When billionaire Elon Musk first talked about purchasing Twitter, he outlined a vision for the social media platform.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said in the spring of 2022.
This was a lofty goal. Twitter’s reputation has not been that of a place where issues are discussed. Rather, the social media giant has a reputation as a cesspool of anger, a place where short, inflammatory comments are posted and where extreme views overshadow any calming voices of reason.
Musk recently acquired Twitter for US $44 billion. Then, in early November, he laid off around half of the platform’s 7,500 employees and fired the company’s top three executives.
This move is puzzling. Creating an environment where ideas can be discussed – takes an ongoing effort.
Municipal governments will hold townhall meetings in order to present draft versions of budgets and master plans, or to outline proposed capital projects for a community.
These meetings often include a series of poster boards, diagrams and information packages for participants to view, as well as a verbal presentation about the proposal. Those present have the opportunity to comment about the proposal.
However, a townhall meeting is not a free-for-all. An individual moderator or a team needs to take responsibility for the presentation. Otherwise, instead of an orderly discussion, the result is something chaotic.
There are also examples of orderly public discussions which do not originate from government departments.
In past years, meetings called “conversation cafes” were held in Summerland, organized by members of the community to discuss a variety of issues.
These topics included food security, environmental issues, town planning and more.
At times, people with specialized knowledge in a field were brought in to speak about an issue. This was then followed by times for discussion. In other instances, those present were encouraged to sit with people outside of their circle of friends to share their views.
These meetings followed an orderly structure and were organized by thoughtful moderators.
If Musk chooses to follow either of these models, Twitter would need to be restructured to ensure discussions stayed on topic. Additional staff would be needed to make sure the tone would remain civil.
There is a different model Twitter could follow, basing Twitter on the concept of town squares found in some parts of the world.
A town square is a park-like setting, in or near a community’s downtown.
These are places where people will gather and enjoy conversations on a variety of topics.
None of these discussions require the level of moderation seen in townhall meetings or in the conversation cafe discussions. The town square model works because those present tend to follow standards of etiquette.
Many of those present know each other and have a level of respect for each other, even if they do not agree.
Without some form of etiquette, a town square would soon deteriorate.
On the Internet, this level of etiquette does not exist. Some online participants will use social media platforms to shout inflammatory messages, to insult and anger others or to bombard participants with off-topic comments.
Until a code of conduct is adopted by Internet users, social media platforms will need moderation in order to keep discussions reasonable.
By cutting staff, Twitter under Musk’s leadership cannot and will not become the digital town square he envisions.
The vision of online platform where issues can be discussed and debated is admirable, but it cannot happen unless there are people on staff, ensuring the online discussions are kept civil.
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.
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