What is the responsibility of a democratic government to ensure its citizenry has equitable access to information? This is an ancient question, as old as democracy itself. But let’s ask the question in the context of a very contemporary technology: Twitter.
It was reported recently that Twitter is subleasing over 183,000 square feet of office space in its San Fransisco headquarters. This amounts to almost a quarter of its total lease space. Unsurprisingly, the move got the attention of investors and market watchers.
As a business, Twitter’s principle problem seems to be user growth. There are not enough new people signing up to adequately keep pace with attrition. This spells problems for longterm advertising revenue. As a publicly traded company, nothing hurts investor confidence more than suspicions about longterm revenue.
I’m not an economist or financial analyst, so what you are about to read is a foolish dilettante’s perspective. From what I can tell, the market seems to have a hard time with Twitter’s valuation. On one hand, if someone invited you to buy stocks in a corporation bleeding a $520 million yearly loss, you’d probably have a lot of serious questions. On the other hand, Twitter has become such a integral part of society — journalism, community organizing, activism, social networking — that it’s hard to imagine what we would do without it.
Twitter is awkward: while the ‘business case’ doesn’t seem viable, the business itself seems vital. My hunch is that the reason so much investment remains in TWTR stock is because we collectively know we can’t turn the clock back to a pre-Twitter world. At least, the alternative is not yet perceivable.
For the sake of a thought experiment, let’s imagine that Twitter fails financially: sooner or later, advertisers give up on it, investors rush to salvage whatever they can recoup from their losses, and the whole thing tanks. Twitter tweets its last. But let’s suppose that the demand for a live-time, micro-messaging, broadcast platform remains… the demand remains because citizens demand it.
So, I have a crazy idea: what about a state-funded, Twitter-like alternative? I’m thinking of a lean platform and an API that simply replicates the core functions of Twitter (@username notifications and #hashtag feeds). There would be no advertising, since the platform is maintained by tax dollars. Everything would be public and the platform itself would be open source.
“Just wait a second,” I can hear you say, “You want the government to own Twitter? You want to let politicians control our social media?”
No, I want us — we the people — to own Twitter.
Since its founding 2006, Twitter has reminded us of a very old idea. It is an idea as old as the classical concept of liberal democracy itself: each one of us has a voice. The reason — the only reason — why a democratic state would underwrite its own open-source, transparent social media platform would be because its citizens insist that access to such a platform ought to be a fundamental right of every citizen in the state. Do we believe in this now? Will we come arrive at this collective conviction at some point in the future?
Equity-of-access is exactly why many democracies historically established national broadcast agencies as crown corporations. It is the same rationale and logic underpinning public libraries. A state-owned, ‘Twitter-like’ platform follows the same principle: guaranteeing people’s right to information is the first step in protecting the freedom and self-sovereignty of the state. In this case, the ‘information’ in question that one ought to have a ‘right to access’ is what fellow citizens are saying, reporting, and sharing. For those of us who value democracy, it is imperative for us to figure how these principles are translated for twenty-first century technology. We did it with books and broadcast media, why not now with social media?
To clarify, I remain a champion of the free market and the innovative private sector — and my point is not to say that these are failing us. On the contrary, history teaches that technological innovation is constantly pushing the needle on what civic participation means.
This post boils down to a simple question: what if Twitter is an important tool for sustaining democracy, but also turns out to be unsustainable as a means for generating shareholder profit? What then?