Last week, I wrote about the buzz around internet decentralization, especially as there appears to be talk at Twitter of moving in such a direction. The buzz continues, this time with vocal support from former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, coinciding with a bold financial move from Elon Musk.
On April 2, Dorsey reminisced on Twitter about the early, decentralized days of the Internet, and said that centralization “really damaged the internet. I realize I’m partially to blame, and regret it.”
The problems of social media platforms have been made clear in the past few years, specifically when it comes to data privacy and how to handle (or even define) harmful content while also respecting free speech. But there isn’t as much clarity about solutions. Some believe web3 is the cure-all, like one Twitter user who commented on Dorsey’s post, “Web3 fixes this my guy.” But Dorsey isn’t convinced. “Nah same problems different words,” he responded.
Earlier this year, Dorsey shared an article critical of web3 from Moxie Marlinspike, a cryptographer and computer security researcher. Marlinspike argued that the internet moved toward a more centralized structure for two reasons: 1) “People don’t want to run their own servers, and never will;” and 2) “A protocol moves much more slowly than a platform.”
Dorsey’s interest in decentralization is not new. It’s how Twitter started. And in 2019, Dorsey announced Bluesky, a project “to develop an open and decentralized standard for the internet.” And on March 24, Dorsey retweeted Elon Musk, who had written, “Twitter algorithm should be open source,” to which Dorsey added, “The choice of which algorithm to use (or not) should be open to everyone.”
Speaking of Elon Musk…
On Friday it was revealed that Elon Musk recently purchased a 9.2% stake in Twitter, making him Twitter’s new largest shareholder (Dorsey is the seventh largest shareholder).
Mr. Musk reported owning almost 73.5 million shares of Twitter as of March 14, according to a security filing Monday, representing a stake worth $2.9 billion based on Friday’s closing price.
His disclosure prompted Twitter’s stock to surge 30% in Monday afternoon trading, boosting the value of Mr. Musk’s holdings by nearly $900 million, on paper.Joseph De Avila and Will Feuer, “Elon Musk Is Suddenly Twitter’s Largest Shareholder: Here’s a List of the Top 10 Holders” at The Wall Street Journal
Larry Sanger declared it the “tech news of the year.”
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and founder and CEO of SpaceX, has a popular following on Twitter, where he has been vocal about his disagreement with Twitter’s tendency toward censorship, recently calling himself a “free speech absolutist.”
On March 25, Musk polled Twitter users, asking them if they believe Twitter adheres to the principle of free speech.
“The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully,” he commented underneath. Over 70% of the 2 million respondents voted “No.”
A day later, Musk tweeted: “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?”
He further commented, “Is a new platform needed?”
Based on these tweets, and other comments from Musk, many have speculated (or perhaps hoped) that Musk will set out to create an alternative social media space. With his purchase of almost 10% of Twitter’s share, experts now wonder if Musk will move in to have a large influence over Twitter’s future.
“This is just a starter,” tech analyst Dan Ives told CNBC. “…Musk is not gonna do this just to take a passive stake. He’s gonna ultimately try to either really change Twitter in terms of a more active stake or eventually, could lead to a buyout.”
On Tuesday, Twitter appointed Musk to its board of directors under the agreement that he cannot own more than 15% of Twitter’s shares. Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal (who has previously said that Twitter should think less about free speech) wrote that Musk is “both a passionate believer and intense critic of the service which is exactly what we need…to make us stronger in the long-term.”
Musk responded to Agrawal’s welcome, writing, “Looking forward to working with Parag & Twitter board to make significant improvements to Twitter in coming months!”
Others are skeptical that Musk’s involvement will create any major changes at Twitter. Consumer technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal Laura Forman called the hype over Monday’s news “overdone.” “If anything changes on Twitter over the coming months as a result of Mr. Musk’s investment,” she wrote, “it will likely be limited to conversation features.”
Musk and Dorsey have been friendly with and supportive of one another online. Business Insider once described their relationship as a “crypto bromance,” alluding to their shared enthusiasm for cryptocurrency. Dorsey also celebrated Musk’s appointment to Twitter’s board, writing, “He cares deeply about our world and Twitter’s role in it.”
Will this be the upset many free speech advocates hope it could be? Only time will tell.
In case you missed it:
Could Decentralization Fix Twitter’s Censorship Problems? Decentralization is not an automatic guarantee of internet freedom, but it may be a good first step. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger warns that decentralized networks can still be captured and controlled. (Caitlin Bassett)
Jack Dorsey Resigns from Twitter: “now is the right time.” Some are concerned that his replacement is bad news for free speech. Twitter’s new CEO said in 2020 that Twitter’s role should be to “focus less on thinking about free speech” and more on a healthy public conversation. (Caitlin Bassett)