A Saga of Frozen Peaches
9 February 2023
At the end of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand and twenty-two, one of today’s cartoon supervillains, Elon Reeve Musk, acquired Twitter, Inc., to the dismay of many. So ended one of the sagas of an eventful year, but a saga which is only the beginning of another still more epic. Employees current and former literally weep, the left of center shake in their boots, the right of center proclaim victory, the princes of wall street spectate with anxiety–as the Pontifex Maximus of social media (woe to Pontifex Emeritus, seduced by the fruits of Web3 and the “metaverse”) crowns our new Emperor as he retreats to his bizarre new projects. With the dissolution of the board of the directors, the severance of hundreds of laborers without notice, the doubling of labor-time of those who remain (you know, if he had actually kept everybody, this wouldn’t be necessary), the digital world wrings its hands at the dawn of a new era.
Is Elon Musk the hero we need? The hero we deserve? A defender of rights and free speech, or a blight and active danger to our community, the likes of which not seen since the Orange Menace? An enlightened despot, or a despot all the same; he who would bring peace, freedom, justice, and security to a democracy–or an empire?
No, he is none of these. He is a megalomaniac, a swindler, a wheeler-dealer, a braggart, an asshole, and a poor capitalist–as Indeed, a cartoon supervillain through and through.
But for all of Mr. Musk’s many sins, what drives this misguided power trip is a gross misconception that he is hardly alone in holding–that Twitter provides something akin to, if not outright, a digital public square. This is the Twitter delusion: That Twitter was, is, or can be–at any point in time or history–a public thing.1 Ordinarily, to be charitable I would say that no one would sincerely believe that to the extreme–but His Unholiness actually has his head so far up his ass that he himself does, and has full confidence in the power of one, an individual, to make Twitter a functioning public thing, in the same breath acknowledging the utter incompatibility of a private company and a public anything. If there was heretofore any doubt that social media was conceived in doublethink, we have here it on full display. Regardless, even if this is the extreme case, many people of all beliefs and creeds believe that Twitter’s nature is cut from the same cloth as a “public” thing, if even minimally so, one that can regardless serve towards “discourse” or “dialogue.”
This fiasco of Mr. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter provides us an opportunity to examine this delusion, which rumbles evasively under the platform to its detriment. We can expose it by first entering though another contradiction: That Elon Musk, a single individual, can of his will alone generate a (digital) public.
Let us begin, then, by presupposing the Twitter delusion, a delusion because it is not only incorrect, but categorically impossible: that Twitter is some kind of “digital public.” For the purposes of this piece, a public will be defined as a space of freedom among equals, in which lives and experiences are connected and shared. In a democratic society, we aspire that publics also be universal. What, then, would Mr. Musk’s responsibility be to this would-be public?
Mr. Musk claims that he is a defender of free speech, in a way closer to absolute free speech than average. Never mind that he has already broken his creed–why, and how, is he alone privileged to defend free speech?2 Ought not all people of a public share in a commitment to do the same? Already, then, we are facing the inability of Twitter as a platform to be a public. It would be absurd to suppose that everyone have full and direct moderation powers, that would be chaos. Nor would anyone suppose that all infractions be discussed, debated, and judged publicly in conjunction with any action taken–and really, no one would really want to–despite a public demanding such action.
So let us be even more generous, by assuming yet another impossibility–for not only Twitter, but a public as well–that there will be no issues of moderation. What’s left? We cannot permit in a public that one or a few are always or at any point “above” another in a way with respect to power; a public is power and freedom among equals. What is the significance of Mr. Musk being “first among equals?"3 That a whole public ride on his back? That’s unsustainable. That he can provide a public and just as easily take it away? Equally untenable, and would mean that there is a power above others. Forget Twitter–if one or a few has the power to create a public, what are they to do to create it and then keep it healthy and sustainable? What else could this duty be but to relinquish this power, and join the public as only one among equals?
A public is sustainable only if it is created through each and every one of its members. A loss of one is no less important and a tragedy indeed, but a democratic public, which would seek to include everyone, insofar as its members must perpetually generate it, could not help but to be self-corrective. Though a public space of any kind can vanish, if it does so on account of a particular one or few, then there is no hope of its recovery. Indeed, to say that a public relies on a specific one or few is to not describe a public at all. However few or many constitute it, however small or large, whoever is included or excluded, a public space or thing is a sharing of equality of not just freedom, but responsibility, in order that it be sustained, or, if dispersed, recreated again. Only a public space that is created by the mutual gathering and intention of all its participants is capable of such. It is inconceivable that this phenomenon is possible, much less only possible, by the will of a particular one or few.
And Twitter–if the difficulty of this thought experiment did not already make it clear–is one of the farthest cries of a public anything. We already illustrated the impossibility of a truly public moderation on Twitter. We then illustrated further the anxiety of a public dependent on one or a few; and this is meant not with respect to “keeping the lights on,” but in the provision of a public at all. Twitter, whatever it is, is reliant on capital, and consequently its (in)capacity to extract surplus value. Its users are beholden to no shared responsibility to each other, but only to the platform’s terms of service, which, regardless of their merit, is ultimately arbitrary. There is, of course, no sharing of physical space; people are not among others. It has not even the dignity live chat platforms have of at least engaging in digital speech in real time. Text is confronted by text is confronted by text in an anonymous space where the actual presence of users is unnecessary and inconsequential. Its “speech” is restricted to 240 characters, which is not infrequently worked around by painfully long threads and Twitlonger–the creation of which somehow spoke to no one the great limits of the platform! The restriction of characters to short word vomit bursts is meant to simulate the guise of “speech,” whereas the subversions of threads and twitlongers and posted documents or pieces of art illustrate that some article, essay, or commentary is more organic to the form of a platform of sequential posts of texts or images in a space devoid of actual presence. In this respect old forums or even Facebook do more justice to its form in this regard. Finally, let’s not forget those uniquely digital qualities–the likes, the retweets, the comments, the base gratification of digital points, the reliant euphoria of watching the small number become the big number, the schadenfreude of the “ratio,” the domination of the algorithm, the followers, the accumulation of socio-digital capital; all told, a vapid gamification of “speech,” which, thank God it cannot be considered such, but the horror if it could be, and the lunacy that some conceive it as speech anyway and would readily accept this debasement thereof.
It is a great difficulty to see through this wretched hive of scum and villainy and suspend disdain for it to see its worth. This can only be done, in the first place, by dispelling the delusion, by recognizing Twitter as being deeply instrumental in nature, and thus, categorically nonidentical with a public, which exists not as an instrument but for its own sake. In recognition of this, and to be generous–within possibility, this time–if there is any service Twitter provides, it is a digital bulletin board or directory, where people share not microblogs and word vomit, but commissions, links to news articles, personal articles, artwork, notifications, etc.–Mr. Musk would have a lack or reduction of advertisements on the platform, but in reality, it suits them the best. That the only things I enjoy on Twitter are called “shitposts,” that we use the word post with respect to Twitter, speaks to this comparison.
And yet somehow, Elon Musk, and throngs on either side of him, would be blind to not just shortcomings, but outright contradictions, and suppose that Twitter is at least in the spirit of a public square or sphere if not one such in whole. They believe Twitter is a place for speech, and therefore it is valued in this regard and with respect to (free) speech rather than the platform’s deeply instrumental quality. And it is because Twitter is so instrumental in nature that to place it in relation to speech and a public distorts and debases the very non-instrumental nature of speech and a public, a distortion reflected in the character of the current “discourse”–however you want to define that term.
Let us now examine the great moral positions of this historical moment: the support for or opposition to Elon Musk, with particular respect to his direction of Twitter. A supporter of what Elon Musk is doing sees him as the John Galt of this story; burdened yet triumphant Atlas, for our sins he would sacrifice life-changing heaps of money (though to him mere pennies) to hold up on his shoulders a free and democratic society against the onslaught of the woke and zombified snowflake libs or whatever. Already we’ve established that this is nonsense. But if we take Twitter as it actually is, in its instrumentality, to insist on free “speech” and uncensorship would be a functional point, a decision for direction and operation. As an instrument is judged with respect to its function, such points are relevant to twitter, even if they’re detrimental to it–as this one is.
Continuing with the bulletin board analogy, a strictly “uncensored” board allows anyone to post anything and everything: advertisements, an offering of services, news stories, (mis)information, pictures, propaganda, hate speech, miscellaneous nonsense, etc. It invites pure chaos. From this perspective, then, one can see the value if not absolute necessity of some level of moderation in order for the service to function well. The problem becomes, then, by whose judgement, and with reference to what? Put another way: to what ends does Twitter function?
There will never be a “clean” answer to this question, which is to say one which is not ultimately arbitrary. Cynically and ultimately, these ends are to make money. Generously and ideally, behind a veil of ignorance, these ends are to “network” people and organizations, and act as a tool of and for knowledge and connection, in the manner of, again, a bulletin board. But least of all will the ends be “for free speech.” Twitter cannot develop free speech of its own accord, and still less can it develop speech within itself. Insofar as it would help or harm speech and a public, it can only do so indirectly. It can compel people to assemble freely no more or less than any bulletin or posting board could, digital or physical. There are more effective instruments of persuasion and dissuasion, and stronger sources of inspiration and disenchantment–to say nothing of the extraordinary compulsive power of violence.
Small wonder, then, that things are as they are now on Twitter, dysfunctional to any ends whatsoever. Mr. Musk can’t even use it for flattery without making a hypocrite and/or fool of himself. Those who would oppose Mr. Musk are then theoretically correct in principle: what is derisively called “censorship” by Mr. Musk and his supporters is in reality a principle of moderation required in order for Twitter to function effectively. Unless the platform is now meant to confuse or entertain, hate speech, propaganda, and misinformation have no place on Twitter in its ideal sense, and only in curated quantities and qualities in its actual sense.
One can argue that the latter is a cynical point. I, personally, am unwilling to move an inch from it. But even if the reality of things lies on a spectrum between two counterposing images of the church doors of a quaint German hamlet and the dystopic midtown Manhattan machine of Madison Avenue and picturesque propaganda plazas, the ideal is already stained, not because any structure will always fall short, but because the stain necessarily arises from the conflict between the profit motive and the social motive; indeed, that which is rightly called a private enterprise is beholden to no social standard, and has to justify its existence to none but itself.4
Therefore, if nowhere on this spectrum does the mythical “digital public” lie, those who would, despite all conceivable rationality, conceive of Twitter as such anyway, or regardless act as if it were, and also oppose Mr. Musk and his bizarre project are more deluded than even he. The Twitter delusion is of two effective parts: that Twitter is, or was, a digital public, and that, therefore also, this was even possible in the first place. The pro-Musk camp then believes further that he, or any single individual, could create or bring about a public of his own power and will. Beyond the Twitter delusion, this is categorically impossible with respect to any public. Yet if we close our eyes and hold our nose, we can at least grant such people the credit that they value a public, regardless of their gross misconceptions of what such a thing is or how it can be brought about. The same cannot be said of the other side.
Elon Musk’s ambitions scream selfishness and vainglory but are still outmatched in pitch by the blue (or whatever the hell color it is now) checkmarked bourgeoisie. Since his coup it has become extraordinarily fashionable to retreat from Twitter in order to loudly declare doing so, saddened, disheartened, angered, triggered, absolutely appalled by the influx of hate speech, misinformation, Republicans, and personally unpleasant content that was, apparently, entirely absent until now, and that has also only now ruined this, apparently, heretofore great if imperfect digital public. It has become a noble and moral deed to leave Twitter–and only now!
To abandon Twitter as it actually is has no more moral worth than to stop using a pen for it not writing adequately. I would hope that it has hardly occurred to anybody that leaving Twitter means anything but a dissatisfaction with its instrumentality, if even implicitly. But the truth of this instrumentality has not been sufficiently accepted, and remains at tension with the myth of the digital public. To meet Elon on the grounds of the latter is a critical error.
Returning to the impossible, on the other side of the Twitter delusion, against Musk, the sin parallel to the belief that he can bring about a free-speech digital public is the will to retreat from this would-be but impossible thing. Again, in the context of instrumentality, this is meaningless. But implicit in this retreat, a move loudly announced to those caring and uncaring, demanding in proclamation moral veneration, is the recognition of Twitter as a digital public regardless. Therefore, Musk’s project is validated in this way also. But even that is not what makes it the cardinal sin.
What is there to be gained in retreating from a public? To retreat permanently to privacy is to retreat indeed to privation, to deprive oneself of sociopolitical being; privacy and death are equated by the cessation of being among others. Your absence will be felt, but of it nothing is produced. To declare one’s retreat from the public is therefore sheer vanity, vanity which is chosen over and above any capacity to act and change things–things which you so loudly despise! Let your vanity at least be earned–try even half-heartedly, semi-valiantly–by your efforts coming to naught. It is a disservice to a public and oneself to not try and change it for the better, for this is the unique privilege participation in a public grants. There are no brownie points for suicide.
That great praise and moral worth is conferred upon a decision to retreat from Twitter reveals the inherent wrong of the platform being confounded with a public. Indeed, it would behoove anyone to avoid such a phenomenon, but that would have already been true long ago. The moment of retreat is the nexus of the convenience of dropping an instrument, the value of rejecting a wrong, the recognition and acceptance of the lie which birthed it, a mix altogether brewed in vanity, a potion drunk to beat a frozen peach-devouring muskrat in a pissing contest.
Here, cake is both had and eaten: the Twitter delusion is validated, and either side of Mr. Musk is able to double down on his effect on “democracy.” When a self-righteous blue-checkmarked liberal retreats, she is able to take on the clothes of an apocalyptic prophet, warning of the great harms and ills Elon Musk has, can, and will wreak on society–not because he exploits workers, not because he’s an idiot, not because he’s delusional, but because he voted Republican–and the woes that will befall us and our democratic society if we let him continue. Meanwhile, black and brown people are routinely and violently oppressed and repressed by the state, and they no less than any other impoverished person can do no more than work for barely sustainable wages that hardly permit them to do more than doomscroll Twitter and consume ideology-tainted entertainment with their remaining free time; condemned to privation, no one can dream of anything like being a public actor. On the other side, whenever such a figure retreats, a rousing stir that the libs have once again been owned celebrates this validation of Mr. Musk’s glorious mission. The culling of the fragile and vulnerable is not a series of losses or failures but of signifiers of the right path.
In sum, the retreat of “public” figures from Twitter, done loudly and performatively, is a threefold sin. Against oneself, it is an act of vanity: One imagines oneself to be so important that their presence is a present, so great that leaving is an arduous and heartbreaking act of sacrifice that demands moral veneration; their absence is a martyrish wound on a dying digital public. In a public this is a wound against it indeed: The permanent loss, the inability of a person to be a member of a public and to retreat to a privative death is a tragic signifier of a world unable to sustain it. But, therefore, to retreat in permanence voluntarily is suicide: the choice of vanity, privation, and individuality over and above the public life is a selfish and nihilistic parting shot against its remaining members and trembling structure; such a retreat speaks volumes to the character of such a person and reveals that they never had a public commitment in the first place. Thankfully, then, and finally, it is well that this is a sin against reason: To conceive of a retreat from Twitter as a retreat from a public, to find value in this way and not in mute instrumentality, requires a fundamental belief in the Twitter delusion that has been the red thread throughout this entire piece: That Twitter has, has had, or will have at any point in time or history the smallest shred of possibility to be a digital public thing.
We have come a long way, as has Twitter, since the time I began to pen this piece. Elon Musk, so he says, is willing to step back as CEO of Twitter, should he find somebody worthy of the task. It is hard to believe, though, that such a person would be anyone but a flunky to whom the failures of Mr. Musk and the platform would befall. And against all odds–or perhaps perfectly in line with odds, considering the unrelenting tenacity characteristic of capitalism–Twitter continues to function on, internal horror stories and bizarre business directions notwithstanding. For my part it remains unchanged, primarily a source of comedy, now with a new flavor of the whimsical misfires of a kooky capitalist, from which my friends will link me to anything worthwhile, and a platform on which I will hang this piece to reach the tens of people that it will. I imagine Twitter’s function has hardly changed for the average user, either.
An arbitrary projection by Insider Intelligence suggests that Twitter’s userbase will shrink by approximately 33 million users over the next two years, a roughly 9% decrease overall.5 This is predicated on both “technical issues and the proliferation of hateful or other unsavory content.” Indeed, there’s no reason to suppose or any way to tell that any one factor is dominant over another; the cause of the decline can be no more specific than “Twitter bad.” There is also no reason to suppose that the effect of hate speech and “unsavory content” on this decline ought to be interpreted as a wound on a digital public thing, but rather the effect of such content on Twitter’s instrumentality as a digital bulletin board. I think you too would be annoyed if any such physical instance was littered with garbled expletives and Nazi propaganda.
At the time of this writing Twitter remains nearly as ubiquitous as it ever was, despite the uptick in users on alternative social network platforms. And I have to say I’m rather disappointed. A few months ago this saga was an approaching head-to-head trainwreck about to be annihilated by a meteor, but now it’s running out of steam. Perhaps Twitter as an instrument does, in fact, provide a utility; few other mediums collect news links, memes, art, tiktoks, shitposts, alerts, advertisements, commissions, all in one single convenient directory. However, it is simply too rife with ideology and utter fucking garbage for it to be worth using above googling anything one wants–and that is bad enough. And even were it not, Twitter’s instrumentality is tainted by capitalism, and is secondary to the almighty instrumentality of making a shitload of money. This of course also likely contributes to its continued existence, with the investors who funded Elon’s “sacrifice” anxious to get at least some return on investment. Much like them, we wait.
In the final analysis, if Elon Musk has any responsibility to the public sphere, to a morality, to society at large with respect to Twitter, it would be to remove the site from reality. And though history moves, if slowed, towards that event, it cannot come soon enough.
While “thing” is usually a term best avoided, it is in fact most appropriate for this piece. The (nonexistent) public character of twitter, believed or unbelieved, can be perceived in varying degrees, from the best conceivable digital instantiation of the physical town square to a website which merely shares and participates in that same spirit. What validates this ambiguity, however, is the root of our own word republic, which comes from the Latin res publica–Literally, “public thing”. ↩︎
His hypocrisy has been made absurdly clear now and probably before banning the Elon Jet account, but the cited example is by far the most explicit (and the most hilarious). After this incident, Twitter, conveniently, amended its policy to prohibit the sharing of live locations. Never mind that the comings and goings of all United States-registered aircraft is public record. Unfortunately for him, though, Mr. Musk’s private jet is still tracked and conveniently shared on an equivalent account on a different platform. ↩︎
Anyone who was considered a primus inter pares in ancient Rome meant nothing more than that he was the oldest among whatever group (usually the Senate). Since then, literally every other use of the phrase or any another “first among equals” has referred to someone who quite explicitly has a higher authority. ↩︎
Before continuing, there is something worth mentioning in light of what has been said before now. Jack Dorsey, since I began to first compose this piece, has expressed great remorse for his direction with Twitter. His biggest regret, he says, was the platform’s development of tools for the company and the company alone to manage the content on it, rather than the users themselves. With respect to moderation in particular, Dorsey suggested that it be conducted through user-controlled algorithms. I do not mean to disparage decentralization or algorithms. But to make Twitter user-managed would also a property of its function, and does not change the platform’s inherent instrumental nature and its categorial incongruence with a public thing. Dorsey also remarked, furthermore, that the suspension of President Donald Trump’s account, as a reflective instance of the centralized, unilateral power Twitter had accumulated for itself, was “the right thing for the public company business at the time, but the wrong thing for the internet and society.” Even if one disagrees with Dorsey on the latter point, what we have here is an explicit statement that a private enterprise always has the final word on its own affairs, a word beholden to the profit motive. Yes, the sky is also blue. But even if I’m somehow entirely off the mark on Twitter’s inherent instrumental nature, even the vision of the Twitter delusion is unrealizable in the form of a private, capitalist firm. ↩︎
Users is in contradistinction to accounts, whose numbers would in all likelihood be higher and involve other variables. While Insider Intelligence used a wide variety of metadata for their projections, how well one can distill individual human users is surely limited. ↩︎