The Future of Twitter is Open, or Bust

Richard Reisman, Chris Riley / Nov 4, 2022

Chris Riley is senior fellow for internet governance at the R Street Institute; Richard Reisman is a nonresident senior fellow at Lincoln Network.

Elon Musk owns Twitter. Or rather, whatever is left of it after today’s massive layoffs. It’s hard to see any future for the company at this point, particularly as its twin challenges of content moderation and revenue sustainability are deeply intertwined. As a business, Twitter is facing substantial financial obstacles, which won’t be helped as advertisers pause spending as a result of the leadership change. No publisher wants to run ads on a toxic platform, yet Musk’s other instant legacy is gutting the team at the heart of trying to make Twitter a safe place. Will Musk and his new council have to “speed run the content moderation learning curve”? Even if they can, a shrinking employee base and steep economic headwinds seem ill-suited to support the product development needed for not only survival, but growth.

Today, the layoffs are the most important story, and it’s not fully played out yet. Some employees will bring lawsuits, particularly those in California. It’s a tough job market, but some truly excellent talent is now available for hire, so hopefully some of the smaller companies who haven’t yet frozen hiring until 2023 will reap the benefits.

Some have already written Twitter’s eulogy – many on Twitter, ironically. Twitter’s most valuable creators may seek to decamp, yet there’s no quite comparable alternative. Twitter is not quite a public square, but it’s unique. And without it, as Allegra Rosenberg writes for Garbage Day: “How do we find each other again?” While the future may indeed lie in a collection of more specialized interconnected communities served by Mastodon, Discord, and others, Twitter will retain one great advantage: centralized discovery and sharing are still very powerful services, and difficult to replicate in a more distributed system.

Twitter’s best -- and most likely, only -- hope to survive as a service and as a business is to find an exit ramp off of the highway to hell it’s on. History offers one such path: Open up the platform. Let others build their own Twitter apps, and do their own filtering and moderation, while preserving the advantages of a centralized discovery and sharing mechanism through the underlying platform. And when other, independent Twitter apps succeed, so too will Twitter.

Many years ago, it was hard to imagine the World Wide Web winning in the market over AOL and CompuServe. Yet that’s exactly what happened. It turned out that letting the users of the Web, including other businesses, sit in the drivers’ seat unlocked a powerful creative force, and gave the Web an advantage that saw it outlast its platform competitors.

Twitter can take one last swing for the fences and try to recreate the power of the open Web -- and in the same move, perhaps sidestep much of the coming maelstrom of content policy criticism -- by separating out the platform it manages from the “presentation layer” that sits between the platform and its users, and includes both the user-facing app as well as behind-the-scenes content filtering, prioritization and recommendation.

That means opening up the platform’s interfaces and data enough to let others create new kinds of Twitter tools and apps. And not just customizing at the level of colors and fonts, but deeply, at the level of freely selecting what content is made available when, and how it is presented to users.

This isn’t the same thing as Bluesky, the protocol being developed as an offshoot of Twitter. Bluesky is designed to connect separate platforms through a shared language, much like the closest competitor to Twitter in the current tech landscape, Mastodon. Rather, opening up the Twitter platform is closer to what a team at Stanford calls “middleware.” They, among others, portray this kind of separation as the best path forward for social media, particularly to cut through the thorny challenges of balancing speech and safety online.

Separating the platform from the presentation means letting go of sole responsibility for filtering and content moderation. Twitter would need to retain the baseline power to take down illegal content and mitigate the worst offenses, but for the platform itself, it would be free to model its policies more in line with the hands-off, where-appropriate Cloudflare approach.

In addition to maintaining a reliable and high-integrity content platform, Twitter would continue to offer its own user-facing app with a default presentation layer, which would presumably incorporate a well-developed moderation system. That’s where advertisers would continue to be brought in, and where Twitter would make direct revenue. Every Twitter mobile app or website user would begin with this app, with few if any changes to their user experience.

After today’s layoffs, the quality of Twitter’s default app could degrade quickly. Trolls, Nazis, and bots alike will flood to the platform, seeking to exploit its newfound weakness and the opportunity to spread and maximize their influence. And Twitter users must be prepared for this.

For those who want a different, more active moderation approach, following this open model would mean they could build their own apps running on Twitter’s platform. Entrepreneurs would be free to experiment with new ideas of how to make a successful Twitter-based app. (Maybe they’ll hire Twitter’s excellent, and now available, responsible AI team!) No matter the approach, if any of these businesses become successful, then Twitter can charge a wholesale rate for their use of its platform, and everyone wins.

As the authors have written, separating filtering and moderation from the platform layer doesn’t just create new markets for intermediaries that empower users in powerful ways. It could help strengthen democracy itself, by increasing the levers of influence over those entities engaged in the practices that most affect technology’s externalities: not the technical management of a platform, but the nuanced moderation and filtering decisions that drive reach and reflexivity, and in practice shape both expression and impression.

This is the best chance at success for what’s left of Twitter: open up its platform as much as possible, for free at first, signaling that in the future access will be charged at reasonable rates. But for now, let a thousand birds of innovation soar.

Twitter has never known what to do with the incredible network it has- even if Elon Musk is musing about it as a “collective, cybernetic super-intelligence." It’s time to let others take a swing at it. The authors have argued that this is the only way social media can deliver on its promise, by making us collectively smarter, not dumber. Twitter can share in the profits later, when something takes off and the platform usage skyrockets.

Opening up Twitter’s platform is far from a guarantee of success, on any level. It might not save Twitter the business, and certainly, by itself, won’t end polarization or save democracy.

But it sure seems worth a shot.


Richard Reisman
Richard Reisman (@rreisman) is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for American Innovation and a frequent contributor to Tech Policy Press. He blogs on human-centered digital services and related tech policy at SmartlyIntertwingled.com, and his work was cited in a Federal Trade Commission...
Chris Riley
Chris Riley is Executive Director of the Data Transfer Initiative and a Distinguished Research Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Previously, he was a senior fellow for internet governance at the R Street Institute. He has worked on tech policy in D.C. and San...