The Internet is going through a midlife crisis.

The jokes and memes about Elon Musk buying Twitter as evidence of a major midlife crisis are at least partially appropriate. The Internet, for one, is having its own midlife crisis.

Many of us who grew up with the Internet are now reaching middle age and have had enough experience to know what the Internet is doing right and wrong. As with any midlife crisis, the internet can continue on its self-destructive path and tumble into the abyss, or we can use this moment to build a better internet based on the principle that the internet belongs to all of us.

Twitter is not just a platform. How some of us live, work and survive. Many have long argued that Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms are public services—they provide an essential public service by enabling the flow of communication that supports communities, commerce, and access to critical information. The fact that one of the world’s richest men was able to buy Twitter and destroy it sent many of its most loyal devotees: activists, journalists, politicians and, yes, trolls, into a frenzy. To support this public spirit, we need to reshape the internet, or at least change a small part of it. But this requires grappling with questions that have plagued internet policy thinkers for decades; that is, who implements the bill and who determines the rules of engagement?

It’s a suggestion when Musk finally realizes that he’s responsible for destroying something he loves enough to pay $44 billion for, and that the best option to save Twitter’s or his own solvency is to give it up. The conditions for Twitter to go to a (comparative) fire-sale price like Myspace are unlikely to happen. And when that happens, a coalition of global public service organizations and public service broadcasters must step up to co-own the platform.

Consider that Twitter is owned, but not necessarily controlled, by organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Oxford University, and Radio France, rather than Mask or corporate shareholders. Think “New Twitter,” but without all the bad “New Coke” jokes (though Musk’s obsession with Decaffeinated Diet Coke helps make a real case for branding). The new Twitter is reborn as Twitter itself, not much different than it is today, imperfect and necessary, but no longer driven by the market’s expectation of ever-increasing profits and scale.

Twitter was a publicly traded company in its mature form, and thus susceptible to all capitalist incentives to maximize profits – but at least as far as its shareholders were concerned. This corporate structure has yielded a highly flawed company that provides a platform for #blacklivesmatter and white supremacy, #metoo and the manosphere, journalists and conspiracy theorists.

Given that our attention and data were based on the bill, Twitter was only nominally free—a bit precarious given the paucity of ad revenue. But Twitter’s lack of real money removed the barrier to entry that allowed marginalized groups to use it. When Musk threatened to pay for the audit, it only furthered the similarities between Twitter and other utilities like water and electricity.

More generally, the idea that the Internet belongs to all of us has a policy implication: The government should provide regulatory guidelines to prevent the worst excesses of capitalist access and abuse, acting as a steward for the public.

This is where the hiccups start. With the Great Firewall of China and the ability of autocrats around the world to literally shut down ISPs in their regions or force Facebook, Google and Twitter to do their bidding, government regulation of the internet sounds like a failure.

We also have little precedent for public and collaborative digital spaces, although the ones we do have—Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, and the Mozilla Foundation—provide the basis for what the Internet does best: disseminate knowledge at scale. But it is not profitable and all these organizations are supported by charity. These are not a public square, but a starting point for public information.

They also wouldn’t exist without free labor. For example, Wikipedia is supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, but it’s also built on a foundation of volunteers and mostly white, male, and English-language editors, and the Mozilla Foundation depends on coders buying into the free and open-source vision. web. The Internet Archive is essentially a large public library, and libraries have never been market-supported, instead depending on the availability of philanthropists or public funds.

Using this model for inspiration, the “New Twitter” could be a global communications platform owned and operated by a coalition of stakeholders interested in public service. But in order to save Twitter, Twitter needs to retain some of the platform’s core features and characteristics that people value. Namely, the platform should be free, it should have scale, it should have room for freedom of expression, good or bad. Twitter should have a long line of well-supported public broadcasting providers in democracies around the world that are free from government censorship.

Some have already advocated for such a digital public service infrastructure. Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, argues that social media in its current, profit-driven form is not good for democracy, and that the digital public needs digital tools specifically designed to promote democracy. He admits that this infrastructure will not make money and needs public funding to support it.

Likewise, author Eli Pariser Filter bubble, pushing for the digital equivalent of public parks. He rightly points out that Twitter and other platforms are communal spaces only feel it like public spaces but owned by for-profit technology companies.

But these versions of the Internet that started with democracy don’t sound particularly fun, and you need fun to keep users. Mastodon, one of the proposed alternatives to Twitter, is designed to be decentralized and democratized, and to encourage community-defined civic discourse. Many found it preachy, difficult, and at best an anodyne substitute.

Perhaps the attention machine economy and democracy are incompatible. However, there is a long legacy of communications technology, from the telegraph to cable television, this mix of private-public partnerships: produced and maintained with Uncle Sam’s backing but led by RCA, AT&T, and Westinghouse. There are a few modern examples of why so much technology is financed indirectly: Venture capital firms finance companies that make other things.

I suggest a bit of a rethinking of the digital public space approach – let’s imagine the New Twitter in the US as a public-private partnership. These are often most prominently displayed in stadiums and sometimes in the form of NCAA booster clubs or local banks that share the cost with the community. Stadiums are fun, they bring people together, and they’re also imperfect: unruly, corporate, loud — and yes, crowds can easily turn into mobs. But so can our behavior on the Internet.

Sure, maybe New Twitter (or should that be Nu Twitter?) is a pipe dream. But dreams inspire us to think bigger. The Internet is both shaped by and shaped by humanity—a funhouse mirror that reflects, amplifies, and distorts our best and worst impulses.

The beauty of the new Twitter’s globally distributed ownership is that it will be messy, embedded in specific cultural and national contexts, and decidedly imperfect. But if we reimagine it for the public, not for profit, we can think of the internet as an essential human right, like air or water. survive.

Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, public policy and society.

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