Communities and free speech

You probably heard by now that Elon Musk is in the process of buying Twitter. That is obviously an interesting turn of events for the platform and if you have opinions on the matter feel free to write me an email and we can talk about it. That is not what I want to write about though. What's interesting to me is the discussion around the event itself and the broader conversation around freedom of speech and expression in the context of the internet and its impact on online communities.

Twitter is an odd platform. It has gained this reputation of being the de facto public forum but at the same time everyone is apparently either a bot or a crypto scammer. Which is strange to say the least. And yet, even though the platform appears to be riddled with issues of all sorts it's still playing an important role within society.

Whether that's a good thing is up for debate. I do believe we need ways for people to interact with each other at scale and there is a place for a tool like Twitter on today's web. But solving the issue of communicating at scale is not trivial. You've probably experienced this in person. 4 people around a table can easily have a conversation. Put 40 around a table and everything will become a mess unless you have a moderator directing traffic. The same is true for online communities. You can manage a small community relatively easily. This was done routinely in the early days of the web in the context of forums. You lay down a set of rules, you have a certain number of moderators keeping an eye on what's happening and things can run fairly smoothly.

But that's not a scalable solution. It's especially not scalable when your rules are getting mixed up with national and international laws and you're dealing with hundreds of millions of users.

This is the inevitable issue of centralisation. I'm convinced there's no real solution to this problem because it's a human problem, not a technological one.

Now, some people are convinced that the problem is the centralisation itself. To them, the solution is ditching the centralised model and embracing a distributed one. Mastodon is talked about a lot since it's a Twitter-like platform that is open source and decentralised. Anyone can spin up a new instance and people can join it. Which is great! But is that any different from the early days of forums? I say no. It's a different tool, sure, but it will get plagued by the same issues. Communities on Mastodon—or on any other similar platform—are going to be manageable if they stay under a certain scale. But as soon as they grow too much they're going to face the same issues that are affecting Twitter right now.

Moderation is going to be an issue. There's just no way around it. Unless you are a free speech absolutist and believe there should be no moderation at all and people should be able to say whatever they want freely. This sounds good in theory but it's extremely complicated to apply in reality because we live in a world that's governed by laws and those laws can differ wildly depending on where you live. We can debate if that's a good thing or not but that doesn't change the fact that this is the world we live in and we have to deal with it.

Personally, I'm convinced that the only solution to this problem is what I like to call naturally emerging communities: groups that interact with each other and share thoughts and opinions using a variety of different tools. In my case, my tools of choice are this blog, a newsletter and my email. For you it might be a Telegram group and Twitter. Different people have different needs and will end up using different tools.

But I am convinced that we'll never have a one-size-fits-all solution. That's just not how humans work.