The entire world is atwitter with Elon Musk’s proposed buyout of Twitter.
If Twitter accepts Musk’s proposal, it will allow the free market to ensure a marketplace of ideas in big tech rather than employing big government to do so. What if Musk cannot buy Twitter, though? What if, ultimately, the government must step in to ensure fundamental fairness in the social media marketplace?
The proposed solutions ultimately run up against the same problems they initially purport to fix because the nature of social media differs from other sectors — the breakup of Standard Oil comes to mind.
The most natural way to break up a big tech company involves forcing it to spin off into separate companies based on externally apparent characteristics, such as the kind of service it provides or the kind of media it supports. For instance, a government edict could force Google to focus only on Search, spinning Maps and YouTube off into separate companies.
This kind of breakup won’t provide a permanent fix because the economic and social drivers that make these companies big won’t change. Two interrelated “laws” encourage the centralization and scale we see today.
The first, Metcalfe’s Law, posits the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.
Shouldn’t the value of each new user connected to a network decrease with the addition of new users? It seems, for instance, that once all the people you know join a social media site, it doesn’t matter all that much if people you don’t know join. But each new connected user represents a potential contact that might prove useful in the future, as well as an additional stream of content from which to select. A million users are more likely to produce a constant stream of valuable (or at least engaging) content than a hundred.
The second, Kai-Fu Lee’s Virtuous Cycle, is the principle that the stickiness of a social network increases as a user spends more time on the service and users spend more time on stickier social networks.
Why does spending more time on a social network drive stickiness? The more time each user engages with a social media service, the more the service knows about the user. The more the service knows about a user, the more highly tailored the user’s experience becomes — attracting the user’s attention more fully across longer periods.
These two laws interact as well. A service with more users can better understand and predict user behavior, making the service stickier. The more time a user spends on a service, the more content they will upload, making it stickier for other users.
The laws also work against building a successful competing service. Competitors have three choices: offer some feature that no other service offers, consume some currently unavailable “attention space,” or attract a large audience no one else currently attracts. Features easily replicate and the widespread use of smartphones (and now smartwatches) makes it very difficult to find any currently unfilled attention space. Users only possess a certain amount of attention (the attention market is zero-sum).
The only option remains finding a new audience — a challenging proposition when faced with an already saturated marketplace controlled by potential competitors. Word of mouth isn’t an effective way to build a service when everyone uses a competitor’s service to talk. Social media networks become a sort of “soft” natural monopoly at some saturation point.
Any attempt to break up these companies must work within the general rule that bigger is always more profitable for social media. Because there is a natural drive towards bigger, breaking up social media companies based on the kind of service they offer won’t work.
Many of these big tech companies have been promoting net neutrality for decades. The idea behind net neutrality remains simple — do not allow transport providers to favor one kind of content over another or the traffic from one customer over another. In the parlance of the modern debate, this means companies that transport data serve as platforms rather than publishers.
Rather than monopoly, net neutrality concerns itself with privacy. A single provider should not know your physical location, usage patterns, and all the information a social media service can collect. Net neutrality says you can provide either infrastructure (the platform) or content (the publishing).
Yet, large-scale social media companies such as Google and Facebook own both infrastructure and provide content. A simple solution might be to make every company choose to act as a platform or a publisher.
In this framework, any company providing a service that modifies content significantly (filtering, deciding who sees specific content, deciding when specific content is posted, etc.) acts as a publisher and cannot own certain types of infrastructure. Instead, these companies must rely on platforms to move information worldwide and reach their users. If a service hosts and transports information, it cannot filter the information in specific ways. (READ MORE: Why Big Tech Will Lose the Censorship Wars)
In its more radical forms, laws could state that publishers cannot own any large-scale infrastructure at all. Legislation might force Google Cloud, for instance, to divest from Google Search, and Google Search to choose among various cloud providers to host its services. Such a breakup takes one step in ending the dominance of large-scale social media companies by eliminating their ability to directly compete with both publishers and platforms by intermixing the two functions — each leveraging the other to drive scale (and control).
Should a white knight arrive, he rescues not only Twitter but also the rest of us from the messy business of government dictating the business of private business.
Musk himself has stated his move on Twitter has little to do with business.
“This is not a way to make money,” Elon Musk explained in Vancouver last week. “My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization. I don’t care about the economics at all.”
But if the market cannot, or will not, come back to a point where free speech is valued, there are potential — if not ideal — ways for the government to act.
Russ White has been building and breaking computer networks for over 30 years. His latest book, Unintended Dystopia, examines the culture and impact of social media.
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