“Freedom of expression is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital marketplace where important things for the future of mankind are debated,” explained Elon Musk why he spent $44 billion to acquire Twitter.
This expression – “digital city square” – has a long and messy history on social media. Facebook and others have proven that throwing millions or billions of people into a single unconstrained space is a mostly impossible and mostly horrible idea. But maybe we just defined it wrong. In reality, a town square isn’t a place where everyone stands in a crowd yelling at each other while touts throw things at them. It is a place where groups of people find each other and spend time together. And yes, they may be discussing things vital to the future of humanity. Just not with everyone else.
Twitter shouldn’t try to optimize the public arena, a conversation with 200 million people that will never make sense. Instead, Musk’s company should focus on the private side of the platform, a woefully underdeveloped messaging and communications system that could make it the best messaging app out there.
Twitter should invest heavily in making DMs a powerful, searchable, encrypted messaging system. It should finally introduce the much-rumored “Long Tweets” feature, which allows people to post more than 280 characters. It should keep working on the community feature so people can chat about things they’re interested in instead of cluttering up their followers’ timelines with things they don’t care about. It should integrate Revue newsletters and focus on making Spaces more useful and reliable. It should be less concerned with tidying up your timeline and more concerned with giving you opportunities to talk and conversation partners.
It’s true that Twitter is the best platform on the web for building an audience and then sending that audience to other places. They build an audience on Twitter, so the joke goes, and monetize it on Substack or YouTube or a number of other places. Twitter should continue to lean on it because it gives the platform its cultural stamp of approval — after all, what is cable news if not just a bunch of people in suits reading tweets?
But most people don’t want to communicate with about 200 million people at once, and even those who don’t want to just Do this. Instead of just focusing on connecting people to the public space, it needs to focus on connecting people to each other. Twitter should catch up where Facebook and others have gone in recent years: toward a more private version of the internet, where hanging online is less about shouting your most angry thoughts at a teeming mass of thousands of equally angry strangers, rather than actually spending time with people you care about.
When Twitter launched Communities, David Regan, a product manager, wrote that “We haven’t done enough to bring people with the same interests together.” This is a long-standing problem for Twitter, which has tried suggested follow lists and trending topics and fleets and a thousand other ways to engage people on the platform to give. Communities are the first right approach to simply giving people a safer and calmer place to be together. Because of this, Facebook Groups believes the future of the platform. This is also why Telegram grew so quickly and launched WhatsApp Communities just to keep up.
There’s a lot of competition in the group chat space, but Twitter enters the fray with an advantage: communication happens on a sliding scale. Sometimes you want to text your best friend, sometimes your group of friends, sometimes your entire company, sometimes the whole world. Most messaging platforms excel at one, maybe two of these things. Twitter could take its quick, easy communication tools to the full gamut. And by bringing everything together in one place, in one app where users only need a username, it could be the best communication platform in the world.
To be clear, none of this is easy! Many content moderation issues can be more difficult in these semi-private and private spaces, although Musk and Twitter could learn a lot from platforms like Reddit and Discord in this regard. And for a platform as globally visible as Twitter, these problems will only get worse as government regulations around the world tighten.
However, before Musk came into the picture, this sliding approach seemed to be pretty much the way Twitter was headed. Back in 2016, then-CEO Jack Dorsey said that “Twitter is public messaging at its core” and that speed and utility were more important to the platform than character limits or specific schedules. In practice, the company has long focused on one-to-many messaging – to the detriment of everything else. In recent years, the company has finally started sending out products on a regular basis, and many of these should make Twitter seem a little smaller to users. Communities have been created that you can tweet about, but only to a group of people who are interested in it at a time. It started testing Flock, a way for you to easily tweet to your close friends. And finally, for the first time in ages, it seemed to remember that DMs existed and started rolling out a few tweaks.
Of course, in the long term, projects like Bluesky mean that Twitter could become even bigger than Twitter. It could become a universal standard upon which many different types of experiences could be built. For Musk, who regularly debated starting his own social network before deciding to just buy one, the idea of a decentralized social platform should be enticing.
In general, Musk’s main focus on Twitter was the algorithm. The theory behind open sourcing, as far as I can tell, is to give users transparency and choice over what they see and where. But the better strategy is to let people make their own experiences, with better tools than just the follow button. Help them and let them find out who they are talking to, what and how in as many ways as possible. That’s where people will talk, where they feel free to express themselves really freely. No algorithm will ever do better.