Why This Disruptive Moment Matters

Systems are being permanently disrupted before our eyes.

It’s official, Elon Musk is buying Twitter. His offer has now been formally accepted by the company’s board of directors and shareholders will be offered a vote. That the company will go private is now a foregone conclusion, while the terms of the transition will be revealed in the coming days. The ensuing debate (I’m being polite) has been centrally focused on whether one powerful man should be able to control a media company that has become so important to modern society, it is commonly referred to as the town square-albeit an international one. Revolutions have begun on Twitter, and the lightning speed with which ideas are shared in the modern day are a direct result of Twitter’s existence, and platforms like it. Though Twitter is not the largest social media giant, it remains one of the most prolific and influential. What follows is a brief history of the last 21 days, and why this is the single most pivotal moment in the modern media landscape.

On April 4, after much public suggestion, Elon Musk purchased $2.89 billion of Twitter stock, putting his share at just over 9 percent of the company, making him the single largest shareholder. Speculation began that Musk might join Twitter’s board, which would cap his ownership position at 15%. Within days, Musk confirmed that this would not happen, thus opening the door to larger ownership (while Musk continued to tweet suggestions that this was in the works). 

Twitter’s response to this was to invoke a “poison pill”. In effect, this means allowing large holders of company stock to expand their holdings, thus diluting shares and decreasing the attractiveness of the purchase to a potential buyer. In doing so, Twitter’s board risked exposing itself to legal liability for failing to meet its fiduciary duty to shareholders. Of note is how bizarre this move would have been if successful: rejecting highly profitable bids is not the behaviour of capitalists; it is the behaviour of totalitarians. 

And so we had the news on April 24 that Twitter’s board of directors was seriously considering the offer. On April 25, Twitter confirmed that the board would take the offer directly to shareholders, thus virtually ensuring the company would be taken private. 

Musk has alluded to some changes he would wish to see, including some long called-for improvements to functionality, however the single most important change would be his intention to open-source the site’s algorithm. The impact of this cannot be overstated; an open source algorithm for the proverbial town hall would be a disruption of social media the likes of which we have never seen. Elon Musk isn’t just aiming to alter how media companies operate, he is attempting to break the system for good.

Let’s be clear that one does not need to like Musk to appreciate the significance here. Even if you accept the premise that he is an individual who can be trusted with an important speech platform, this should not be the litmus test of an enduring media framework. How long could he remain trustworthy? What if the company falls into someone else’s hands?

Open source software has its roots in the aspirational anarchist movement of the 1980s, in hacker and free software circles. These groups envisioned a world in which collaboration and intellectual transparency would result not only in better products, but a better future for humanity. At the level of Twitter, complaints have been lodged about the site’s usability, but perhaps most corrosively, over the site’s purported censorship. This is where the plans to open up Twitter’s algorithm changes the media landscape forever. Once users are able to understand and contribute to how content is moderated (or not), the site becomes a home for greater intellectual honesty, a true marketplace of ideas. This brings Twitter closer to reality in that in the real world, not all ideas are of equal merit, but humans have adapted to process this information. Perhaps more importantly, it sets the stage for other companies to open-source their own algorithms, or risk being left behind.

The risk of censorship and its harms are so great, that the only true way forward is for users to adapt to the speed with which information now moves. We cannot have a better future by restricting speech; we can only have a better future by allowing good and bad ideas to be debated openly. Exposing the algorithms that decide what information is surfaced has an important effect: it opens the door for debate about what we choose to prioritize, conscious or not. 

Open source has produced some of the most enduring and powerful software in the world. Let us hope that this step today leads us to the same for the future of information and ideas. For better or for worse, there will be no going back.