The Internet is experiencing its medieval crisis.

Jokes and memes about Elon Musk buying Twitter as proof a massive midlife crisis are at least partially in place. The Internet, for example, is having its own midlife crisis.

Most of us who grew up with the Internet are now reaching middle age, and we have enough experience with the Internet to know what’s good and what’s bad. And as with any midlife crisis, the Internet can spiral into the abyss, continuing on its own self-destructive path, or we can seize the moment to build a better Internet based on the essential principle that the Internet belongs to us all.

Twitter is not just a platform. This is how some of us live, work and survive. Many have long argued that Twitter, Facebook and other platforms Utility services— they provide an important service to the public by enabling the flow of communication that supports communities, commerce and access to important information. The fact that one of the world’s richest people could buy Twitter and screw it up has inspired the awe of many of its staunchest devotees: activists, journalists, politicians and, yes, trolls. We need to reshape the web to support this public spirit, or at least reshape a small part of it. But it requires grappling with questions that have haunted Internet policy thinkers for decades. namely, who pays the bill and who sets the rules of engagement?

Here’s a suggestion when Musk finally realizes that he’s responsible for destroying something he once loved enough to pay $44 billion for, and that the best way to save Twitter or his solvency is to give it up. It’s not unlikely that the circumstances will develop in such a way that Twitter will happen (relatively) fire sale price like Myspace. And when that happens, a combination of global civil service organizations and public broadcasters will have to step in for collective ownership of the platform.

Think Twitter is owned, but not necessarily run, by organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Oxford University and Radio France, for example, instead of Musk or corporate shareholders. Think New Twitter, but without all the bad New Coke jokes (though Musk’s obsession with caffeine-free Diet Coke helps make the branding point). The new Twitter is a reborn Twitter, not much different than it is now, imperfect and essential, but no longer driven by the market’s expectations of ever-increasing profits and scale.

Twitter in its mature form was a publicly traded company and as such was subject to all the capitalistic motives of profit maximization, but at least it belonged to its shareholders. This corporate structure created a highly flawed company that provided a platform for #blackness and white supremacy, #metoo and the manosphere, as well as journalists and conspiracy theorists.

Twitter was only nominally free, with our attention and our data footing the bill, which turns out to be somewhat unsustainable given the low ad revenue. But the fact that Twitter didn’t cost real money removed the barrier to entry that allowed marginalized groups to use it. When Musk threatened to charge for verification, it only deepened the similarities between Twitter and other utilities like water and electricity.

In general, the idea of ​​an Internet that belongs to us all has political implications. Government should provide regulatory guidance to prevent the worst excesses of capitalist output and abuse, serving as stewards of the public.

This is where the hiccups start. Government regulation of the Internet looks ominous, with China’s Great Firewall and the ability of autocrats around the world to literally shut down Internet service providers in their regions, either by forcing Facebook, Google, and Twitter to do their bidding, or else.

We also have little precedent for public and collaborative digital spaces, although we do have Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, and the Mozilla Foundation providing important foundations for what the Internet can do best: spreading knowledge at scale. But this is not for profit and these organizations are all philanthropically supported. These are not so much a public square as a starting point for public knowledge.

They wouldn’t exist without free labor either. For example, Wikipedia is supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, but it is also built on its volunteer base and is primarily white, male, and Anglophone editors, and the Mozilla Foundation depends on coders to buy into the free and open source vision of the web. The Internet Archive is essentially a large public library, and libraries have never been supported by the market, instead depending on benefactors or government dollars.

Using that model for inspiration, the New Twitter could be a global communications platform owned and operated by a coalition of public service stakeholders. But in order for Twitter to keep being, well, Twitter, it needs to keep some of the platform’s core features and characteristics that people have come to appreciate. In other words, the platform must be free, have scales, be a place for free expression, whether good or bad. Twitter should have a long history, like well-supported public broadcasting providers in democracies around the world that have stayed away from government censorship.

Some have already advocated for a digital public service infrastructure. Professor Ethan Zuckerman of the University of Massachusetts Amherst presents an argument that social media in its current, profit-driven form is not good for democracy, and that the digital public needs digital tools specifically designed to promote democracy. He admits that this infrastructure will not make money and it needs public funding.

Likewise, Eli Pariser, author Filter bubble, brings forward the digital equivalent of public parks. He rightly points out that Twitter and other platforms are communal spaces that only to feel like public spaces but are owned by for-profit technology companies.

But these versions of the web that start with democracy don’t sound like much fun, and you need entertainment to keep users. MastodonOne of the proposed alternatives to Twitter was designed to be decentralized and democratized and to promote community-defined civil discourse. Many have found it preachy, intemperate, and at best an anodyne substitute.

Perhaps the economics of the attention machine and democracy cannot go hand in hand. However, there is a long legacy of communications technology, from the telegraph to cable television, that has been this mixture of private-public cooperation; produced and maintained with support from Uncle Sam but under the direction of RCA, AT&T and Westinghouse. Contemporary examples are few, in part because many technologies are funded indirectly; venture capital firms finance other companies that make things.

I suggest a little rethinking of the digital public space approach. let’s imagine New Twitter in the US as a public-private partnership. These are often most visible at stadiums and sometimes take the form of NCAA booster clubs or local banks that split the cost with the public. Stadiums are fun, they bring people together, and they’re also imperfect; rowdy, corporate, loud, and yes, a crowd can easily become a mob. But also our behavior online.

Sure, maybe New Twitter (or should that be Nu Twitter?) is a pipe dream. But dreams inspire us to think bigger. The Internet both shapes and shapes humanity. it is a playful mirror that reflects, amplifies, and distorts our best and worst impulses.

The beauty of a globally distributed ownership of the new Twitter is that it would be messy, situated in specific cultural and national contexts, and decidedly imperfect. But if reframed as for the public rather than for profit, we can think of the Internet as an essential human right, like air or water, something we all must protect in order to protect. to survive

Future Tense is a partnership with Slate,
New Americaand:
Arizona State University
which examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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