The stock market earlier this month was rocked by the news that Tesla CEO Elon Musk has offered a hostile bid to take Twitter private. Musk stated that he had no confidence in the current management to do what needs to be done with the service.
Musk has two goals, based on papers submitted to the Securities & Exchange Commission detailing his communications with Twitter chair Bret Taylor.
First, Musk is looking out for his investment in Twitter, currently 9%, worth $3 billion; he has posed the question, in tweets, whether Twitter is "dying," becoming less vital as a platform, and he argues that substantial change is needed to avert that prospect.
At the same time, Musk has a loftier goal. He says he wants to ensure Twitter will be a platform for free speech.
"I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy," wrote Musk to Taylor. "However, since making my investment, I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company."
In remarks later on Thursday, Musk spoke of specific changes he would institute during a TED Talk, including eliminating spambots and open-sourcing Twitter's algorithm.
While Musk may succeed in boosting the value of his stake in Twitter, he is unlikely to succeed in the second goal, that of making Twitter a mechanism for free speech. As with all other social media platforms, including Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Tik Tok, the structure of Twitter prohibits free speech.
Social media does not allow for control on the part of participants. Individuals have no control over the use of what they type in tweets and posts and "likes", and other actions on social media. Everything is controlled by the social media platform owner, who is free to sort, sift and display users' contributions as the platform owner sees fit.
Because there is no control by a user, there is no autonomy for those participating in social media. And without autonomy, there is no identity, only the illusion of identity.
Like all who participate in social media, Elon Musk participates in the illusion that he has an identity online. For all intents and purposes, "Elon Musk" does not exist any more than any other entity. It is a name attached to a series of text snippets residing in a database constantly sorted and sifted by a platform owner at their sole discretion.
People who have no identity have no "speech" because they are merely fulfilling the will of the platform. Because they have no speech, the notion of "free" speech is irrelevant.
There is a way to restore control to individuals, to give them autonomy online, and thereby create something like identity and something approaching genuine speech. That path involves giving control back to individuals via a personal protocol, making people master of how their utterances show up, their likeness, their presence on Web sites and in the expanding world of the Metaverse, things such as The Sandbox and Decentraland.
A personal protocol would make every person the owner and sole controller of their data, beyond the reach of platform owners.
That kind of change cannot happen from within Twitter or Facebook, or LinkedIn. Fixing those services, as Musk proposes, would only lead to improved versions of a system that has no freedom by design.
Nothing less than a radical re-thinking of identity online can ensure that freedom is granted to those participating in all online worlds, including social media.
If Musk were to take the path of helping to create a personal protocol owned by no one, it would promote freedom and free speech. It might not boost the value of Musk's Twitter stake, but it would advance the second, more important of his stated goals.