THE ground beneath my thumbs has shifted. After many tedious months of wrangling, Elon Musk has bought the social media platform Twitter outright.

He began his reign with a predictable mix of brutality and goofiness. The executive who had ensured Donald Trump was banished from the platform? Instantly fired. The rocketeer had already posted a video clip of himself in his new company’s lobby, carrying a lump of white bathroom porcelain. “Entering Twitter HQ,” went the caption. “Let that sink in!”

Ooft. This at least shows Musk’s intuitive understanding of what you get out of Twitter – an addictive combination of political and conceptual debate and randomly charming (or alarming) audio-visuals.

But commentators are rightly wondering whether his other plans for the platform will end up trashing its particular appeal. And as elections loom in the US (and maybe the UK and Scotland), we should use this acquisition as a litmus test for the role social media plays in our public and political lives.

I’m very well aware of how my own Twitter usage has evolved and morphed over the years (main account @thoughtland, signed up since August 2010). Quickly, I saw its value as what the techies call a “peer-to-peer network”. If you carefully curated those you followed, it could easily become your ideal customised news service – the “Daily Me” of early 1990s internet utopia.

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History immediately shaped all this. When I joined, the SNP were building towards their second (and outright) victory in Holyrood, and Twitter speedily became both a source of shared research for me and also an actual battleground of the campaign. It contained claims, counter-claims, infographics and video testimonies – scary and inspirational content of every kind.

Some might make an argument that Musk’s ideal for the platform – as “a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence” - was the experience (with notable exceptions) of indy-campaign Twitter during 2012-14.

A 2019 paper from three Glasgow University researchers (Ana Ines Langer et al) mapped the campaigns on Twitter. They found that No-oriented users were very much following the message lines sent down from the central campaign, while Yes users were driven by enthusiasm and creativity from the grassroots.

And sure, I remember how good it felt to be surrounded by thousands of similarly aligned Yessers. But was it more like a comforting bath of peers than a place where we really could engage properly with those who needed to be persuaded? (And for all our side’s carnivalesque frolicking, who best landed the message with those who had to hear it?) And when you did engage … Argh. The great critique of social media that comes from America is that these platforms make money from deliberately polarising political positions, thus increasing clicks and interactions (for the benefit of advertisers). I began to feel that towards the end of indyref1. Someone was profiting from “Nat-Yoon” flamewars – and it wasn’t the participants.

Perhaps out of sheer exhaustion and dispiritedness, since 2014, I’ve moved into the “Mute/Block/See replies only from followers” phase of my Twitter life. As political regression punctuates political stasis, I am left with no tolerance for abuse in any register – ideologically, personally or artistically (and I get all three). The petty pleasure in removing yourself from someone’s view (or communications) is tinged with worry. As a political citizen, shouldn’t I be responding to these misguided, !!!-typing folk? But do I have the energy or time?

A bad answer to that question was one of my worst-ever Twitter decisions. Several years ago, I lazily imported a “block list” from Wings Over Scotland. I hadn’t fully realised that the Rev. Stuart Campbell’s intolerance wasn’t just for abusive Unionists but for trans campaigners and green activists also. I couldn’t reverse the damn thing, and I’ve spent years reconnecting with people who wondered why I’d blanked them. Apologies, all.

NOW, in late 2022, I’m aware that my 32,000-odd followers, and the near-3000 I follow, are a rather battered and bruised bunch – post-Brexit, post-Tory reign, post-Covid virus, pre the refer-when-dum … I’m sure Twitter’s algorithms have recently been arranging around me the tweets of those I most esteem and value, and they’ve no doubt also sussed my abiding concerns.

So I’m ending up sharing assumptions, hard-won wisdom and daily epiphanies with what are often a group of pals, most of whom I have encountered in meatspace more than a few times. On occasion, it’s like a lightly grizzled trauma circle.

On the upside, the app has suggested specialist interests, and it’s delivering on the ones I ticked. I now have more sizzling-hot research papers on artificial general intelligence than an old geek like me could ever have dreamed of.

So that’s nice. Is the Musk-rat going to wade into this space he’s just bought, and shatter my delicately woven cathedral of communication? To be honest, it looks like it. The thousands of Twitter employees – 75% in one estimate – that Musk has promised to slash are largely employed in moderation, community management and responding to complaints.

This has itself arisen in response to endless critiques of the platform’s role in worsening the quality of public life in America. Meme Wars: The Untold Story Of The Online Battles Upending Democracy In America is a great new book from Harvard’s Joan Donovan and others.

It notes that a decade of super-charged ubiquitous communications may have begun in the Occupy movement, but they ended up in the storming of the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Donovan and colleagues show that Trump’s tweets were precisely inciting and steering the insurgent mobs in Washington.

The chaos that might ensue from Musk’s vandalism, on a “free-speech” justification, may be disabling enough for the platform. But his plans to redesign it as a money machine may prove fatal.

Musk’s ideal is for Twitter to be like the WeChat social platform in China, on which “people essentially live their whole lives” – doing financial exchanges and buying goods, as well as social messaging.

There are also hints that he might base a new crypto-currency on Twitter. Though, we should recall that the combined weight of existing financial institutions managed to crush Facebook’s attempt to create a global currency, Libra, tradable on their platform.

There’s urgency around this. Trump set up Truth Social when he was evicted from Twitter. Ye, the former Kanye West, has purchased the right-wing social app Parler. What other moguls or plutocrats will step into a space where tech infrastructure is a political intervention?

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The European Union is beginning to lay down laws and regulations which recognise some of the dangers of privately owned and pervasive social media (one more reason for Scots to get closer to it). But we don’t yet have a social media version of the old broadcast duopoly between ITV as a commercial service and BBC maintaining public-service standards.

In that spirit, Joan Donovan urges that we “cultivate a digital public infrastructure that does not rely on the whims of billionaires … [We should] invest in building an online public commons.” Ok – where’s that, then? Existing alternatives, such as Mastodon, are too clunky and barely usable.

Finland once gifted the world a whole free computer system, the open-source Linux OS, operative in many services you’ll use on this fine Saturday. Could the opportunity of indy, and its jurisdiction over media, allow us to do some prototyping around the idea of an “online public commons”?

We’ll let Musk blunder around like a large dinosaur, with his bad bathroom jokes and his juvenile idea of free speech. Underneath his feet, let’s allow some furry mammals to inventively scurry about.