Why the Elon Musk bid (for twitter) is not as bad as it looks...
Updated: Jul 4, 2022
At the Unmarketing Agency, we've always encouraged different thought processes, because we've always felt that collaborating within the difference of thoughts and ideas is what strengthens us, and not what limits us. The whole Elon Musk putting up a whopping $43 billion to outright purchase Twitter, delist them, and run them as a private entity, all in the name of free speech, has stirred up controversy from 'free speech' advocates, to 'tax the rich', to 'eliminate billionaires' and so on and so forth.
But in my perspective, everyone is missing a deeply fundamental point - Elon Musk was amongst the first generation of internet users, and of that extension, entrepreneurs that were created in that space. To him, the internet is a whole lot different than most of the younger generations who grew up with the internet as a part and parcel of their lives...
Web 1.0 to Web 2.0
There was an old culture from Web 1.0 (pre-90s) to Web 2.0 - pre Facebook, AOL, eBay, etc (pre-2005s), that had a very strong free speech culture. Let me explain from my personal perspective. During this time, I had just left Dubai, United Arab Emirates, graduated from high school, and moved to Boston and then subsequently New York, but the explosion in exposure to new concepts, ideologies and thought processes left me in awe. Most of this was from the early internet companies like mIRC, Kazaa, Napster, ICQ and a whole lot more. You have to understand that from the 90s to early 2000s, Dubai was at best a small town, the landmark structures it is currently known for, were starting to build, but it was yet a fairly small community. I knew all my neighbours in my locality by name, by character and by reputation. Walking down to the corner grocery store, the bakery and even the bank involved interacting with people I knew either personally or at least by name. The Dubai then, was not the flashy metropolis people aspire to go to today.
More so, Dubai was also pretty closed off at that time. Ramadan meant you wouldn't dare to be seen out in public, eating or even drinking water. You had to be careful of what you said, free speech was not a reality in early Dubai days, and the danger was that everyone knew you, so there was no anonymity, no cover to articulate your views without the danger of repercussions. So when I suddenly found myself in Boston, I was shocked to see that censorship was gaining momentum. Religious conservatives sought to ban rap, hip-hop and heavy metal, for as simplistic reasons as they 'felt' those music genres were satanic. Violent games (even though they were heavily pixelated) were considered bad influences on our youth, and dangerous to the future of our society. Anything that affected the so-called moral fabric of American society (at that time), including porn, music videos, etc had to be banned.
Free speech of Web 1.0
For me as a foreign kid in the land of the dreams, home of the brave, this was more of a culture shock. You see, I grew up watching movies on how Americans fought against all odds for what they believed in, so suddenly realizing that they weren't all that different from the rest of us, was a huge slap in the face. But for us Gen Xers, the saving grace of that time was the internet. Programs like mIRC, ICQ, were lifelines for us.
To us, the internet represented the best of the human spirit and ingenuity, a new frontier, a new world. To us, the internet would be the evolution of our kind, of our species, allowing us to aim for the stars. But first starting at our home world, evolving our thought processes, making us more attuned to new ideas, new frames of thought, new ways of thinking... The internet was supposed to usher in the next evolution of mankind. But... while it did all of that, it allowed us to truly be ourselves. While we would wear avatars in the online world, use usernames like sapiothinker999, we were truly being ourselves. For those people who were outcasts in the real world, and the so called geeks and nerds, we congregated online, exchanged ideas, thoughts, notions ... anything and everything. The internet originally was meant to be open source, a liberated space where all of us could freely think without fears of repercussions and worrying about the other camp.
Free speech to us, was the freedom to be yourself, so we fiercely protected that ideal with a ferocious zeal. Elon, being amongst some of those early entrepreneurs of the golden internet age, free speech to him is not what free speech today is perceived to be. As he says, "Creating a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely supportive to the future of civilization." And he is not wrong...
The world has fundamentally changed...
It's not that the principle of 'free speech' has changed, or is no longer valid - it definitely is. It's that the practical issues that uphold those principles are hugely different, because the world is different today, and is presented with a larger set of challenges that are more complicated to uphold than it was in the 'heyday' of the internet. The internet is no longer that frontier where you go to be free. Today, it literally is where the entire world is. The internet is so ubiquitous, that it's as common as electricity in our days. Culture wars are now being fought on the internet, in the same way culture wars were fought in the news channels, television shows and courtrooms of yesterday. Upholding free speech in this environment is not only challenging, its an imperative. Why? You are not only standing against some religious conservative nut, or someone trying to mandate the information you are fed- you are now fighting against everyone. All because the other side is trying to take away the rights of those who think different from themselves.
We've had this discussion amongst friends, and even amongst our colleagues. All our left wing friends are convinced that the algorithms unfairly favour the right wing, misogynistic patriarchy, and they have tons of evidence that show this happening. All our centrist/right wing friends are convinced that the algorithms unfairly favour the Marxist, LGBTQIA+, Anti-government, anti-business agenda, and they also have tons of evidence that show this happening. These egregious violations cannot stand- they both say, it is a danger for free speech. But whose free speech?
I think us Gen Xers understand this fundamentally, but what we should be talking about, is how internet culture has changed since its inception. Donald Trump was not banned from various tech platforms because they didn't agree with his politics. His politics have been pretty clear from the start. Donald Trump was banned from politics because his actions on the platform threatened the whole integrity of the platform. 'Free speech' is a cognitive construct: it does not have a physical reality, but our combined powers of human intelligence and perception, has imagined it as a fundamental right. Every nation has a limitation to 'free-speech', for example in Germany, 'free-speech' is allowed, but definitely with no Nazi undertones. This is why the notion of free speech varies with cultures, and quite possibly with time. Today universally, free speech is without spamming for example.
The algorithms that these tech platforms run on, do not have a fundamental bias - they are algorithms, or mathematical formulae, and quite honestly most of these tech platforms do not really care about your political bias. If they didn't spend so much time and resources, continuously adding pointless new features to fix our conflicts, they'd be releasing new features that would better our society. Elon Musk realizes that, a company that is, at best a platform where we articulate our thoughts in public for the world to see, cannot be run in the conventional capitalistic sense. It needs to be a private entity, run for the sole purpose it was created for. For us to post memes, quotes, thoughts and most importantly to be an idea exchange platform between cultures, people and groups.
Now if Elon Musk can get us to that point, possibly bringing back the heyday of the internet glory days, hell he's got my support...