many times in life I’ve had to be reminded that this part of my brain is far too much in charge, and I have to dial it back, simplify, get out on the water in the vast empty sea, write something that I know will never sell, blog what I hope no one will ever read, think silently, read to myself, write a poem in the clouds, and whisper my love to no one.