Twitter’s in trouble.
No, I’m not referring to the fact that Twitter’s stock is worth a fraction of what it used to be. Or that its revenue growth is abysmal. Or that Pokemon GO has taken mere days to surpass Twitter in daily active users.
All of these are mere symptoms. Symptoms of a far bigger problem.
Twitter’s fucked because the product is broken beyond all hope of repair.
The root problem with Twitter is that the product is carefully engineered to cultivate maximum violence.
Not intentionally, of course, but rather through a combination of early product decisions that were not re-visited, together with blind optimization of Twitter’s game mechanics toward vanity metrics.
Twitter’s cultivation of violence, in turn, affects user engagement, user churn, the demographics of Twitter, and numerous other factors that have resulted in Twitter’s total failure to become a behemoth of social media.
I’ve identified the following 5 product decisions as major contributing factors.
If you disagree with someone on Twitter, you can’t have a rational debate in 140 characters. In fact, it’s hard or even impossible to fit a single intelligent thought into 140 characters.
However, 140 characters is more than enough space to insult someone. Or express moral outrage. Or inflame a crowd with veiled condescension and self-righteous chest-pounding.
The severe limitation on the size of tweets selects for puerile violence rather than thoughtful, mutually satisfying interactions.
Allowing longer-form content but only showing expandable summaries (or Medium-style highlights) would satisfy people’s MTV brains and allow scanning, but still encourage the thoughtful exchange of complex ideas and reasoned discourse.
Like Pokemon GO, Twitter is a game. Your score is measured in followers, likes, and retweets, and your goal is create or share content that maximizes your score.
There are four types of content that can earn you retweets:
- Insulting / Harassing
- Cute / Funny
- Insightful / Intelligent
People retweet these kinds of content because they have signaling value: sharing insight shows you’re smart; sharing outrage shows you’re virtuous. Sharing is not about the content, per se, it’s about what the content says about the sharer.
Of these four kinds of content, two are inherently violent, and the other two have the potential for violence (mean jokes, condescension).
Worse still, the short-form of Twitter actively discourages anything but sound-bites, making the first three more dominant.
The game mechanics are all constructed to maximize rampant signaling that has absolutely no effect on the real world. In fact, the signaling is not even necessarily legitimate, since anyone can say or retweet anything.
A choice of different game mechanics, or even slight product biases toward legitimate and less violent forms of signaling, would have a tremendous impact on the Twitter environment.
Twitter actively encourages you to use their mobile application, turns all notifications on by default, and if you shut them off, Twitter will never stop reminding you to turn them on.
In addition, Twitter lets anyone contact anyone with any kind of content, and will send a notification to the recipient. As a result, any person or bot with a Twitter account has the ability to interrupt your life with an invasive, hateful message at any time.
You can be happily playing with your kids only to be interrupted by hate-filled vitriol crafted by someone you don’t even know. Twitter happily delivers this bite-sized violence straight to you, no matter where you are, and no matter what you’d prefer to receive.
Twitter’s the ultimate christmas present to trolls and harassers everywhere.
If people’s ability to inject content into your life were constrained by the type of content (as judged by deep learning, possibly augmented with human signaling) and the reputation of the sender (as judged by human signals and deep learning), Twitter could effectively make harassment and trolling impossible (or at least, opt-in).
You connect with family and close friends on Facebook. You do it for the social value. However, you don’t know most people you follow on Twitter.
You follow people for content, professional networking, or maybe because you hope to have a social relationship with some of them.
Yet, Twitter provides pathetic filtering capabilities. When you follow someone, you see every damn thing they say or retweet.
This means if you follow someone for what they have to say about professional improv comedy, you also get to hear them trash your religion, berate the intelligence of people who vote the way you do, and otherwise rant about and retweet topics you don’t want to hear about.
This horrendous limitation means your timeline is filled with a smidgen of interesting content and a truckload of irrelevant and hostile content.
Is it any wonder Twitter has a massive engagement and retention problem?
Compare that to an alternative system in which you can choose both the tone and categories of content you’re interested in, and you could tremendously clean up people’s timeline and make it far more friendly and engaging.
Interaction between more than 2 people on more than a single topic isn’t linear. Yet Twitter forces everything into a linear structure, an artifact of the what-am-I-doing-now origin of the product — a structure that even email clients have long since abandoned.
This decision has the effect of making “conversations” (such as you can have them in 140 characters) difficult to orchestrate and almost impossible to follow, reinforcing the cheap signaling use cases that Twitter has a monopoly on, and discouraging the meaningful interactions that create deep social bonds.
A relatively simple product change to embrace hierarchical conversations (without subjecting random passers-by to deep content) could enable people to have much more detailed, meaningful interactions that go on for days or weeks.
More than Product
These are just 5 ways in which the Twitter product itself is horribly broken. Twitter’s monetization strategies and its user base are all tailored to this broken product, meaning that Twitter can’t change even if it wants to.
Any major change to the product will alienate users or advertisers, harm revenue, and cause the company to die faster than it’s already dying.
Yet, even if Twitter could fix all that’s wrong with the product itself, the company itself would still be broken.
Twitter recently banned notorious Internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos because of his involvement with an attack on Leslie Jones, in which she left Twitter because of some extremely hateful and vicious harassment (some of which came from a few of Milo’s followers).
I was delighted to see Leslie Jones rejoin Twitter after the incident, and I’m not on the #FreeMilo bandwagon. Twitter can do whatever it wants on its platform. Free speech has a legal definition, and Twitter doesn’t qualify.
However, the decision to ban Milo because of the actions of a few of his 500,000 followers (if that is indeed why this occurred) is horribly inconsistent.
Far more famous people than Milo have said far worse; followers of far more famous people have done far worse; and people far less famous than Leslie Jones have been more viciously attacked.
Twitter has done nothing about any of this hateful behavior. Twitter intervened in this case only because a famous “good” person was attacked by a famous “bad” person, so good ol’ Jack had to show he was a good guy and battle evil in the great American tradition of all superheroes (yes, tech leaders increasingly view themselves as superheroes).
Many have applauded this symbolic ban because, after all, Milo’s a bad person. But the very idea that technology companies — which are the modern-day equivalents of water or power companies — will begin playing political games is frightening to many, including myself.
Your emails are on Google, your messages are on Slack, your DMs reside on Twitter, your credit card numbers are stored on Stripe. Do you really want your favorite tech company (or its employees) deciding to use its power against you, because it decides you are a bad person and deserve it?
Playing god works great if you and the tech company have the same idea of what is good and bad, and if you have absolute faith that neither you nor the tech company will ever change your minds. It works terribly in all other cases.
In the case of social media, the effects of companies playing political games is fortunately not that bad (oh no, Milo can’t Twitter-troll!). If the trend persists in social media, it suggests that there is room for conservative-leaning alternatives to both Facebook and Twitter (the Fox News to CNN). Alternatives that could steal half the market share from the incumbents (!!!).
Yet there’s no reason to think this trend will stop at social media. If it spreads, then I guarantee it will cause massive market disruption, as people search for and fund alternatives that either vow allegiance to different mainstream politics or vow to leave politics at the door entirely.
I actually think that, for technology companies, more people will choose providers that are completely non-political. Why? Because your own politics and a tech company’s politics are not stable, and long-term trust is extremely important to customer retention. If you destroy that trust, as Twitter has done, it’s extremely difficult to regain it.
Personally, I’m convinced that between product and politics, Twitter is too broken to fix. Blunders of one sort or another will continue causing trouble for the company until it’s acquired by a company whose social media footprint is even worse than Twitter’s (Verizon? Google?).
But I’m also convinced that there’s a market for a Twitter-like product in the social media space, one not built around friends and family (like Facebook), but which adopts the market-orientation and ad hoc network of Twitter.
To be successful, a Twitter 2.0 has to address the numerous drawbacks both in the product itself, as well as the politics of the company making the product.
Twitter 2.0 needs to be non-political if it wants to engender trust and appeal to the broadest market, and provide an environment that does not encourage violence, but rather allows people to see the content and interactions that they want to see. For most of us, that’s going to be interesting content and pleasant interactions (not irrelevant content and hateful interactions).
In Twitter 2.0, Leslie Jones never would have been harassed, because harassment would be impossible (you might insult someone, but they’d never see it — unless they really wanted to). Milo never would have been banned, and only his fans would even know he existed. And investors would not be dumping stock, but buying more, because users of the platform would be engaged and energized by all the interesting, useful, and pleasant content on the platform.
Twitter 2.0 would be a smash hit commercially for the same reason that blockbuster movies tends to be lighter, often humorous, and have a happy ending — because most people want to be happy, not miserable.
Despite all the naysayers who will say it can’t happen, I believe that Twitter 2.0 will happen. But Twitter will not be the one to make it happen.
I have nothing against Twitter employees or technology. From my limited experience, employees seem kind, smart, and hard-working. The technology is also first-rate (gone are the days of the fail whale). And despite how much I dislike Twitter and the environment it fosters, I still use the service…for now.