In 2015, Jack tweeted: "I think Twitter is the closest thing we have to a global consciousness. And I believe the world needs that right now." On Monday, the bearded Jack, otherwise known as Jack Dorsey, quit his job as the CEO of Twitter, apparently having decided that running that thing was no longer much fun.
Forgive us if we don't have much sympathy. Being new and novel, the social media channels that now dominate much of our waking hours managed to worm their way into our collective consciousness even as their potentially pernicious effects went unnoticed. Subsequent generations will hold us to account for our folly.
Right from the start, the tech titans at Twitter and Facebook argued that they were not so much publishers in the sense that the owner of this newspaper is a publisher but more of a public utility: closer to ComEd than the Chicago Tribune, you might say.
This has proved to be a con. By hiding behind a federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the social networks claimed broad immunity from liability for content created by their users — a protection not afforded this newspaper, which always has stood behind the content it chooses to publish on these pages, printed or online.
At the same time, those networks relied on, for their revenue and popularity, the distribution of content from traditional publishers, even as they sold targeted advertising that ate into journalistic business models, hastening the current, well-documented crisis in local journalism.
Over time, the networks also delivered oblique algorithms that privileged the sharing of content in their own "skin." That's why, on Facebook, many of your favorite independent writers working on Substack and elsewhere have taken to posting their work in the comments. They've figured out that linking content from elsewhere in a main post will ding their distribution. This is not exactly a world of net neutrality.
Much of the illusion of the public utility fell apart once Twitter and Facebook discovered that their users often created duplicitous and hateful content that was deleterious to the U.S. Their own users and staffers demanded censorship of this detritus, but they of course did so according to their own political and ideological preferences.
And thus Twitter co-founder Jack and his friends at Facebook found themselves trying to decide what did or did not count as hate speech, the reasonable limits of privacy, whether high political office (such as president) implied different criteria, how much people could be trusted to make their own decisions, what was and wasn't actual news, how much balance is desirable and more. Tough going, Jack?
For generations, newspapers such as this one have made similar judgment calls, but they've used a staff of professional journalists to do so, not an algorithm. And when mistakes have been made, and they have, those publications have been held accountable by the courts and by their readers. They haven't hidden under some blather of "global consciousness."