If I Were CEO of Twitter
What if the platform rose to this occasion?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 19 December 2022

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Assuming Elon Musk doesn’t change his mind about stepping down as CEO of Twitter following his promise to abide by this week’s community-wide referendum on his reign, the social network may be in for a change in leadership and, hopefully, direction. Here’s what I would do if I were in charge.

First, I’d scrap the algorithm. The algorithm is all the programming that decides what ends up in a person’s feed, what posts to boost to whom, how to determine what is trending, and how to direct ads to whom. I wouldn’t change it, tweak it, or adjust it. Just scrap it. Then, Twitter would work like it did in the “old” days, with users simply receiving the Tweets of members they follow.

If the algorithm teams are good and want to stay, I’d ask them what they’d like to be working on instead. After witnessing the horrors of social media and its influence on society up close, how would they want to deploy their skills? I’d let them set up a skunkworks or an extended development hackathon and then make consensus decisions on what to build together. Then add a few product people to help figure out how to get these things to market.

I would consider proposals for user-tuned algorithms, where a user could ask the platform to filter or boost posts based on certain criteria. But these would have to work in a transparent way, and require users to “check in” at least quarterly to observe how their tuned feed differs from what would otherwise be coming to them. Call it Mandatory Reality Check.

Second, I’d have the company accept responsibility for itself as a publishing platform. Instead of Musk’s content moderation council or user polls, I’d put significant resources — maybe 50% of the company’s budget — to an editorial department to exercise what we used to call “journalistic standards and practices.” This means posters are writers, and the platform is a publication. The writers are “paid” with free global distribution of their writing; the publication (Twitter) gets free mini-articles. But as a publisher receiving advertising revenue, the platform is responsible for the content.

Won’t this make for a less profitable company? Actually, no. Especially if Twitter implements my third proposal, which is to shift from a growth-based enterprise to one that emphasizes ongoing revenue and profit. (If that doesn’t make sense, read my book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity ) Shortly after Twitter became a public company, its two billion dollars in annual revenue was declared an abject failure by Wall Street. Why? Because the company had peaked around that level. Investors don’t want consistent revenues; they want growth. Revenues create dividends, which are taxed like income. Growth? Investors often don’t pay any tax on growth, at all. And who wants 20% return on their investment every year, when they can make 100x on their money by pumping up a company with algorithmic steroids and then selling their shares to the next group of saps?

The requirement to grow leads CEOs to make really stupid decisions, like building out new apps and services that compromise the integrity of the thing that’s actually working. Twitter was really working — so much so that many of us began thinking of it as a utility instead of just another social network. What distinguished Twitter from Facebook (as I wrote back when I left Facebook in 2013) was that it wasn’t driven by algorithms. You didn’t have to pay for your own “followers” to see your posts. There was less “play” in the steering wheel, less obscurity, and less user manipulation. It was Twitter’s big investors who were demanding it grow the way Facebook did, forcing the series of bad decisions that turned it into angry disinformation cesspool.

Fourth, I would try to shift the editorial and ownership structure to a commons or even a DAO ( basically, a blockchain organized enterprise). Run it like variation on Reddit, Metafilter, or Wikipedia. Community editors participate as moderators and content regulators, with their activity measured and rewarded with a stake in platform ownership and governance. Over time — say, a period of ten or fifteen years — ownership shares are shifted from the cash investors to the working community. Or instead of using the calendar, shift investors’ shares once they have earned 5x on their initial investment.

Following this path, Twitter may become less sensational and controversial — more like a utility or town square, making less news itself but serving to inform and connect people to the news, information, and ideas that matter to them.

I’ve pretty much stayed away from Twitter since the regime change. It’s just been too awful to watch the platform become mostly about itself. That’s usually the death knell of any institution. But the path to redemption is clear and easy, especially without the pressure of being a public company with an obligation to serve shareholders over everyone else.

Much of our Silicon Valley billionaire elite were hoping that Musk’s takeover of Twitter would function as a proof-of-concept for their vision of a new form of techno monarchy. First Twitter, then the world. But this escapade has only proved the opposite. It is not civil society and government that need tech leadership; it is technology that needs to retrieve the mechanisms of civil society and collective governance.

It’s not rocket science.