If twitter is a global quasi-public good, shouldn’t it be publicly funded?

Lighthouse CC reNET via Flickror Why Twitter’s Like a Lighthouse

The story of The Independent journalist suspended for, erm, tweeting wrongly, has again drawn attention to a fundamental problem with twitter (and social media generally).

Twitter is providing, I would argue, an incredibly important, revolutionising, digital public square (more on that in my MA thesis, to be published here um soonish). But it’s a privately run platform. It has to make a profit from its sponsors, such as NBC.

As Alex Howard tweeted:

“The “new public square” online is complicated by the fact that “platforms” for free expression are owned by private companies. “

As Ben Goldacre tweeted:

Welcome back @guyadams. Twitter’s eagerness to suspend him makes me VERY nervous about investing effort in this place.

Twitter, as it is currently run, is, if you follow the rules, like a road: non-exclusive and non-exhaustive. According to standard economics, this suggests that, like a road, it’s bad to rely on private interest to take care of it. It won’t be provided because everyone hopes someone else will pay for it, and voila – you have a free rider problem.

Clearly Twitter can exclude people – it just did – so the economic model doesn’t work perfectly. And, like a road, it’s not quite non-exhaustive: if too many users come along, it gets jammed. Public goods are tricky. However, you get the general idea.

But twitter was provided. Private money paid for the infrastructure, the coding, the design and so on. So to get this money back, twitter is going ad-funded, which is forcing it to change the service. Now there are sponsored trends, sponsored tweets in your timeline and searches, and, far more problematically, exclusion of users at sponsors’ requests.

This is weakening the usefulness of Twitter as a meritocratic and democratic channel, in which every user gets an equal voice, and the extent to which they are heard reflects their popularity. The potential for twitter to become a global public square is amazing, but being weakened by Twitter’s funding choices.

So if you like the idea that Twitter can provide space for global free deliberation, conversation, engagement, persuasion and all the general communicative stuff that is vital to a democratic and flourishing society, what do you do? Is there some way of making twitter a global commons?

Would you have to create a new platform? Would anyone leave twitter for that platform, or is the (non-Mandarin tweeting) world now locked into twitter?

Would a public subscription model work, Wikipedia-style? Or should this be a taxpayer-funded thing?

I’m only a few pages into Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, but fairly sure he asked the right questions, waaay back in 2006.

Update: far more intelligent folks than me are tweeting about all this. Ben Goldacre’s later tweets (e.g.) are very useful.

Flickr credit: reNET

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