The Host's Privilege
Advancing our thinking about online moderation
It’s been funny watching Elon’s takeover of twitter. Not like the “haha” kind of funny, more like the “that’s funny, who let 4 drunk golden retrievers try to drive a car?”
Anyhow, this whole debacle started over the presumption that speech should be ‘more free’ in some ephemeral way, largely due to a bunch of people feeling like they were being oppressed. And yet, Twitter is a private business (then and now), so 1) it’s not clear it was ever a free speech venue, and 2) the whole free speech thing is more about government reprisal anyhow.
But what should speech moderation look like in online communities? It’s an interesting question. Surely the host of any party has some rights in determining what’s acceptable discourse and what’s not, and to date neither the former ‘shadow council’ approach nor the ‘rule by billionaire demagogue’ has been received as overly palatable, with both approaches causing a fair bit of backlash.
As a primer on moderation, I’d recommend reading this awesome blog post by Mike Masnick that details why moderation norms tend to converge over time: at the end of the day, it’s about running a functional business. If you want to run an online community at a scale sufficient to pay for servers and ongoing development and whatnot, you need a revenue model. That correct revenue model ends up being advertising, because advertisers are willing to pay more for access to an audience than that audience will (in aggregate) tend to want to pay to participate.
Can this model be improved? Yes, probably. One imagines you probably still need all of the things in Masnick’s post above, but after that there are some other things we could try. Two ideas seem interesting: audience participation and increasing the cost of fraudulent behavior.
Audience participation would involve a feedback loop for the community in determining what sorts of things they want to allow. Not overly long ago, the Rudy Havenstein account was banned for something or other, inspiring a small user revolt which led to it getting reinstated. This is a form of audience participation — the mods made a decision, and the community overrode that decision by objecting to it rather loudly. What if we institutionalized that?
Imagine a framework for deciding what sorts of things we want to see in a community, a sort of collective trial framework. Audience members are selected to offer input on some sort of issue like “is this lab leak discussion something we want to allow on here or do we consider it dangerous misinformation?” (Twitter shut this down and was accused of bias for doing so). This seems like the sort of thing that could be incorporated into a notion of moderation, and would allow for community-driven input on what the boundaries of the discussion are.
Similarly, raising the cost of entry for systemic ‘fraudulent comments’ seems interesting. Imagine a world in which signing up for twitter has a nominal one-time cost ($5 or something). This is fairly easy for a real user to pay, but makes running a bot farm to shill NFTs or whatever a much less economic proposition: each bot will cost $5 to set up, and if it’s banned that cost is gone forever. What this does is allow legitimate advertisers to outcompete (via raw economics) bot farms that can, in absence of the fee, write scripts to set up thousands of new accounts for free and simply not care if they’re eventually banned. Existing accounts could be grandfathered in, and bad actors slowly pruned while the cost of reentry is increased.
This is different from the current verification scheme which, aside from being a hilarious UX failure and causing open rebellion, charges a persistent fee and also doesn’t really do anything to clean the place up either.
In short, I think there are some concrete steps that could be taken to make a place like twitter great. Those steps are:
Return to the former moderation framework as a baseline.
Allow for that framework to be evolved incrementally via audience participation and moratoriums on things that aren’t working well.
Increase the economic cost for bad actors in a way that increases the relative value to advertisers (bad actors can no longer compete against them for free), and doesn’t have a persistent pay-to-play component for users.
I’m not sure what’s next for Twitter, we seem to be in a strange sort of crisis moment where the current owners really want to express their vision for the place, and… well I suppose that is their right in some sense.
It’s just a silly expression of the host’s privilege. Ultimately, just as we’ve found with representative governance, the highest value outcomes are ones that reflect outcomes desired by the whole. When we can find ways to express the will of the people and create economic disincentives for bad actors, that’s generally good for commerce.
And Twitter is, after all, a business.
Or at least trying to be.