I didn’t expect — nor necessarily want — to add to the commentary on Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. I’m no Musk fan and my Twitter usage has steadily decreased over the last five years. I finally left the site six month ago. But I am interested in the language both Musk and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey are using in discussing the acquisition.
Musk keeps referring to Twitter as a global ‘town square’ — suggesting Twitter is a type of public space — and claims it can’t reach its “full potential” as a publicly-traded company. In taking Twitter private, Musk thinks he’ll be able to turn it into the town square it’s meant to be. Of course, the ideas he’s suggested — an edit button, removing bots — have little to do with the mechanics of a town square. A town square, by its definition, is a public space and there’s an inherent tension in talking about private property as public space.
When the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas articulated the idea of the public sphere, he wrote of publicity as being separate from the private. For Habermas — in language Musk is clearly cribbing — the public sphere was the most democratic of places: collective governing, a place for debate, for politics in the broad sense: articulating and negotiating how we live together. But what happens when the public sphere is a profit-driven company, or a privately-held company?
I’m finishing up Alexandra Lange’s excellent new book on the history of malls, Meet Me By The Fountain, and this issue comes up again and again. Malls gave young people an independence — a (mostly) safe space to escape their parents, hang out with friends, do the things kids do. The mall, for many adolescents also functions as a town square — their first introduction to Habermas’s concept public sphere — a public space for conversation and hanging out. But, as we know, malls are not public spaces but privately run organizations. They have their own police and policies, independent of the laws governing the towns they are within. You can protest in a public space, you can’t always protest in the mall. Lange writes about curfews instated for when children can be in the mall unaccompanied by adults. She writes about the Black Lives Matter protests, for example, and the countless times they’d been shut down inside malls around the country because they were blocking others from shopping. You see this, too, in pseudo-public spaces like New York’s Hudson Yards or, to consider another current headline, Disney World (a self-governing property masquerading as public space). “Curiously, for a public place, Disneyland is not free. You buy tickets at the gate,” wrote Charles Moore in his seminal essay You Have to Pay for Public Life, “But then, Versailles cost someone a great deal of money, too. Now, as then, you have to pay for the public life.”
Public spaces have always been exclusionary, either due to class, race, or gender. Habermas’s definition of the public sphere ignored the women who were forced to stay home. Malls (and Disney) were often designed for white patrons. Michael Werner has been influential in expanding Habermas’s concepts, developing the concept of the “counterpublic”, essentially arguing there is no single public. A counterpublic is formed by all those who have historically be excluded, marginalized, left out. The counterpublic is the subculture, the niche, the overlooked.
This is the tension between Musk’s ownership of Twitter and his ambition for it. He talks of open-sourcing the algorithms — another form of publicness but that’s not the same as a public space. When he talks of free speech, that’s free for whom? (When the Mall of America policy reads: “safety is a top priority”, Lange asks: “Whose safety is a top priority?”) To grant free speech for bullies and Nazis, immediately takes away freedom from others. As a private company — as with any psuedo-public space — who makes these decisions? Who governs? In the true public sphere, we can vote out those who betray the social contract but that’s not possible in a private space. We can’t defund the mall police.
The founders of Twitter have always talked of Twitter in this language but it’s never been and never will be a true public space. (Facebook’s executives use the metaphor for Facebook too.) As Ezra Klein wrote recently, what Twitter did was gamify interactions. It’s goal is not democracy but money, not conversation and debate but engagement. When a rich man speaks of freedoms and publics, he speaks of them only for himself. I don’t know if Elon Musk will make Twitter better or make it worse. I do know taking it private won’t solve any of its problems. Private enterprises masquerading as public spaces never set out what they hope to.
After six months of watching little television, we’re back to watching multiple shows at once. We loved all the startup series: The Dropout on Hulu, SuperPumped on Showtime, and WeCrashed on AppleTV+. Severance is a slow burn but the last two episodes make it worth it. Don’t miss this one. Obviously, I’m excited Atlanta and Barry are both back for their third seasons. Moon Knight has been fascinating too.
As mentioned earlier, I really enjoyed Alexandra Lange’s new book on the history of malls, Meet Me By The Fountain. It brought back many memories of my own childhood malls and even prompted us to spend a Sunday afternoon at our local mall (the first time since we moved here!). Up next is Blockchain Chicken Farm by Xiaowei Wang.
I finished going through the filmography of Michael Haneke, who I believe I wrote about here before. I’d previously only ever seen both of his Funny Games films (and love them) so it was fun to see the range in his work. I was blown away by Amour (2012) and, to a lesser extent, The Piano Teacher (2010). I want to write about this more but I’m struck by the subtlety of his later work. His early films hit you over the head with their violence but as he gets older, he hold back, letting things play out internally. Quiet domestic scenes are laced with a tension that’s filled with as much power as his more graphic films.
I really enjoyed this interview by Helen Rosner with novelist and frontman for The Mountain Goats John Darnielle in The New Yorker. I’m a longtime MG fan and really enjoy all of his fiction too. There’s a lot in here on writing, faith, genre, and subcultures.
Peter Kakfa interviewed critic Wesley Morris on his podcast, Recode Media, and it’s full of insights on the nature of criticism, reading culture, and modes of writing.
Novelist Emily St. John Mandel was on Ezra Klein’s podcast to talk about her new book, Sea of Tranquility. I loved The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven so I can’t wait to read the new book. In this interview, they talk about science fiction, parenting, pandemics, and simulation theory.
Martinis are trendy again? That means I’m trendy again! (Be sure to listen to the end of my conversation with Robert A.M. Stern from a recent Scratching the Surface episode to hear us talk martinis too!)
I’m very excited for Tad Friend’s new memoir, In Early Times: A Life Reframed, an excerpt of which was published in The New Yorker last month.
Slate’s podcast How To teaches you how to journal every day. I started keeping a daily journal 15 years ago and while I’ve gone through periods of not writing, it’s so tied to my identity now that even though I know there will be periods I don’t write, I’ll likely keep writing the rest of my life.
Classes are finished, grades are submitted and I’m about to enjoy my first real summer in a few years. I’m excited! See you soon. Thanks for reading.