Twitter as public space, and related problems

Last weekend, the Globe and Mail published two articles on Twitter, both of which were dismissive of the platform and were written by authors who do not actively use it. In short, “What Twitter is, and isn’t,” and “Will Twitter Change Politics?” by Konrad Yakabuski and Tom Flanagan respectively, informed us that Twitter and its users are trite, and liberal, and that its value should be judged by its ability to “change” elections.

Twitter has real advantages and limitations, but neither were spelled out. While it is encouraging to see public debate about this emerging form, it deserves a more nuanced discussion.

Twitter is used in a vast number of ways. For some it is a means of following friends; for others it is a source of links to news and articles. It increasingly serves as a collective fact checker for traditional media. Many use twitter as a newspaper or magazine, providing links to both breaking news, and longform journalism and reporting. During the Libyan revolution, citizens and revolutionaries used it to communicate with the outside world. The manhunt for the Boston bombers was live-tweeted, and twitter was used to corroborate the police scanner. During sporting events and awards shows it forms a collective second screen community. It is a place for snarky commentary, gossip, and breaking news. Some people tweet all day, others just watch.

The point is, any list of how twitter is used, will itself be trite. Users engage with Twitter in diverse ways for diverse reasons, just as they do with newspapers and TV.

For me, Twitter is a way of actively immersing myself in the communities in which I work and engage: international relations, digital technology, politics and journalism.

Using Twitter, I can actively participate in a 24-7 real-time collective conversation in each of these communities. In each, I follow and engage with academics, politicians, journalists, activists, technologists, and a wide range of citizens from all backgrounds and professions interested in the same subjects as me. Herein lies the real power of the form. Twitter is not an extension, or supplement to public discourse, it is a public discourse. And, compared to other media, a remarkably accessible form of it.

When people ask whether twitter can be democratizing, they usually ask, as Tom Flanagan did, whether it can shape elections. This is an attempt to prove relevance only via instrumentality, which to me is the wrong metric. Twitter has broken down the barriers of entry to public discourse. This, in itself, it it’s democratizing effect. We value free speech and newspapers for more than their instrumental effects, and so we should Twitter.

Twitter has been successful because it has become a part of the public and personal discourse, not because it overthrows dictators. The question driving the debate over what Twitter is and isn’t, therefore, shouldn’t be whether twitter will change politics, because twitter is politics. A gossip-mill or an accountability mechanism – just like any other political system, it is a reflection of the people who use it.

The fact that Twitter has become a de-facto public space poses real challenges. But these are not whether people have trouble finding useful information, or are overwhelmed by the pace, or don’t enjoy short videos – the problems depicted by Flanagan and Yakabuski. These are simply projections based on personal tastes, like saying I don’t like newspapers because they leave ink on my fingers, or they take too long to read.

The real challenge of Twitter, and social media more generally, is that we need to think carefully about what it means to devolve the public space to private companies. There are a wide range of challenges that stem from this. Here are four.

First, just as more newspapers go behind paywalls, and cable TV replaces broadcast, more and more of our public debate costs money. So far, Twitter has remained free. But with increasing pressures to commercialize, and the increase of social marketing, we will pay in some form or another. This payment will undoubtedly have an effect on Twitter’s democratizing role.

Second, we need to think as a society about how our individual and collective information (or “Big Data”) is being used by the private and public institutions that collect, sell, and trade it. In particular, who owns the data we leave behind as we engage online, or our “data exhaust”. The EU is grappling with these tough questions head on, and has recently proposed a right to erasure and deletion.

Third, Twitter needs to decide whether it is a publishing platform or a media company. Increasingly, Twitter, like YouTube and Facebook, is making editorial decisions about what content is allowed on their platform. Tweets to the videos of the killing of a child in Syria would be allowed, for example, whereas those to the mass shooting of a group of children in the United States would surely be taken down. Why, and how are these decisions being made? Twitter and Google both now issue transparency reports detailing their editorial decision making, as well as government requests for data. But these only provide a very limited glimpse.

Finally, what is the nature of free speech on privately owned platforms? Over the course of the twentieth century, we developed laws, regulations, and norms around public communication on TV, radio, and in print. Few of these have transferred to the new public squares, which are almost wholly owned by increasingly monopolistic private companies, in varying degrees of contact and partnership with national governments.

Twitter is many things to many people, and its uses present a vast array of opportunities and challenges. Let’s seriously debate the changes it represents in the way we communicate and interact, not dismiss it as a trite fad.