Freedom of expression does not put food on the table for Elon Musk’s ten children
Published: Just now
This is a cultural article which is part of Aftonbladet’s opinion journalism.
It was a once an online platform. A digital place created by a hibernating hippie and his pals, a forum for the free exchange of thoughts and opinions where new relationships could be formed. One day found Tom Almond to the platform. He was the opposite of what the founders envisioned: mean, sexist and hateful. Protected behind keyboard and screen, he went further and further in his attacks on individuals, opinions and groups in society. Most of the working days as an executive with his own corner room in Silicon Valley were spent on the platform. More and more people hated, loved and hated to love what he wrote, and their interactions prompted him to go even further with invective and personal attacks.
The hippie gang tried to moderate and balance the increasingly uncompromising tone, but couldn’t turn a blind eye to how important Mandel was to user growth. The platform grew; many people got accounts on it to share and get an outlet for the very toxic anger that he gave off.
Mandel was even given a seat on the management team and powerful technical access to the system’s internals. He thanked for the trust by deleting posts from people he disliked and completely sonic kicking people off the platform. After his girlfriend Maria Syndicus – on the platform – met another, he used the power to close her account. Then he posted a long, eloquent and nasty thread titled “An expedition through Nana’s cunt”.
The platform was called The Well, an online community active from the mid-80s and well into the following decade. The newspaper Wired called it “the most influential community in the world”, an epithet that now belongs to Twitter.
We are getting the digital and analog societies we deserve and, ultimately, want. We want our voice to be heard and for others to confirm that it is heard
Just like The Well, Twitter doesn’t have the most users, but there are the right people connected across geographical and ideological distances. Twitter’s power and cultural importance to contemporary debate cannot be overstated. In many ways, the news day begins and ends on the platform, and tweeting is an integral part of politics in both the municipal council and the UN Security Council. The political, cultural and societal influence is the reason why Elon Musk bought Twitter at a substantial premium.
The Wells moderators wanted to delete Tom Mandel’s attack on Maria Syndicus, but she stopped them. Her message read: “Free speech is free speech”. Here, those who hailed the Tesla founder as the savior of freedom of speech will surely rise to the benches, but you can sit down and be silent again: Musk lets in Donald Trumpbut not the controversial alt-right gap neck Alex Jones. He throws the comedian out Kathy Griffin because she parodied him, but has no problem with Kanye West’s antisemitism.
Unsurprisingly, it is Musk himself who sets the limits of free speech on Twitter; during a meeting this past weekend, he explained that he will personally make all important moderation decisions. He explicitly says that he stands for “freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach”. With his hand on the large volume knob, he will turn the range up or down as he pleases. And those who pay, reach more. Nothing new there; so did Jack Dorsey like Twitter’s CEO before him and Mark Zuckerberg turning the wheel every day. It’s like the Manic Street Preachers sing in the song of the same name: “Freedom of speech won’t feed my children”. Elon Musk has ten children.
A year after Tom Mandel’s attack on Maria Syndicus an aggressive cancer was discovered in his body. She returned to him and they married shortly before he died. Mandel described his rampant illness at The Well, and those who hated him the most now responded in sympathy and reconciliation. Then Tom Mandel died, and with him all the funny teams. The Well was sold to a shoe salesman with a political agenda who stormed in and changed quickly and quietly. The users protested in vain, and then disappeared to other sites. Even the employees, people who loyally remained with the hippie gang despite other, more lucrative, offers, resigned. And so The Well died.
We are getting the digital and analog societies we deserve and, ultimately, want. We want our voice to be heard and for others to confirm that it is heard. We are drawn to dialectic and dissonance; the soul needs a pack to run with and enemies to unite against. The Internet can fill these needs for us, and for some – like Tom Mandel – the validation of the digital herd becomes life itself. As well as a new career; Mandel was recruited to the paper Time a few years before his death as an oracle when the magazine was going out to meet the readers on the social media of the time.
Right now biting Twitter’s all feverishly on their nails. All those who in the last decade have fought a culture war and shifted the norm to position, identity and image on the platform. Those recruited to columns and podcast platforms thanks to aggregated and/or paid influence in the feed.
Everything is now at risk of falling apart, reports are coming from the US that Musk is having trouble paying the bills. The itchy-fingered car salesman must feverishly cut costs and bring in cash. In addition to the possibility of Twitter becoming a purely paid service, Musk is said to be considering allowing porn onto the platform. Of course, it risks scaring away users, which sabotages the power Twitter gives its elite. Some make it to TikTok or the next culturally defining platform. You can already begin to see them there – looking for the confirmation, the herd and the enemy. When enough people gain a foothold there, Twitter also dies.