Progressives and their media allies have worried that Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter could allow for greater freedom of expression online. They shouldn’t be afraid, at least not if their ideas can legitimately compete with those of mainstream liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. Who should be afraid of a Musk-led Twitter, however, it’s Meta — a company that Musk says gives him “the boobies.” A Musk-led Twitter could ultimately attract more users and move through the metaverse more seamlessly than Meta — putting the Mark Zuckerberg-led social media giant under greater competitive pressure than ever before.
Twitter has problems, but those must look like opportunities for Musk. The site ranks 15th in the world for social media in terms of number of users, and its messages are dominated by left-wing elites: only 10% of Twitter users produce 92% of all American adult tweets, and 69% of these very prolific tweets. users align with Democrats.
Its problems don’t end there – Twitter also has a problem with user trust. In 2020, users ranked its ability to protect their privacy 7th among all social media sites. But Meta’s trust problem is worse: users have ranked its Facebook product two places below Twitter.
Musk can solve Twitter’s audience problem by increasing trust. He said that he intends to treat people equally and open up Twitter’s algorithms – the computer code that prioritizes what users see and monitors tweets for violations of Twitter’s terms of service – so that people see how decisions are made. Openness can also allow users to see how the new Twitter protects privacy: privacy is the top concern keeping people from engaging on social media.
Opening up Twitter’s algorithms could also allow entrepreneurs to create alternative prioritization systems on the platform and compete for users accordingly. With such competition, a Twitter user may choose to see content suggested by someone that caters to conservatives and then switch to content that caters to journalists or millennials. In the meantime, those who like today’s Twitter could continue to use it.
Economists call this strategy “hotel competition” after the American mathematician Harold Hotelling, who observed that companies sometimes compete by locating their products near certain types of customers. An algorithm marketplace on Twitter would let the site occupy all the spaces where users’ interests coalesce and allow its products to evolve as customer preferences change.
Allowing competition between algorithms exploits network effects. Competition could attract various content providers to satisfy the demand for a wide range of information. Journalists frustrated by the shackles imposed on them by overly biased news outlets could find new audiences on an open Twitter, as could academics, pundits and others seeking viewership.
Musk could also leverage cryptocurrencies to create a reliable, low-cost payment system that allows users to choose financial arrangements based in part on their privacy preferences; content providers to contract directly with readers and algorithm developers; and a host of other arrangements, including discreet and targeted advertising.
It seems some people are expecting Musk to go in that direction. Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency Musk is interested in, jumped 27% on news of his purchase on Twitter. A blockchain-based business model for Twitter could allow content producers to protect their property and find creative ways to sell access to it.
Such a business model would present challenges for Meta. Its main platforms – Facebook and Instagram – are designed for advertisers and rely on users posting photos and personal notes and scrolling through feeds. Meta also remains bogged down by the legacy form of content moderation that has caused problems for Twitter. While the Facebook Oversight Board takes its time arguing high-profile censorship cases, Twitter could take a leap forward by scrapping the current content regime altogether in favor of a more futuristic model.
This brings us to the metaverse challenge. The Metaverse emerges with a variety of entertainment, cultural, and business options. Successful metaverse platforms leverage cryptocurrencies and embrace openness so users can build their own businesses and personalize their spaces. That’s not how Facebook and Instagram work. But with Musk at the helm, that’s how an open Twitter could work.
Marc Jamisson is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies antitrust issues, digital privacy, and Internet regulation. Follow him on Twitter @drj_policy.