Twitter’s Silver Bullet?


With experts hailing the fatal effect of social media on modern society, Elon Musk makes it his calling to step in and save us from the monster unleashed by social media tycoons: the Twitter algorithm.  Can the need for an algorithm be fulfilled without the dangerous side effects that curse wider society?

Since the creation of Twitter in 2006, users have been allured by the platform’s method of projecting short thoughts, routine updates, and queries to a group of followers.  The added discovery of the potential to go ‘viral’, granting users a brief period of internet fame when their tweet resonated with the masses, further increased the app’s appeal.  Early bare bones iterations of Twitter were this simple, with particularly insightful tweets organically generating interest and being retweeted for the world to relate.  Sensing the appeal of their platform, Twitter execs decided to amplify these properties, creating the infamous Twitter algorithm, a positive feedback loop that would extend the reach of potentially viral tweets by feeding users popular tweets that they were expected to relate to.  Unfortunately, as anyone familiar with electronics will know: Positive feedback almost invariably breeds instability.  Unwittingly, they would succeed in creating a dangerous mechanism for the segregation of society into conflicting idealist factions, whilst simultaneously giving the extremists of these groups the tools to recruit a disproportionate multitude to their causes.

Soon, the idea of an average Twitter user would become obsolete.  Such a user would gradually be filtered by the algorithm, presented with tweets from like-minded groups from which misinformation would be indistinguishable from truth.  The algorithm would transform such users into the prey of fanatical opportunists, helping segregate them and feeding them with appropriate content to secure their kinship with outspoken manipulators.  The result: In 2022, public influence has shifted from longstanding institutions, instead being granted to groups with little concern for the verity of the information they share.  The danger of such a situation is evident in the increasingly distorted perception of government and science, and the resulting mistrust of them.

Twitter’s answer was to attempt to muzzle users, to filter untruths before the algorithm injected them into their targets and restore the platform to its intended innocence.  A simple task, right?  Wrong.  Suddenly, one of the biggest platforms for self-expression was attempting to limit freedom of speech.  Moral questions plagued their attempts, fed by constant criticism as they violated a basic human right.  Consequent failure ensured the persistence of misinformation, leaving Twitter as the enduring danger to society it has evolved to become.

Enter Elon Musk.  In Spring of 2022, the controversial Twitter addict started the process of acquiring the platform with plans to restore free speech and bring balance to the chaos.  So how will he do it?  What radical new approach will he employ to achieve what has been previously unattainable?  To put it simply: He’s going after the algorithm.

Musk’s perception of Twitter as ‘the de-facto town square’ provides insight into his plans for the platform.  Where Twitter may be the town square for the internet to share thoughts and ideas, the key problem with the analogy is the algorithm.  Disregarding the restriction of free speech, the algorithm is the key difference between the unstably amplified nature of Twitter and the organic dissemination of information that a town square scenario represents.  The solution is not to limit the input to the system, but rather to remove the system’s instability.  Musk, advising users that they are ‘being manipulated by the algorithm in ways [they]don’t realise’, hinted his plan when urging users to change their Twitter settings.  Changing the timeline to a chronological format, he insisted, as opposed to that generated by the algorithm, would ‘fix’ their Twitter feed.

Upon changing to the chronological option, the differences are evident, and so too the desire for an algorithm in the first place.  With the absence of suggested tweets to occupy a user’s feed, the timeline immediately becomes less populous.  The feed transforms from an endless scrolling experience into a finite series of updates, limited when confronted with older, previously seen tweets.

While the efficacy in combatting unnatural spread of misinformation is likely achieved, the side effect is to deaden the addictive appeal of the app.  This presents a problem.  If the plan is to remove the algorithm altogether, will the apps popularity suffer?  By neutralising the threat involved with Twitter, will an opening be made for a new platform to take its place?  Here lies the real challenge that Twitter’s new management faces.  Any attempt to reduce the gain on the feedback loop generating the app’s appeal could jeopardise its whole success.

The only way to prevent the app’s obsolescence while simultaneously achieving the new management’s goals is to develop a new algorithm: One that can help provide users with interesting content without the instability that this can easily feed.  If such a system can be devised, Twitter could pave the way for a new, well-informed era of social media, potentially quelling the dysfunction that propagates into western politics.  Typical Elon Musk, the goal is a new dawn in human history, a solution to a core societal issue plaguing the 21st century: social media’s silver bullet.  It remains to be seen whether this is even possible, or if it will forever remain a mythical solution to an unstoppable force…


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