Busybodies Beware

Lost in the hysterical drama over Elon Musk buying Twitter is the fact that Twitter and the internet in general were doing fine until fairly recently. Up until somewhere in the Obama years, no one was concerned about internet culture. If anything, people lauded the open culture of the internet as an antidote to the limits of real life. The internet was going to be a better public square than the old public square.

Many of the people weeping over Musk promising to reopen the platform originally embraced Twitter so they could break free from the limits placed on public discourse by corporate media. Most of the complaining, however, is coming from the sorts of people the internet used to exclude. Online culture used to be a haven from the scolds and busybodies who haunt daily life.

The fact is, social media is not a new thing. It is just a new label. From the earliest days of the internet, there have been public platforms. In the days when only smart people were online, it was the BBS. This was a crude sort of digital bulletin board. Imagine a character-based 4chan and you have the idea. Then it was Usenet and then message boards that provided platforms for online communities.

It was only in the past decade that what we think of as social media came online and made it easy for the left side of the bell curve to join the fun. This is when the sorts of people who seek to regulate speech came barging into internet culture, telling everyone else the internet was broken. It is the technically inept latecomers who have made these internet platforms into ideological war zones.

Sure, in the golden age of the internet, “Nazi guy” was there to torment “progressive gal,” and “own the libs” guy was there as well. In reality, “progressive gal” was mostly a silent minority online, so “Nazi guy” and “own the libs” did not have the convenient foils that make their internet personae possible. It turns out that “Nazi guy” and “own the libs” guy grow only in the salty tears of “progressive gal” online.

This is where Musk can not only fix Twitter but set an example for other platforms when it comes to managing the scolds and busybodies. Fixing online culture is primarily about who, not how. A lesson from the early days of online communities is that the rules need to be about selecting against the scolds and busybodies. Make the platform less appealing to them and you quickly reduce their numbers and their victims.

This is a lesson from the meatspace. In daily life, no one likes the woman who is always creating drama. People organize their lives to limit their exposure to that person and anyone who enjoys her drama. Further, the guy who keeps talking about Hitler or how much he hates the left gets ignored. They keep this stuff to themselves so they can be included in the community. Social pressure works.

That would be the first way for Musk and the rest of the public platforms to discourage the sorts of behavior that are at the root of the problem. Removing all of the mechanism to report other users takes away the appeal to the scolds and busybodies. If they are stripped of their ability to rat out fellow users, most of the fun of the platform goes away for them, as well as the people who enjoy taunting them.

Similarly, down-voting is a powerful weapon against troublemakers. No one likes to be told they are the problem. It is why booing at public events remains popular. It works, and the down vote works the same way. The reason YouTube removed down-voting is they hated being booed by their own user base. Social pressure is the best way to compel conformity in a community, digital or analog.

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