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A Modest Proposal: What if Twitter Only Worked Two Hours a Day?
The planet’s information environment seems almost as poisoned as its environment environment, and that poisoning seems almost as dangerous.
So, given Twitter’s current paroxysms (today’s news is that Elon Musk may want to charge users $20 a month for the privilege of creating his content) and the ongoing collapse of Meta/Facebook/Zuckerberg, it seems like the moment for everyone to bring forward their best ideas for how we might address the pollution. My prescription is not all that different from my thinking about carbon: we should figure out every way possible to reorient our societies so we make less of it. One way to start might be to cut way back on the space these platforms take up in our collective life. What if Twitter didn’t run 24-7? Might it work better for everyone running 2-7?
A couple of caveats. I am fully aware this what I am about to propose is not going to happen in the way I suggest. It is a thought experiment (and perhaps a business model for someone somewhere). And I’m also aware that I have no special expertise on the subject of social media. I’ve used it to help in the climate fight (350.org was often called the ‘first open-source movement building’), and I’ve suffered like everyone else from its impact on my daily life; with 400,000 followers on Twitter I’m loath to walk away from it, but also increasingly disgusted by the hold it has on my life but more importantly on our world. I doubt we can cool the planet, or defend democracy, if we can’t do a better job.
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And I don’t think any of us is less equipped than, say, Elon to figure this out. At the moment he wants it to be a vehicle for unrestricted free speech, but he also wants to assure advertisers it won’t be a “free-for-all hellscape;” he wants to please his Saudi and Chinese backers, but he has to appease European regulators; Donald Trump is hovering impatiently in the wings, and the cruel dingbats who make up a largeish percentage of his fanclub have decided to celebrate his acquisition by trying to sneak the N word and some swastikas into plain view; heavy users have been drifting away from the site for months, and now celebrities are following. Having paid $44 billion to own this set of problems, Musk has so far proposed creating a “content moderation council,” which sounds like a super-fun job.
In some sense, though, all those are the surface problems. The real issues lie deeper. Twitter is something undeniably useful—a way for anyone to have a say, creating a shared pool of conversation about the world—that’s turned into something oppressive that even its members don’t really like. And it’s symptomatic of social media in general. Tiktok and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and the rest depress us; they lead to polarization; they take up incredible amounts of time; they rob us of the skills for face to face contact.
In a sense, these deep side-effects stem from the fact that, to a much too large degree, these platforms have become the world. Some of us live in them as fully, or more fully, than we do in the unmediated, unabstracted world of people and trees and moonlight. We didn’t evolve to do this; hence our unhappiness, or at least our uneasiness.
So my suggestion won’t solve any of these problems, but it will lessen all of them. Imagine if Twitter only worked—that is, you could only post on it—between 8 and 9 in the morning, and 8 and 9 at night. The rest of the day you could read it as much as you wanted, and even write replies—but they wouldn’t go up on the site till it next turned live. And it would be 8 to 9 everywhere in the world—California wouldn’t be on at the same time as New York.
(I am aware that there are apps that let you do this for yourself now, and I think they’re valuable. But they alleviate, at best, the individual problems these platforms create, and not the societal ones.)
If Twitter (and the others) had limited hours, one would by definition spend less time on them. If there was less chance for immediate combat, there would be less of the ugly stuff that produces the polarization. Ten thousand people would not feel pressure to make the same obvious reaction to whatever had just happened; the worldwide cleverness competition would dwindle. And perhaps there would be, at least to some small extent, more of a sense of shared experience: it would be a tad closer to the old norm of most of the country turning in for the news at the same hour in the evening. Just a tad, of course, because we’d each still have our own curated list of people to follow, but in a temporal sense anyway, some shared experience. And in a geographical one as well: though you’d still be reading things from around the globe, you’d be interacting in the moment with people from your part of it, rebuilding a slight sense of the localism we’ve clearly lost.
I doubt a government could or should do this (though I suppose in a sense it’s akin to limiting serving hours at bars, which is something governments historically have done). But it’s possible some entrepreneur might—maybe even Elon. Because it would lessen the things that people hate about the experience of social media, and—by way of a certain enforced scarcity—make a little more dear the things we like. I wouldn’t pay a monthly fee to join the current Twitter (I feel as if I pay with small chunks of my soul) but I might to join a more restrained one. Advertisers might value the space more highly if these platforms weren’t an endless buffet but instead the kind of restaurant where you made a reservation. There are businesses where less is more, even on the internet—is not the charm of Wordle related to the fact that you get one puzzle a day, and it’s the same for everyone?
Ubiquity—omnipresence—is the current state of the digital world. But the volume is too high; the vibrations from that ever-more-powerful engine are beginning to shake the boat apart.
So what if ubiquity wasn’t the goal? It just feels like that world would be a slightly saner place, and that must be worth something. It would be to me.
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News from the world of climate and energy
+Can even Manhattan, about the richest concentration of real estate on earth, manage the bill to protect itself from a rising ocean? One local who’s tried hard to help build out the city’s defenses has his doubts
The currently preferred plan, “Alternative 3b,” envisions storm surge gates located at strategic spots in New York Harbor buttressed by varied shore-based measures like levees and sea walls. One of the planned sea walls in my neighborhood would be 16-and-a-half-feet high — taller than parts of the U.S.-Mexico border fence — and would block views, light and access to the waterfront. The total cost is $52 billion
+More attention is beginning to focus on Egypt’s dismal human rights record ahead of the upcoming climate summit. Greta Thunberg yesterday called it a conference "held in a tourist paradise in a country that violates many basic human rights." Meanwhile, Egypt’s chief climate negotiator said protests would be “disrespectful to a country that put its heart and soul and resources... Let’s focus on the main issue that’s at stake.”
+The next big divestment fight seems to be looming at pension giant TIAA, home to the retirement funds of the scientists and academics who figured out the science of global warming and are the forefront of trying to solve it.
“Unlike a lot of general banks and retirement funds, TIAA does have a nonprofit bent, a bit of a history of public service,” said Caroline Levine, a literature professor at Cornell University and a TIAA fund participant who signed the complaint to the UNPRI. “What does it mean for me to have had a whole career dedicated to building conditions for students to live happy and flourishing lives and then retire in a way that undermines and makes a mockery of that work?”
+The United Auto Workers and the Sierra Club are collaborating on efforts to unionize plants as the industry shifts to building electric vehicles.
By building community amongst our memberships, deepening our collaboration, and working together with local partners in the labor, environmental, and racial justice movements, we can seize this unique moment and build mass popular support to re-unionize and decarbonize vehicle manufacturing in a way that benefits workers, our communities, and our planet. This is an “all-in” moment, and we can’t do it alone.