I'd like to talk about social host liability. If, as you read that term, you parsed it as 'social' as in social media, 'host' as in webhost, and 'liability' as in if a social media webhost does something negligent that causes harm to come to third parties that they should be held legally liable... then you don't know what social host liability is. You do, however, have an intuitive grasp of the point I'd like to make in this article.
Social host liability means that if you are serving alcohol at a party, and you serve one of your guests to a point of obvious intoxication, and that guest leaves and gets in a car accident or otherwise hurts someone where the proximate cause is determined to be intoxication, then you're legally liable. Dram shop laws are similar but apply to commercial establishments (e.g. bars) rather than private citizens hosting parties.
I mention this because we have a clear precedent in another context where we stop people from irresponsible overuse of a cognition-impairing addictive substance. In some cases we go as far to hold businesses and private citizens legally liable if they allow a person to continue to irresponsibly use that substance.
While I've seen various criticisms of social host liability and dram shop laws, it's never along the lines of "we're violating people's First Amendment rights by prohibiting them freedom of expression through drunk driving."
What is Twitter?
Twitter in 2021 is one of several businesses that have successfully developed a scalable way to surreptitiously give hundreds of millions of people a behavioral addiction and monetize it… oh and all the while making them believe they’re virtuously practicing free speech.
Twitter is a video game that people don't know they're playing. Because the thing with Twitter is you're always engaged in an act of performance... Twitter encourages people to create a characterized version of themselves and to preform this character, like a role playing game. Twitter is a giant massively multiplayer online role playing game–text based–where it rewards hostility... You get rewarded on Twitter for having really good complaints. If you can think of a really good complaint on Twitter, you'll get lots of points in the form of retweets and likes. But the thing is, if everyone on Twitter is complaining, because this is what's getting you likes and points, then Twitter becomes an excessively negative place, which it is.
I would only add, unlike other MMORPGs, how good (or bad) you are at playing Twitter can have substantial effects on your real world reputation and mental health.
A slightly more academic perspective on the topic comes form Shoshanna Zuboff's excellent book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. In the same way that capitalism optimized Doritos to be maximally addictive, it's done the same for casinos. Much of what was learned about casinos was repurposed for social media. Shoshanna is discussing Facebook here, but in terms of having a financial incentive to increase advertising revenue through engagement, Facebook and Twitter are isomorphic (hyperlinks are my own and added for clarity).
The hand-and-glove relationship of technology addiction was not invented at Facebook, but rather it was pioneered, tested, and perfected with outstanding success in the gaming industry, another setting where addiction is formally recognized as a boundless source of profit. Skinner had anticipated the relevance of his methods to the casino environment, which executives and engineers have transformed into as vivid an illustration as one can muster of the startling power of behavioral engineering and its ability to exploit individual inclinations and transform them into closed loops of obsession and compulsion.
No one has mapped the casino terrain more insightfully than MIT social anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll in her fascinating examination of machine gambling in Las Vegas, Addiction by Design. Most interesting for us is her account of the symbiotic design principles of a new generation of slot machines calculated to manipulate the psychological orientation of players so that first they never have to look away, and eventually they become incapable of doing so. Schüll learned that addictive players seek neither entertainment nor the mythical jackpot of cash. Instead, they chase what Harvard Medical School addiction researcher Howard Shaffer calls “the capacity of the drug or gamble to shift subjective experience,” pursuing an experiential state that Schüll calls the “machine zone,” a state of self-forgetting in which one is carried along by an irresistible momentum that feels like one is “played by the machine.” The machine zone achieves a sense of complete immersion that recalls Klein’s description of Facebook’s design principles—engrossing, immersive, immediate—and is associated with a loss of self-awareness, automatic behavior, and a total rhythmic absorption carried along on a wave of compulsion. Eventually, every aspect of casino machine design was geared to echo, enhance, and intensify the hunger for that subjective shift, but always in ways that elude the player’s awareness.
Schüll describes the multi-decade learning curve as gaming executives gradually came to appreciate that a new generation of computer-based slot machines could trigger and amplify the compulsion to chase the zone, as well as extend the time that each player spends in the zone. These innovations drive up revenues with the sheer volume of extended play as each machine is transformed into a “personalized reward device.” The idea, as the casinos came to understand it, is to avoid anything that distracts, diverts, or interrupts the player’s fusion with the machine; consoles “mold to the player’s natural posture,” eliminating the distance between the player’s body and frictionless touch screens: “Every feature of a slot machine—its mathematical structure, visual graphics, sound dynamics, seating and screen ergonomics—is calibrated to increase a gambler’s ‘time on device’ and to encourage ‘play to extinction.’” The aim is a kind of crazed machine sex, an intimate closed-loop architecture of obsession, loss of self, and auto-gratification. The key, one casino executive says in words that are all too familiar, “is figuring out how to leverage technology to act on customers’ preferences [while making] it as invisible—or what I call auto-magic—as possible.”
As far as I understand it, very few people even inside of Twitter and Facebook understand how their algorithms work in detail (if you have details, please share them in the comments). But we know the meta pattern of market forces evolving a business model, as it happened with Doritos and casinos, still applies. Those same market forces put constant selection pressure on Twitter and Facebook. We can expect their products have followed and will continue to follow a similar trajectory until their business models change.
Common carriers are not behavioral addictions
If someone commits a crime shipping drugs on the sea, you don't drain the sea and say the sea is the problem. If they are mailing drugs through the post office you don't shut the post office down you try to get the people who are doing the wrong steps.
The implication here is that Megaupload was a common carrier, a neutral conduit, like the postal service. The wrong-doing where it occurred was on the part of people using Megaupload illegally, like someone sending drugs through the mail. I agree here with Steve and this was an excellent point about Megaupload. Megaupload was much more like the postal service.
Is Twitter like the postal service? We can answer that with simple thought experiments.
How many people, for example, regularly stay up until 3am compulsively stuffing envelopes with angry letters to strangers they disagree with about, say, K-pop bands? And, even if some eccentric types like that did exist, is the postal service in the business of amplifying their eccentric behavior and encouraging others to respond in kind?
User content on Twitter isn't in an envelope or shipping crate. To the contrary, user content on Twitter is something like a prodrug, a substance that by itself is mostly inert, but is algorithmically metabolized by the platform to become “biologically active” and addictive. Jaron Lanier suggests this is done, to some extent, by separating users in to bins and finding what kind content engages those users then finding ways to get it in front of them.
Consider how few people care about the press releases Trump has been writing since he was booted off the platform. Even though Trump's post-ban press releases are written like Tweets (down to the @ mentions), they’re relatively inert sans Twitter's "algorithmic metabolism."
Trump’s derangement syndrome
Jaron Lanier often remarks on how he met Trump at several points in his life and watched Trump become progressively more deranged as Trump‘s Twitter use increased. As Jaron put it in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now:
As a Twitter addict, Trump has changed. He displays the snowflake pattern and sometimes loses control. He is not acting like the most powerful person in the world, because his addiction is more powerful. Whatever else he might be, whatever kind of victimizer, he is also a victim.
A better question than “why are we banning Trump from Twitter?” is instead “why are we encouraging high-profile politicians to engage with potential behavioral addictions?”
That's really a very serious question. Can you imagine a situation where large groups of people would demand we allow someone who still wields tremendous real world influence and power to become more regularly drug-addled? If substances are too much of a stretch, then substitute a behavior like gambling and the analogy still holds.
The appropriate feeling towards Trump's ban from Twitter strikes me as mudita—a sympathetic joy that he's been given the possibility to dry out and sober up, as it were. I know that sounds like some hippy shit, but I'm not ashamed to say I believe it. He has a real chance for reflection and growth right now, and I hope he uses it.
In all seriousness, "Trump in recovery" strikes me as something that would be powerfully good for the world. Where he once was Charon-like character ferrying people in to ever more polarizing hell realms of the Internet, he could instead become a something more like a Bodhisattva Boatman who "aspires to become a Buddha simultaneously with other sentient beings, sharing their difficulties and encouraging them along the way." ... okay, I'll admit I'm being slightly facetious here, but I still think it's a good idea.
It's time to update
At the risk of writing a post that receives even more negative karma, I want to say ragintumbleweed and rationalists who want to see Trump back on Twitter have all missed the elephant in the room—they all seem to presuppose that Twitter in 2021 is a game that's safe enough for individuals and humanity at large.
The seismic shift that’s occurred in the last 10 years is the ability of social media platforms to freebase user generated content and create serious behavioral addictions with very salient real world consequences. We‘re making a category error if we continue to discuss Twitter like it’s the same platform it was 10 years ago.