Twitter

Why Is Twitter a For-Profit Platform, Anyway?

The idea that Twitter should be run by the federal government is silly. But perhaps the platform isn't best operated as a for-profit public corporation.

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RICHARD B. LEVINE/Newscom

Poor Twitter. By now, the persistent tug-of-war among user groups complaining about disagreeable content and others who point to the platform's free speech roots has been exhausted to the point of cliche. But as the now-ubiquitous microblogging platform continues to crack down on certain speech while its stock price continues to struggle, some are questioning whether Twitter can survive as a for-profit company at all.

Earlier this month, Twitter rolled out new shadow-censorship tools in an effort to cut down on what some consider platform subversion. In addition to expanding permanent bans of users deemed to be abusive, Twitter is introducing "safe search" and "low-quality Tweet" collapsing tools to automatically hide the content that Twitter's "Trust and Safety Council" deems to be too hot for chaste eyes. "Making Twitter a safer place is our primary focus," reads a blog post announcing the changes. "[We will] continue to move at this speed until we've made a significant impact that people can feel."

The impact was felt quickly indeed. Many users immediately reported odd behavior, such as inexplicably disappearing replies and rashes of banned accounts. Some of the bans struck users more as opportunistic censorship than a genuine crackdown on abuse.

The "Silence of the Frogs"

In what Andrew Sabinski of the International Business Times is calling the "Silence of the Frogs," several members of an online surrealist collective called "frogtwitter"—which is hard to summarize, but is mainly comprised of a ragtag clique of satirical accounts including post-techno-nihilists, Kantian essentialists, aesthetic occultists, audiovisual artists, and vitalist-nudist bodybuilders—have been targeted for bans despite a lack of a history of demonstrable abuse. Frogtwitter is definitely an odd flock, but "being weird" alone does not officially meet the Twitter definition of abuse (yet).

Say what you will about the accelerationist worldview of British philosopher and "neo-reactionary" guru Nick Land, for example, he is nothing but civil on Twitter as he undertakes his quest to awaken a technological singularity that will render humans functionally obsolete. Still, Land's Twitter account was banned in the purge, only to be reinstated with little explanation a few days later.

I talked with "Kantbot," one of the leading content creators associated with frogtwitter, about his experience with the new Twitter rules. Kantbot has garnered over 10,000 followers through his off-kilter and aphoristic philosophy Tweets, in addition to his writing and performance art. His account was locked several times during the ban effort, and he felt compelled to delete several thousand tweets to avoid being kicked off the platform as many of his comrades-in-Tweets had been.

While Kantbot admits that his satirical posts can be controversial, he says he maintains e-friendships on Twitter with users across the political spectrum. He told me that he sees his account mostly as a literary endeavor in the "tradition of [Jonathan] Swift, [Alexander] Pope, and [Henry] Fielding," and that he hopes his content will "inspire people, entertain, and make people think about the relationship between social media and art." He does not believe that he is being targeted because he has been abusive, but as part of a "deliberate campaign" to get frogtwitter off the platform.

It's more than a little bizarre that a tiny group of performatively absurd yet temperamentally benign Twitter users would be specifically targeted for digital annihilation while propaganda and spam bots, psychopathic trolls, and violent religious fanatics still run rampant on the platform. And the ban-hammer has not just fallen on frogtwitter; libertarian personality Tom Woods has likewise reported that some of his tweets appear to be censored by Twitter, for example. It is entirely possible that frogtwitter and others were merely the causalities of an overly-broad filter net rather than a deliberate attack on specific groups. But unfortunately for Twitter, without more transparency into the adjudication process the perception that such actions are capricious or politically motivated could only serve to further aggravate segments of its user base and undermine overall platform use.

Nationalize Twitter? Not So Fast

The other, more discussed side of the Twitter-speech debate—journalists, celebrities, and even the occasional CIA operative alarmed about antagonism directed their way on the platform—also poses problems for Twitter's user engagement and growth, of course. Who wants to use a product that has mostly devolved into a hyper-efficient insult delivery service?

And Twitter's content troubles have transpired while the service has also struggled to stay afloat financially. Despite Twitter's global saturation, it has had a famously hard time monetizing all that attention. Advertisers are losing interest in the platform, which could further harm the company's stock trajectory.

Twitter's precarious position has left some users—traditionally those on the left—calling for Twitter to be pseudo-nationalized by the federal government through "social network neutrality" or classifying the platform as a public utility. Applying traditional monopoly analysis, they argue that Twitter's dominant market positions could allow it to unfairly downplay competing services or prioritize the company's own related commercial interests. Others say that privacy concerns should compel some kind of government regulation.

Interestingly, these tides have recently turned. These days, I more often hear people on the right make the argument that services like Twitter should be run by the federal government. (Many on the left, meanwhile, have turned to petitioning internal social-network regulatory bodies, like Twitter's aforementioned Trust and Safety Council, to implement their desired platform changes.) The baroque reasoning goes like this: Private companies don't have to afford the same kinds of free speech rights that the federal government does. If the federal government takes control of the platform, U.S. users will be afforded the due process and First Amendment protections many feel are owed to them on Twitter.

But the inherent surveillance and procedural problems presented by this "solution" should be immediately apparent. What's more, the Twitter user base extends to millions of people outside of U.S. borders. Some Americans might not mind if their government ran a major social network, but plenty of people around the world certainly would. And let's not forget HealthCare.Gov; the federal government doesn't have the best track record running major public websites.

Decentralize or Die?

Still, there may be something to the argument that a service like Twitter is not best run as a for-profit public corporation. The network's initial public offering was three years ago, and it does not seem to have generated much in the way of service improvements or even lasting market valuation. Rather, it appears to have mostly induced anxiety and fast "fixes" in Twitter's upper management as they eye dwindling stock valuations every quarter.

New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo has argued that for Twitter to stay afloat, it should scale back its Facebook- and Google-envy and mold itself more in the model of Wikipedia, or even as a public-minded and publicly-traded company like Manjoo's own employer. But while this kind of path forward might alleviate some of the profit-anxiety plaguing the platform's operators, it wouldn't do much to cure Twitter's bickering bottleneck problem, where a centralized service is expected to build a single set of rules and tools that will suit all of its millions of users' wildly diverging tastes and politics.

Stepping back a little more, it's not even clear that a microblogging service like Twitter needs to be run on a single central platform at all. We don't rely on a single central provider to facilitate email, or access the web, or operate chat rooms—and we certainly don't ask any one provider to be the sole arbiter of our metaphysical, socioeconomic, and geopolitical disputes in these communications! Rather, we can choose from a variety of email providers, browsers, and IRC clients that best suit our unique needs—or even build and run our own if we want—because these functions are protocols on which people can build different applications to interface. Twitter, on the other hand, has become less inter-functional overtime, cutting off tools for developers to build onto Twitter since 2012.

Federated microblogging services already exist. The idea behind these projects is that no one platform can unilaterally control the user experience; developers are free to build different applications to interact with the protocol without loss of overall functionality. For example, users of different GNUSocial applications can view the microblogs of each other—unless they don't want to, in which case special tools can be built for different groups. The point is that users are more in control of their experience because they don't have to rely on one monolithic entity that is conflicted and slow to move.

Of course, we're a long way away from a world dominated by federated microblogging services. Very few people use such programs, and Twitter has shown no indication that it wants to move away from a for-profit model, let alone become an enthusiastic participant in a free and open software movement. But crazier things have happened before. A libertarian can dream!

NEXT: The Federal Ban on Sports Betting Is Unfair, Unnecessary, and Unconstitutional

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  1. Next up, the libertarian case for socialism.

    1. Libertarians for Nationalizing private property.

      1. It used to be funny that people were this dumb.

        1. Reason has gone off the fucking rails since Trump was elected. It’s like you’ve all been infected, or replaced. You’ve lost all…. reason

          so glad I didn’t donate during your webathon this year.

      2. Except that isn’t the position taken by the article.

        1. Reading is hard.

          1. I think the more relevant observation here is that not reading past the headline is easy.

        2. Who reads the articles? This site is like iMDB, we only visit for the comments. Oh wait….

          1. “Social Media” should be renamed, “Social Crack”. It has similar merits – and drawbacks.

      3. The libertarian moments, they never stop happening…..

    2. More true than funny.

      From the Atlantic article:

      Kantbot began as an atheist Democrat, he said, but grew disillusioned. “The only thing outside of that space is conservatism and right-wing movements,” he said. “People like moldbug are going beyond that though, opening up possibilities of new cultural spaces that break out of that stagnant pattern, that can synthesize both progressive and conservative views in new ways.”

      Thesis
      Antithesis
      Synthesis

      Just lovely, the “alt-right” is now Marxist.

      (Personally I’ve tended to view Moldbug more as an anti-modern using a Devil’s Advocate approach.)

      1. I don’t think that’s quite enough to make them Marxists. Just philosophy nerds.

        1. Employing the Marxist dialectic most certainly makes you a Marxist, though it may not make you a full blown communist.

          1. No, it really doesn’t. And other people used it before Marx.

          2. You mean the Hegelian dialectic, ffs?

            lern2reed

  2. Or you could, you know, not have a twtter account.

    1. WHAT? That’s social suicide!

    2. Twitter is more like a vice than a utility. You’re better off not using it, but to some people, it’s fun.
      The government should treat it the same way they should treat vices — ignore it.

      1. And we have a winner!

  3. Who wants to use a product that has mostly devolved into a hyper-efficient insult delivery service?

    Who could that be? I just can’t think of anyone like that.

    1. Celebrity stalkers?

  4. Is the answer because the people who created Twitter wanted it that way?

  5. The menaquinone4/McMuffin/Ann Coulter/Trump saga was too much to make this piece. Khoisan Ecofascism determined to be too powerful for libertarians, as the deep state thought it too powerful for Trump. Sad!

  6. Twitter’s precarious position has even left some users?traditionally those on the left, but increasingly those on the right, as well?calling for Twitter to be pseudo-nationalized by the federal government through “social network neutrality” or by classifying the platform as a public utility.

    Christ, what assholes.

    1. Sessions committed perjury!

      Sessions committed perjury!

      Sessions committed perjury!

      Alert, Fire, Danger, Danger!

      To Arms!!!

    2. “…traditionally those on the left, but increasingly those on the right, as well…”

      Translation: fucking everyone on the left, and like one or two rightwing nobodies we found on the internet who may or may not have been engaging in sarcasm.

    3. Access to a 140-word-per-comment speech platform, primarily used to validate their feelings by expressing strenuous agreement with eachother, is something everyone NEEDs.

      1. I think its more like a right

  7. I’m confused. Why is Reason arguing a private company move away from its profit motive to something else?

    Let Twitter live and die by its own sword.

    Fuck Twitter.

    I’m pretty sure idiots like Silverman haven’t experienced any interruptions. They’re so full of anti-intellectualism it offends me but I wouldn’t want to ban or censor them. I want them to expose their moronic, sophomoric, faux-righteous gibberish.

    1. This. Twitter isn’t owed to anyone. How it’s run is the business of those running it. If they continue to suck at it, well, that’s life.

    2. To you folks out there who know more than me, how far off microblogging are we? Sounds interesting.

      Anyway. The idea there are conservatives asking to ‘nationalize’ Twitter is not exactly surprising but strange. It’s a silly idea of course.

      1. Nort conservatives, pseudo-libertarians. AKA cosmotarians, progressives and establishment tools.

        1. So what is a “cosmotarian” supposed to be anyway?

          The plain reading, assuming it’s a portmanteau of “libertarian” and “cosmopolitan” would suggest that it is someone who wants freedom and liberty for the whole world. Is that supposed to be a bad thing?

          1. I think it’s supposed to be a libertarian who drinks Cosmopolitans.

          2. It’s someone who knows that freedom is morally superior and has higher utility, but still wants to get invited to cocktail parties in DC.

    3. I think that the argument is more that Twitter is likely to fail as a for-profit company, not so much that Twitter, the company that exists now, should do that.

    4. You do realize that neither capitalism not libertarianism require financial profit to be your highest motive right?

      As long as it is voluntary and no one is being forced collectivism is perfectly acceptable as is holding some ideals higher than maximizing fiscal profit.

      They point they are making is that trying to out Google Google or out Amazon Amazon is probably not a viable business strategy for Twitter but there probably is a business model which would allow them to survive and even thrive by stepping back and not trying to go after the bug bucks but rather being something smaller and simpler.

  8. Can we get Reason.com classified as a public utility too?

    1. You still didn’t read the article, huh?

      1. Yep did you?

        1. Sure did! Except i somehow was able to notice that the article dismissed the idea of making Twitter a public utility.

          1. Yeah, but they didn’t mean it. If they meant it, it would be in blinking red capital letters in the headline and it would be repeated at the beginning of each paragraph.

  9. It seems that many people who use Twitter have confused “things I use” with “things that are of vital importance to everyone”. What classes of people could be that type of self-absorbed narcissists? Oh yeah, journalists, entertainers and politicians.

  10. “…some are now questioning whether Twitter can survive as a for-profit company at all.”

    This is not a new question for Twitter.

  11. Let’s try this again!

    Sessions committed perjury!

    Sessions committed perjury!

    Sessions committed perjury!

    Alert, Fire, Danger, Danger!

    To Arms!!!

    Freedommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!

    1. Morning, Tulpa.

    2. How dare a Senator talk to any furreners instead of staying in his cloistered shell.

  12. Profit…

    You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

    Not much danger of Twitter actually turning a profit. They would probably love being labeled a public utility, so the gravy train can continue.

  13. Twitter?.Google?.Facebook?.Good God almighty, there is an extreme thread of juvenility, immaturity and child-like aura with these companies.

    Twiitty-Googey-Facebooky Marky Zucky seems the true leader of today’s diaper wearing crowd. Just how many diamonds does his rattle have?

    Goo-goo dah-dah!

  14. Who wants to use a product that has mostly devolved into a hyper-efficient insult delivery service?

    The CEO of Uber?

    1. The President of these United States?

  15. Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has been blogging about Twitter’s new censorship tools. Apparently, instead of outright banning people they have taken to “shadow banning” people who have “problematic” views.

    Like Dilbert (or Adams), who is apparently a climate change denier. So he’s been documenting how Twitter makes sure that his tweets and retweets just don’t get seen by anybody for a while. And then the whole thing goes away. His reporting on his own experience does seem to suggest that something is afoot.

    1. This is also a blog post about Twitter’s new censorship tools.

    2. The story of his girlfriend losing her “blue checkmark” for no reason was odd.

  16. But as the now-ubiquitous microblogging platform …

    While admittedly more than I had believed, according to the following PEW study from last year, only around 21% of Americans use twitter http://www.pewinternet.org/201…..date-2016/

    Is that ubiquity?

    1. I didn’t get the whole facebook thing. Not the “keep in touch with a network of friends and family” thing, but the constant posting – primarily by women – of every detail of life.

      “Here I am getting a sandwich”. “OK, now the baby is sleeping in the booth at Panera! Cute!” “Look! Bread Bowl!!!”

      I had no idea why anyone would need to post such drek, and less of an idea as to why anyone would read it.

      Then along comes twitter, which seems entirely designed to be even more insipid. Continual communication in SMS messages? What exactly is the point of that? Sending a group SMS out to a bunch of people? Subscribing to SMS messages from people you don’t know?

      Well, now twitter is a mature platform. And I still don’t get it. “Sessions lied about Russians. Bad! #resign”. Exactly how is my day better because of that?

      1. Because they live lives of quiet desperation and posting that garbage gives them hope that maybe someone out there gives a shit? No one does, of course, but I’m guessing that’s the reason.

      2. I use it to argue politics with people

      3. I’m less bothered by the details of everyday life than the ‘How dare you disagree with me? I come here to have my feelings validated!’ attitude of some people.

      4. Because they are lonely. And desperate to communicate in any way with an adult.

      5. Because they are lonely. And desperate to communicate in any way with an adult.

  17. “These days, I more often hear people on the right make the argument that services like Twitter should be run by the federal government.”

    You will need to back that up with something better than that single link. Because even that one does not support your assertion. The most Adams (who arguably, is not even conservative) calls for is a government “audit” of private platforms to ensure that they are not infringing his speech. No where does he advocate government financing or direct government control.

    1. And just because that one guy is a little on the nutty side, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a legitimate point about the secret manipulations that Twitter is doing to ensure that “the correct views” are the ones that get promoted. Every now and then they really are out to get the paranoid guy.

      1. He certainly may be correct that Twitter is limiting his activity on their platform. But, absent any evidence of a contractual violation, he is entirely mistaken that that should be a concern of the government.

        I do find it amusing that support for Trump is now offered as evidence of being ‘conservative.’

        1. There are serious contractual problems here. Twitter claims to be running a content-neutral platform and only censoring illegal or overly offensive speech. It is instead running a platform that applies the rules based on politics. That is fraud and systematic fraud at that.

          1. Are you referring to the contracts between Twitter and advertisers? If so, you have a good point.

            1. Pretty much this. I do not see any sort of breach in Twitter’s treatment of Adams or any other tweeter.

              But, IANAL.

        2. I think Adams’s plan is to build a new platform that replaces twitter.

          Or at least replaces his own need for twitter.

  18. it’s not even clear that a microblogging service like Twitter needs to be run on a single central platform at all. We don’t rely on a single central provider to facilitate email, or access the web, or operate chat rooms…

    Isn’t that the essence of the issue – a single platform is more about monetizing content, which is seen as the bigger prize. While a decentralized approach will only monetize the service, and competition will tend to drive that revenue down.

  19. Yes, let the USPS run it.

  20. Having been a stock holder of TWTR for a few months now, I agree there aren’t many profits.

  21. Why Is Twitter a For-Profit Platform, Anyway?

    “Because it’s mine. Do you understand that concept?”

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  22. Craigslist is probably the model Twitter should be following.

    A for profit company but not one dedicated to trying to compete with google for ad revenue. Keep a small staff of maybe a couple hundred mostly network engineers, which at this point is probably all they need, charge for corporate accounts and maybe certain types of political accounts and keep individual users free. You could probably bring somewhere in the vicinity of half a billion dollars that way, still make a tidy profit in the 8% range and not have to worry about becoming a global advertising force with a staff of thousands.

    1. maybe a couple hundred mostly network engineers, which at this point is probably all they need, c

      I may be old fashioned, but running a website in which people enter a text message and other people can see it requires about…two programmers, a part time network engineer who works from home and maybe a full time systems guy to make sure the backups are running and the anti-virus is up to date.

      I suspect that whatever staff Twitter has is all the ancillary crap regarding trying to monetize ad revenue vis a vis complicated algorithms which track content and try to steer you relevant marketing.

  23. The byline alone should tell you there is nothing cuck, cosmo or progressive about this post. Andrea is as hardcore as reason gets.

  24. calling for Twitter to be pseudo-nationalized by the federal government through “social network neutrality” or by classifying the platform as a public utility.

    Jesus h fucking christ the drooling, retarded idea just won’t fucking die in a pit of lava.

  25. Advertisers are losing interest in the platform, which could further harm the company’s stock trajectory.

    I’m guessing Twitter would love to be nationalized around about now.

    1. And let’s not forget HealthCare.Gov; the federal government doesn’t have the best track record running major public websites.

      Apparently, neither does Twitter.

  26. “U.S. users will be afforded the due process and First Amendment protections many feel are owed to them on Twitter.”

    Owed to them? Fuck you, is a private platform, why the hell does Twitter “owe” you anything?

  27. Interestingly, these tides have recently turned. These days, I more often hear people on the right make the argument that services like Twitter should be run by the federal government. (Many on the left, meanwhile, have turned to petitioning internal social-network regulatory bodies, like Twitter’s aforementioned Trust and Safety Council, to implement their desired platform changes.)

    I suspect that what people are wanting is fulfillment of the contract, as signed by the party when they last updated–and not this endless jiggering of posts deemed ungoodthinkful.

    You know, enforcement of the contract.

    Something that used to be a libertarian stance.

    1. You want your contract enforced, you hire someone to do it. Or agree on an arbitrator before you sign the contract.

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  29. Windows ws pretty much the defacto standard in PCs not that long ago. That was more of a “utility” at that time. Twitter is not that important to be considered any kind of a utility and if they start to strangle free speech, then guess what, so many alternatives will spring up. I gotta be honest. I hope twitter dies. At least, people on TV no longer keep saying “hashtag this or hashtag that”( I am looking at you LL Cool J when you emcee those award shows).

  30. Even a not for profit or public charity is going to be run by someone, with their own agenda, either up front or quietly. How you pay to keep twitter running isn’t going to change that. Conversely though, the argument of “It’s their lunch table so you have to play by those cool-kid’s social rules” is also nonsense. We have no standards or ethics and whether we use twitter or smoke signals or the soapbox the guy who screams the loudest will be heard by the most people.

    Perhaps a different approach is needed. For example the executive chairman of the board of Twitter is hugely wealthy Iranian American with close ties to the Iranian government. Omid Kordestani’s ‘other’ business, a foundation called PARSA is the main source of Iranian money to Iranian lobbyist groups who are not allowed to deal directly with the Iranian regime. Perhaps if we want a more level playing field then we need to clamp down on that.

  31. Anyone looking for decentralized microblogging should consider the RSS-based micro.blog project.

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