David Heinemeier Hansson

October 31, 2022

Here's how to fix Twitter

With Twitter under new ownership, it's a great time for us to imagine how this hellscape might actually get fixed. And by fixed, I mean be a place where people enjoy hanging out, where the debate over content moderation is settled, and where Elon Musk might make his money back. Easy peasy then!

To start, here's my fundamental premise: The internet is full of the bland, the wonderful, the obscure, the sacrilegious, the offensive, the infuriating, and the nasty. The internet, as a whole, is governed by local laws on speech, not by a council of global content moderators, not by single individuals. This is a feature not a bug.

An American can sue another American under US defamation laws for stuff posted on the internet. But the Thai government won't get an American extradited under its lèse-majesté laws if that person offends the country's monarch on the internet. Restrictions on speech are based on jurisdictions (and Twitter is thankfully liable in one of most liberal speech jurisdictions around). This is also a feature not a bug.

Twitter should embrace these features, and accept its role as a fundamental protocol. Just like HTTP, just like SMTP, just like FTP. All protocols that can be used to transmit all sorts of disagreeable content, but where the moderation of said content is left to individuals, not some all-knowing overlords.

This isn't possible today because Twitter shoves so much speech in front of you that you never asked to see. It allows strangers to invade popular threads with no protections available to the original author.

You know that you can find the most vile, nasty shit on the internet if you search for the right words on Google. So most people just don't do that! They manage their own exposure by moderating their own behavior. This is again a feature, not a bug.

This could be Twitter!

If Twitter stopped shoving all this speech you never asked to see in front of you, there would be no need for an army of content moderators. The internet at large is not filtered through such an army, and it's all the better for it. Governments keep trying to impose such a filter, but so far only the most authoritarian regimes have succeeded (and up until a few minutes ago, there was broad consensus in the Western world that this was bad).

This would mean that Twitter would have to change in a few fundamental ways:

  1. Only speech from people you've asked to follow should appear in your feed. If any of those people post something disagreeable to your tastes, you can moderate that content by unfollowing them.
  2. Authors should be deputized as content moderators of their own posts. Just like someone hosting a blog with comments on the internet is. You can either say you don't want comments at all, that comments need to be pre-approved, that you'll remove the bad ones, or that you'll just let it flow.
  3. All the promoted tweets that Twitter wants to showcase to the world should pass through a positive rather than negative editorial process. Meaning Twitter employees pick what they like to feature rather than ban what they don't.

Thus, like the internet at large, everyone gets to control the kind of speech they're exposed to. Different people will come to different conclusions on the kind speech they wish to be exposed to. This is the fundamental wisdom of the infamous Section 230 protection that has allowed the internet as we know it to exist.

This curation should be something you can outsource to trusted delegates. Let me experience Twitter as a list of authors and threads maintained by someone I trust.

It'll also mean, like the internet at large, that you'll be able to find Bad Words, Terrible Words, No Good Words, if you deliberately seek them out. Twitter will serve as a portal to this in the same way Google does. These words may be hurtful or harmful.

But all the content moderators in the world couldn't put the utopia that a platform for hundreds of millions won't contain disagreeable speech together again. 

Accept that reality. Accept that the price we pay for an open, free internet is one which permits the darker sides of humanity. Lean on the local jurisdictions and laws, democratically controlled as they are, to police this reality. Like we've done with that beautiful bastard that is the internet.

Let Twitter be free to ascend to sit amongst all the other fundamental protocols that constitutes the pantheon of the internet.

You can do it, Mr Musk!

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.