Dear Mr. Jack Dorsey,
I often wonder what motivates extremely successful people like you. I wonder what inspired you to start and build your business into the highly influential world player that it is today, and I wonder what keeps you there. I imagine that some part of your motivation is attributable merely to the desires for financial success and social status (which has a special flavor and associated word cloud in the SF Bay Area). But I think those drivers cannot push someone to sustain a business like yours without substantial ideological underpinnings. So, what are they?
I have read Twitter’s mission: “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” And its vagueness and dissemblance suggest that the ideals propelling Twitter are either submerged or delusional.
First, I’m sure you would like to be able to claim a market share constituted by “everyone,” but an interplay of government and corporate powers and economic divisions has kept you from that goal so far. Also, apparently people are no longer exclusively implied by the term “everyone,” as a slew of Twitter bots now generate a high percentage of the ideas and information funneled through your communication channel. This latter situation points to the fact that the actual people who harness the “power” of Twitter have varied valences of power, not depending on the strength of their ideas, but depending on their technical ability to deploy bots or their ability to hire others to deploy bots. So we can begin to forget about any democratic impulse that might be hinted at by the word “everyone.”
Second, I’m unnerved by the suggestion that Twitter is meant to help “create” ideas, and I fear the way this part of your mission is unfolding. I fear the unfolding of ideation by way of Twitter not because I’m cynical about the intentions and capacity of people generally, but precisely because of the different valences of people’s power as relates to their deployment of communications professionals and bots. I’m also fearful about ideation via Twitter because, as has been mentioned by many already, Twitter’s tendencies to silo the like-minded and limit communication to forms akin to sloganizing and slandering erode dissent and measured analysis.
Which brings me to the third main stumbling block in your mission: the claim that you seek to help people create and share ideas and information “without barriers.” In addition to the political and economic barriers constraining full market saturation and the philosophical entrenchment that takes place through siloing, Twitter’s character limit poses a real barrier to promoting the creation and exchange of ideas. Because ideas have this way of needing to be thought through. Personally, I’ve never needed Twitter for such purposes. I’ve been coming up with ideas and sharing information all these years without tweets. I may not have always been able to transmit information instantaneously, but, as you may have learned in a corporate employee training about e-communications etiquette, the delay between thought and transmission can be beneficial.
I will say that in another light, with the thin veneer of democratization scratched off, Twitter’s mission is too true. You only need to modify it a little to get at its practically appreciable sense: To give everyone the power to share their personal information instantly, without legal barriers, with corporations and the US government.
But rewinding the tape and restoring the veneer, let’s assume Twitter has set forth its mission in good faith. You still have a bit of a situation on your hands. Your company contributes to a massive disparity in wealth that is changing the fabric not only of the Bay Area, but also the entire country, as well as adding to global wealth gap trends. You are witnessing how the tool you created can be used to seed and feed hate that transitions fluidly from psychological abuse to real violence. (This situation brings to mind what my partner has told me of the connection Neal Stephenson makes between language, ideas, and viruses in his novel Snow Crash, which connection gives concrete meaning to idea that an instance of social media can “go viral.” I’m beginning to think that the CDC will have to launch an intervention along the lines of its other campaigns on social and behavioral health risks.) Finally, Twitter has become the mouthpiece for Breitbart’s spokesperson in chief, and the combination of this person’s position and Twitter’s utility as a far-reaching, real-time method for communicating ideas in reductive terms may have contributed to the uptick in hate threats and crimes.
It probably doesn’t reach you that I’ve been submitting abusive user complaints about this Breitbart spokesperson through Twitter’s Help Center. I’ve felt conflicted about my desire to have him booted from the Twittersphere like another Breitbart retainer, Milo Yiannopoulos. As a believer in the importance of the First Amendment, I admit to the dubiousness of asking for something that looks like the suppression of speech. But I justify my complaints in two ways: the right to free speech permits me to air my grievances without expectation of my requests being satisfied; and asking for this user to be banned from Twitter could be compared to refusing to sell paper to a hate group that plans to use the paper as a medium for its hate propaganda.
With my moral quandary in the open, let’s return to yours. I have described the shaky ground on which Twitter has been treading. And keeping that in mind, I return to my earlier question. What are the ideas that sustain you? That justify the work you do?