Over the last half decade, there was a lot of argument about what sort of speech is acceptable on Twitter. And not just acceptable in terms of “a good idea” versus “a bad idea”, but in terms of whether or not a given type of speech should be banned from Twitter.

Some of the speech that Twitter doesn’t allow is pretty clearly beyond the pale, of course. But some of the speech that was being argued about was around topics that were areas of current mainstream political discourse. So, basically, people were trying to shift the Overton Window in realtime, to impose their view on what is desirable more broadly.

And there’s nothing wrong with that in general, of course! There are lots of situations where we want to to be around speech we like and not be around speech we don’t like. And Twitter is a private company; legally, they’re generally in the clear setting the ground rules for permitted speech on the site. (At least in the US, I think, for almost all areas of speech.) But it’s also a very large, relatively open space; given that it’s a place that hundreds of millions of people participated in, I don’t think free speech considerations are out of the question?


Ken White posted a recent article categorizing discussions like this. In his analysis, this isn’t a case of Free Speech Rights, but is a case of Free Space Culture, I think. And discussions about what sort of speech is good is a discussion about Speech Decency, but those aren’t the discussions I’m talking about here.

The thing is, though, I kind of feel like the fact that it’s even a discussion about Free Speech Culture is a bug? We’re talking about a large space where a few unlected people can make decisions that affect hundreds of millions; sometimes that’s necessary, but it’s not great that things have gotten that far?

So what I really want is for these discussions to mostly happen in smaller spaces. That way, the argument can be about Speech Decency instead, and a group of people can decide together about what kind of speech they want in a given public space.


There was a good Lawfare Podcast about decentralized social media a few months back; it got me optimistic that maybe Mastodon would be structurally better in this regard? At least it makes it possible for those smaller scale discussions to happen. I don’t really know how I expect it to work in practice, though: for one thing, I don’t really know how I expect federation to interplay with local moderation, and, for another thing, some Mastodon instances are pretty large. (I’m on mastodon.social not because their moderation policies spoke to me but because I didn’t want to think hard about which server to use.)

Interesting time, at any rate; I’m glad that we’re experimenting with something different.

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