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Q&A: Envisioning an alternate future for Twitter

Tesla CEO Elon Musk (center) arrives at U.S. District Court in Los Angeles this week.
Mark J. Terrill
Tesla CEO Elon Musk (center) arrives at U.S. District Court in Los Angeles this week.

In just a short time, billionaire Elon Musk has upended Twitter, leading to an uncertain future for the social network.

In their essay published Monday in Slate, "The Internet Is Having Its Midlife Crisis," associate professor of communications from the University of San Diego Nikki Usher explores alternatives for the future of Twitter, and the internet at large.

Usher joined Midday Edition Wednesday to talk more about how they view this as a moment of reckoning for the internet. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.


Why is the internet having a midlife crisis? Many people think it's Elon Musk who's having a midlife crisis.

Usher: Well, it's part and parcel because the internet is about as old as many people in midlife crisis mode, depending on where you count. But I think the internet has been commercial as we know it since 1992, but it's been around since the late 50s, depending on where you count.

So I think we've got a good midlife crisis range point, and I think we see it. We've seen the starting point in 2016 and now 2020, and here we are with one person owning a major communication platform. So I would say it's one of many reckoning moments for the internet, but I think a really important one.

So you think all the stories about upheaval and change within Twitter may have gotten people thinking, why does one guy own this thing anyway?

Usher: Yes, I think lots of people don't really understand the ownership structure of many of these big platforms because it's so easy to associate the platform with the figurehead. I mean, at least Facebook is publicly traded. Even though Mark Zuckerberg is who we imagine owning it, right, he's still accountable to shareholders.


And I think the scary thing about Twitter is one person is now running the show. The company is now a private company. But activist groups around the world turn to Twitter to help raise attention to their causes and organize. And that doesn't sit well, not just with me, but with many other people who think about this stuff.

Has Twitter become so essential to the way people live that it should be thought of as a public utility?

Usher: Twitter, I think, is one of many platforms that serve as critical communication infrastructure. So, you might think a little bit about what happened in Texas when the power grid fell apart. Imagine what happens when the internet falls apart, even for a stoppage in a single platform like Slack, which is used for workplace communications, can literally set companies off the rails because they can't communicate and do their business anymore. And so Twitter has become one of a number of tech platforms that are the bedrock of our contemporary communication infrastructure.

In your article, you put forth a vision for Twitter as a public-private partnership. Tell us about that.

Usher: Many people who are in the internet policy space tend to have these broad public visions of the government will take care of it, and government for the people, by the people. And I am a deep, deep cynic and a capitalist, to be quite honest.

I'm trying to think of a way that it's sellable to imagine the internet as belonging to all of us, but also very American. And I think the way to imagine that is through a public-private partnership.

We see these with stadiums, where Snapdragon stadium is also SDSU. There are lots of examples of the government and industry working together, and this used to be the case with a lot of pre-digital communication technology, from the telegraph to broadcast television. It's just it didn't happen for some reason in the same way with the internet or with these specific platforms.

How much do you see the government being involved, though?

Usher: You know, I kind of hate this word like the government, right? But what I do think is we need to have people return to understanding that the internet is something that belongs to them and it's part and parcel of how they execute and experience the human right to have information about their world.

I really do believe that information is a human right, and the internet is the way that people get this information, among many others. And so I think it really has to be a bottom-up conversation, where people genuinely recognize that this is something that belongs to all of us, and it needs to be treated with that kind of respect, maybe like water or natural gas or something else like that.

In your article, you also point to these sites, Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, and the Mozilla Foundation as examples where nonprofits have entered the scene and regulated the input into that website. Is that something that Twitter could become?

Usher: My hope would be that if Twitter were more publicly owned and the administration of that was through nonprofits, that it would be an arms length kind of approach. And I think that that's something that all noncommercial organizations struggle with, accountability to donors, accountability to philanthropy. But there's something ostensibly, when you say that you're doing something in the public interest, it's really different than saying you're doing something for profit. And I think that since the internet is something that belongs to the public, that should be the guiding ethos.

It seems like all the alternatives have drawbacks and that Twitter is bound to stay messy no matter what.

Usher: I think Mastodon, which is one of these platforms that people have proposed as a potential alternative to Twitter, it tries to be very heavy handed in its self regulation of speech, and it's maddening. And so you're sort of in a situation where you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Because the way that humans communicate is messy. And so if we want to have a platform that reflects the best and worst of humanity, it's going to be messy, and we need to have the space for that.

What about people who say, 'That's it, I'm finished with social media. It's increased a lot of harmful things for society political polarization, conspiracy theories, the sale of personal data. And it's also an unhealthy obsession for a lot of people. Let's just watch it die.'

Usher: This is what we have talked about for an entire semester in my class because it's just hard to even wrap your head around the role that big technology plays in all of our lives. But I think it would be healthy for everyone to be much more conscious about when, why, and how they're using these technologies in their lives. And when something is free, to understand it's not really free.

I don't think you can live a life absent of any form of social media or big tech, but I do think you can live a more conscious life.