What Elon Should Do: An open letter to Elon Musk 

By: Garvin Jabusch

Dear Elon, 

You’ve often said you don’t care about money (my favorite example was on The Simpsons, with Mr. Burns’ unable to comprehend what you were saying). You’re also famously animated by first principles. Together, these two aspects of your worldview suggest a course of action.  

Here’s an idea for a principle: profitable social media and improving social cohesion are orthogonal goals. The agency conflict between maximizing outrage for profit and functionality as a free and open town square is insurmountable. This inherent conflict, between profit requiring amplification of outrage, and hosting a free and open town square, in turn means that social media as it is today is not aligned with your stated mission. Yes, Twitter needed a lot of restructuring. No, it can’t be both profitable and restorative of civil discourse. Content moderation, such as it is, isn’t the fix; it never was. Renee Diresta called that correctly when she wrote, “the daily aggrievement cycles about individual pieces of content being moderated or not are a red herring. We are treating the worst dynamics of today’s online ecosystem as problems of speech in the new technological environment, rather than challenges of curation and network organization.” 

Observe also that there is limited capacity for attention in the world. The formula could go something like: six billion people with internet access, times 24 hours, less that pesky sleep time. There is only so much advertising money to chase those finite attention minutes, and advertisers have a growing range of spending options (the ad supported tier of Netflix for example), that resonate with nearly every brand, product, and user. To make money, Twitter has to grab as much of that attention and advertising cash as possible. The best way to succeed along those metrics is to leverage the outrage amplification machine. But ever-increasing levels of outrage and polarization are anathema to your mission, as I suspect you must know.  

What follows from this is something else you already know: the only way to truly have a free and open town square, usable by everyone, except those advocating illegal and violent activity, is to eliminate the ragebait and tricks that give a megaphone to the worst and most polarizing content. And yet there probably is no way to make Twitter profitable without feeding that monstrous flywheel. So, since you don’t care about money… give it away. Give Twitter away.  

To whom? Wikipedia by far has the best reputation for being open and fair. You could donate Twitter to the Wikimedia Foundation, with the stipulation that the platform need never make money, and all outrage amplification mechanisms must be dismantled. I imagine they would be happy to tackle this project. Alternately, the Signal Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit under the leadership of Moxie Marlinspike, would also do a fantastic job. Either of these organizations would be able to implement any number of the steps demonstrated (see here) to minimize harmful effects of social media. 

Sure, pulling this off means you might have to buy out the largest share and bond holders. Worth it.  Remind them that the profitability of surveillance capitalism is in any case likely about to take a hit, as the EU now appears likely to declare Facebook’s business model illegal, and ban surveillance-based advertising without the user explicitly opting in. Hard to imagine they will ignore Twitter. 

Elon, you are running at least three businesses—Tesla, SpaceX, and Neuralink—that are fixing the future. Twitter is, if anything, eroding social cohesion and thus breaking the future. But as a non-profit without the need to magnify attention, Twitter could serve rather than undermine your mission. A side benefit: this leaves you free to focus on the other three firms and their solutions-forward enterprises.  

Donating Twitter would solidify your reputation as a generational change maker—someone genuinely working to give humanity options to overcome our current crises. At the same time, it could mend the damage to Tesla’s social license to operate, and advance that of your other companies immeasurably. It seems the best and brightest engineers, who have preferentially been flocking to your enterprises, are now starting to second-guess that. This concerns us as Tesla share owners, and I for one would like to see you pull off an uncanny move that keeps the STEAM graduates coming.  

You don’t care about the money? Awesome. Donate Twitter to someone mission-aligned, but without a profit motive and get back to work helping Earth remain livable for everyone. After all, if we destroy the place, what people said on social media won’t have mattered anyway. 

Image: Etsy shop by LonelysOnlyThought

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