Yishan Profile picture
Apr 15 88 tweets 14 min read
I've now been asked multiple times for my take on Elon's offer for Twitter.

So fine, this is what I think about that. I will assume the takeover succeeds, and he takes Twitter private. (I have little knowledge/insight into how actual takeover battles work or play out)

(long 🧵)
I think if Elon takes over Twitter, he is in for a world of pain. He has no idea.
There is this old culture of the internet, roughly Web 1.0 (late 90s) and early Web 2.0, pre-Facebook (pre-2005), that had a very strong free speech culture.
This free speech idea arose out of a culture of late-90s America where the main people who were interested in censorship were religious conservatives. In practical terms, this meant that they would try to ban porn (or other imagined moral degeneracy) on the internet.
(Remember when it seemed very important to certain people that we ban things like this?) Image
Many of the older tech leaders today (@elonmusk, @pmarca, etc, GenXers basically) grew up with that internet. To them, the internet represented freedom, a new frontier, a flowering of the human spirit, and a great optimism that technology could birth a new golden age of mankind.
I believe that too.

But I also ran Reddit.
Reddit was born in the last years of the "old internet" when free speech meant "freedom from religious conservatives trying to take down porn and sometimes first-person shooters." And so we tried to preserve that ideal.

That is not what free speech is about today.
It's not that the principle is no longer valid (it is), it's that the practical issues around upholding that principle are different, because the world has changed.
The internet is not a "frontier" where people can go "to be free," it's where the entire world is now, and every culture war is being fought on it.

It's the MAIN battlefield for our culture wars.
It means that upholding free speech means you're not standing up against some religious conservatives lobbying to remove Judy Blume books from the library, it means you're standing up against EVERYONE, because every side is trying to take away the speech rights of the other side.
(It's also where Russia is fighting a real war against us, using free speech literally. But that's another story too)
Free speech may be noble, but here's what's it's like these days:
All my left-wing woke friends are CONVINCED that the social media platforms uphold the white supremacist misogynistic patriarchy, and they have plenty of screenshots and evidence ...
... of times when the platform has made enforcement decisions unfairly against innocuous things they've said, and let far more egregious sexist/racist violations by the other side pass.

Woke friends: it's true, right? You have LOTS of examples.
All my alt/center-right/libertarian friends are CONVINCED the social media platforms uphold the woke BLM/Marxist/LGBTQ agenda and they ALSO have plenty of screenshots and evidence of times when...
... the platforms have made enforcement decisions unfair against them for innocuous things they've said merely questioning (in good faith) the woke orthodoxy, and let far more egregious violations by the other side stand.
Right-wingers and libertarians: it's true, right? You can remember PLENTY of examples.
Neither side is lying.

Mostly, it's really because enforcement is hard, and there are LOTS of errors. There's a separate emerging problem (more FB than Twitter) where AI models make inhumane/dystopian judgments that can't be appealed, but that's a separate issue.
Both sides think the platform is institutionally biased against them.

"All the top executives and board members are men."

"Silicon Valley employees are overwhelming woke and left-wing."
I want you to pause for a minute and think about your political alignment and whether you're on the left or right of this issue, because you probably think one of those things.
And the old GenX tech titans are right there with you - vaguely left-wing but also center-right - seeing their version of "censorship" - and drawing all the wrong conclusions from it about what's happening with the management of social platforms.
Elon is one of those, because he doesn't understand what has happened to internet culture since 2004. Or as I call it, just culture.
I KNOW he doesn't, because he was pretty late to Bitcoin, and if he'd been plugged in to internet culture he would've been on Bitcoin way earlier.
Elon's been too busy doing Actual Real Things like making electric cars and reusable rockets and fucking actresses/singers, so he has a Pretty Fucking Good Excuse For Not Paying Attention but this is also something that's hard to understand unless you've RUN a social network.
I'm now going to reveal the institutional bias of every large social network (i.e. FB, Twitter, Reddit):
Are you ready?
Here it is...
They would like you (the users) to stop squabbling over stupid shit and causing drama so that they can spend their time writing more features and not have to adjudicate your stupid little fights.
That's all.
They DON'T CARE ABOUT POLITICS. They really don't.

Donald Trump was not de-platformed for being right-wing.

I talk a bit about this in my thread about Omega Events:
Yes, the execs are (whatever demographic) and the employees are (whatever politics) but they don't care about it. They don't.
Facebook's userbase has at various times been left-leaning, then right-leaning, then bifurcated. So has Reddit's. Twitter's also. The social platforms don't care.
They kind of care about money, but mostly they wish you would shut up and be civil.
But that is impossible: they (we) made a platform where anyone can say anything, largely without consequence, so people are going to be their worst selves, and social networking is now The Internet, and everyone is on it (thank you @chamath), saying WHATEVER THE HELL THEY WANT.
But the platforms have to be polite. They have to pretend to enforce fairness. They have to adopt "principles."

Let me tell you: There are no real principles. They are just trying to be fair because if they weren't, everyone would yell LOUDER and the problem would be worse.
What happens is that because of the fundamental structural nature of social networks, it is always possible for a corner case to emerge where people get into an explosive fight and the company running the social network has to step in.

Again: Omega Events
Because human variability and behavior is infinite. And when that happens, the social network has to make up a new rule, or "derive" it from some prior stated principle, and over time it's really just a tortured game of Twister.
You really want to avoid censorship on social networks? Here is the solution:

Stop arguing. Play nice. The catch: everyone has to do it at once.

I guarantee you, if you do that, there will be NO CENSORSHIP OF ANY TOPIC on any social network.
Because it is not TOPICS that are censored. It is BEHAVIOR.

(This is why people on the left and people on the right both think they are being targeted)

The problem with social networks is the SOCIAL (people) part. Not the NETWORK (company).
"The best antidote to bad ideas is not to censor them, but to allow debate and better ideas."

How naive.
"Debate" is a vague term, and what a social network observes that causes them to "censor" something is masses of people engaging in "debate" - that is to say: abusive volumes of activity violating spam and harrassment rules, sometimes prompting off-site real-world harm.
This is what you think of when you hear "debate."

This is not what is happening on social networks today. Image
Example: the "lab leak" theory (a controversial theory that is now probably true; I personally believe so) was "censored" at a certain time in the history of the pandemic because the "debate" included ...
massive amounts of horrible behavior, spam-level posting, and abuse that spilled over into the real world - e.g. harrassment of public officials and doctors, racially-motivated crimes, etc.
Why is this link not being censored now? Hypocrisy? Because the facts changed?

vanityfair.com/news/2022/03/t…
It was "censored" not because it was a wrong idea, but because ideas really can - at certain times and places - become lightning rods for actual, physical, kinetic mob behavior.
That is just an unpleasant, inconvenient truth that all of you (regardless of your political leaning) need to accept about speech. Ideas really ARE powerful, and like anything else that is powerful, yes, they can be DANGEROUS.

I'm sorry, it's just true.
It would have been perfectly acceptable if the lab leak theory were being discussed in a rational, evidence-based manner by scientists on Twitter, but that is not what happened.
Replace "lab leak theory" with whatever topic you think has been unfairly censored, and the reason it was censored (or any other action taken against it) is not because of the content of that topic, I ABSOLUTELY ASSURE YOU. Image
It is because at Certain Times, given Certain Circumstances, humans will Behave Badly when confronted with Certain Ideas, and if you are The Main Platform Where That Idea is Being Discussed, you cannot do NOTHING, because otherwise humans will continue behaving badly.
Here is what I think about Twitter:

I think the last few years of @jack's administration have been the best years of Twitter's history.
I think Jack really matured as an exec, his prior experience with Twitter, then his success with Square (i.e. doing it wrong, then doing it right) really raised him to a world-class CEO level, and Twitter finally got to be "pretty good."
And "pretty good" is about as good as any social network can possibly be, in my opinion.

(@jack, if you are reading this, my hat's off to you. Saying this as one of the few people who have ever run a social platform: you showed the world how it should've been done)
There is a reason why Jack has a crazy meditation routine and eats one meal a deal and goes on spiritual retreats. Because it takes an INHUMAN level of mentality to be able to run something like this.
Because the problems are NOT about politics, or topics of discussion. They are about all the ways that humans misbehave when there are no immediately visible consequences, when talking to (essentially) strangers, and the endless ingenuity they display trying to get around rules.
These last few years, @jack did a really good job.

And whoever the midwits were who didn't think so have kicked him out, and now Elon thinks he's going to come in and fix some problems.
Elon is not going to fix some problems. I am absolutely sure of this. He has no idea what he's in for.

(He might hire back Jack, which might be ok, but I don't know if Jack wants the job. Who knows. All the tech titans are buddies, kind of)
Elon is going to try like heck to "fix" the problems he sees. Each problem he "fixes" will just cause 3 more problems.
And the worst part, the part that is going to hurt ALL OF HUMANITY, is that this will distract from his mission at SpaceX and Tesla, because it's not just going to suck up his time and attention, IT WILL DAMAGE HIS PSYCHE.
I mean, it's not like he isn't already an emotionally damaged guy. (Sorry Elon, it's pretty obvious) But he has overcome a lot. And he does not need more trauma from running Twitter.
And I know I'm not just projecting my own traumas from the time of running Reddit, because:
Mark Zuckerberg talks about e-foiling in the mornings to avoid having to think about bad news coming in that's like "being punched in the face."
Ellen Pao was horrifically scarred by her run as Reddit CEO and the active harrassment, far beyond merely adjudicating community misbehavior.
Jack has his meditation retreats and unusual diets and spiritual journeys - he's an odd guy yeah - but I'm pretty sure some of that is so he can cope with All You Fucking Assholes.
Never heard much from Dick Costolo, but I haven't seen him do much stand-up improv since he left Twitter, have you? Dick might still be recovering.
It's not a fun job, and it's not like how anyone on the outside imagines. Elon is a very public personality, and he will be faulted by ALL SIDES any time Twitter Does Anything to Solve A Problem, even if he isn't the CEO.
"Why is chairman of the board @elonmusk standing by while @<newtwitterceo> is doing X, which is wrecking Y?"

"@elonmusk, how can you allow X horrible thing to happen? I thought you were against censorship!"
So: my take is this:

@elonmusk, I'm all with you on the Values Of The Old Internet.

This is not The Old Internet. That is gone. It is sad. It's not because the platforms killed it.
It is because we brought all of our old horrible collective dysfunctions onto the internet, and the internet is very fast and everyone can say anything to anyone, and the place where that happens the most is on the social platforms.
(It doesn't happen very often on e.g. Amazon, except when it does, and of course that's when Amazon Censors You!)
After Reddit, I took a break, and now I work in the world of Real Atoms.

terraformation.com
It is hard. It is VERY hard. Like eating glass, as Elon would put it.

But it is not as hard as running a social network. And if Elon knows what's good for him AND HUMANITY, he won't do it - he will stick with the Real Atoms, which is what we really need.
If you like this thread, here's some more stuff about what I'm working on and how you can support it:
And if you want the Next Big Thing:
Addenda: a few people have interpreted this thread as meaning that I support or that it was a justification for censorship.

(That is a reasonable misinterpretation) but it is not true.
I am very much against censorship. I am, for example, against the censorship of every topic that the social networks blocked during the pandemic especially. I have personally been harmed by this.
However, I also understand many non-obvious things about the complex dynamics that arise in large social network platforms, and I will tell you this:
Censorship is inevitable on large social network platforms. If you run one of sufficient size, you will be FORCED to censor things. Not by governments, or even by "users," but by the emergent dynamics of the social network itself.
Someone also said something like, "it's unacceptable that anyone be considered the omniscient arbiter of what's true or not" (sorry if I'm misquoting you; there's a lot of replies)

I also agree with that. It is impossible for anyone to do, and also terrible.
Yet, the structure and dynamics of running a large social network will FORCE you to do it.

IIRC, almost every large social platform started out wanting to uphold free speech. They all buckle.
And it's not because certain ideas are good or bad, or true or false. It has to do purely with operational issues that arise with humans that disagree in large numbers on digital platforms.
The social platforms aren't censoring you (or some idea you like) because they disagree with you. They are censoring because they are large social platforms, and ideas are POWERFUL and DANGEROUS.
(That is the whole point. Ideas wouldn't be worth much if they weren't dangerous or powerful. But you can't always control what people are going to do with powerful things)
What they censor has little to do with what is true or false. It has a little bit to do with whatever the current politics are, but not in the way you probably expect.
Let me be clear: if you run a large social network, you will be forced by inexorable circumstance to censor certain things, you will be forced to "arbitrate" on topics you have an (inevitably) limited understanding of, and it will all be really really shitty.
(The alternative is just collapse of the platform, so I guess you do always have a choice - but then you're not a social platform anymore)
The process through which all of that will happen is painful, which is why I don't think Elon should do it. It is not a good use of his time, and I think his time is uniquely valuable and limited.

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More from @yishan

Jun 26
This book was written in 2006 but remains vitally relevant today: a woman went undercover and lived as a man for 18 months and wrote about her experience. Her observations are eye-opening (for women; most men will be like "duh, you had no idea?").
amazon.com/Self-Made-Man-…
If you are too lazy to read books on your own, a fairly good synopsis can be found here: quora.com/What-are-reaso…
From one of the comments:
"I read this book many years ago and it really stuck with me. It's an easy, engaging and fascinating read that really opens your eyes in a provoking way. Everyone, but especially women, should take the time to read this book...
Read 7 tweets
Jun 22
I realized the other day that even at this late point in the pandemic there is a basic thing many people still don't understand about diseases in general that underpins a lot of how we react to epidemics.
It is a simple idea, but most people don't realize it on their own. I am a pretty clever guy myself, and while it's obvious once you're told, very few people reason this out on first principles alone, including me. It's this:
A disease with high transmissibility but low fatality rate ("IFR") results in a HIGHER collective death count than a disease with a high fatality rate and lower (or sometimes even equal) transmissibility.
Read 36 tweets
May 30
Apparently Russia’s COVID death rate is high in large part due to their vaccine disinformation campaign (originally targeted to the West) that backfired once their own people started believing it.

foreignpolicy.com/2022/01/03/rus…
“The Kremlin’s initial dismissal of COVID-19 and efforts to spread vaccine disinformation across the West appear to have backfired on its own population, resulting in a vaccination rate that ranks as one of the lowest in the developed world…
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Read 4 tweets
May 27
There’s likely to be a lot of carbon credit speculation in the coming years. This is kind of good because expectation of rising prices drives demand, which funnels money to actual carbon removal projects.

(1/n)
Yet, it seems a little weird if speculators who pick up relatively cheap carbon credits profit greatly in the future just for getting in early. After all, it’s funding more actual carbon removal that’s important, right?
NFTs have a unique feature where the original author can be paid a royalty (0-10%, set at time of minting) of EVERY subsequent sale. The intention is that the artist can benefit from the appreciation in value of their artwork, instead of all of it being captured by speculators.
Read 5 tweets
May 27
Here's a stat that's a bit politically inconvenient for almost everyone:

Since 2020, there have been more children killed by COVID (~1,125) than in all school shootings since Columbine (169), over 20 years ago.
Are you worried about the danger your kids might be in when you send them to school? They are well over an order of magnitude more likely to die from covid infection than a school shooting.

Yeah, you probably still sent them to school, right?
A million Americans died over the past two and half a years, across two largely ineffective presidential administrations. That number is still rising, and was totally preventable.
Read 18 tweets
May 14
Whenever there's an article about water shortage (esp in California), there's usually a passing mention of desalination, typically then dismissed as being too energy-intensive/expensive.

Something about this bugs me, and I've figured out what it is: 🧵

newyorker.com/news/dispatch/…
Yes, water from desalination is (today) typically more expensive than water from a natural runoff (mountain, snowpack, etc) sources.

And the implication is, "Well then, why would we use desalination, a more expensive source of water instead of runoff sources?"
This is positioned as though you are choosing between cheap runoff water and expensive desalinated water.

But that's not the right way to look at it.
Read 19 tweets

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