When I first joined Twitter in 2012, it was a great place to be. A lot of my friends were there, cracking jokes and posting pictures with yfrog while hoping the fail whale didn’t ruin the fun. I recall that the company was pitching Twitter as a “public agora”, which made sense but wasn’t an accurate reflection at that time. Really, it was juxtaposed against Facebook as a better social network.
Now that Twitter is the public agora, its functionality defines the rules of engagement for public debate, and those rules allow for chaos and massacre. Twitter’s current functionality gravely endangers the future of the Republic. If they do not take it upon themselves to act now, they will be responsible for the American equivalent of moving the capital from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
I know that sounds a little alarmist, because it is. However, Twitter can take a few steps to reverse their role in warehousing division and hate. As well as the mental health crisis that is outrage. “The medium is the message” has become trite, but Mcluhan’s point remains - Twitter needs to alter the medium before Americans succumb to the message. Here are a few ideas to do so:
The most audacious ask. People already use terms like “baseball Twitter” or “VC Twitter” as if they were clearly federated channels - why not actually do that?
Don’t get me wrong, the aggregation of all my interests into one feed is amazing (and why no one visits news sites anymore), but in practice the intended effect hardly occurs. Usually my feed is plagued with the story of the day as if I’m turning on cable news.
Yes, it’s possible to tune it out sometimes, but that comes at the expense of missing out on other great content. I don’t want to follow Brian Koppelman or Buster Olney for their political takes, even if I agree with them 100%, I want to learn about storytelling and get updates on baseball.
Deescalating the politicization of everything, and reducing the speed at which takes come flying through the Twittersphere, will turn down the temperature and volume while providing for deeper engagement.
The way to do this would be to require users to tag the vertical(s) they want to post in before posting. The follower would then see the tweet only if they follow both the person and the vertical. Users would be able to follow all of someone’s tweets if they want, but it would require one extra step - as the default follow functionality would result in only seeing the nexus of that person’s tweets and your follow tags.
Users would still be able to tweet without specific channels tagged. Only followers selecting all tweets or just personal (non-vertical) tweets would see them.
In terms of defining verticals, Twitter can do most of the leg work - defining the official taxonomy with layups like Football > NFL > Cleveland Browns. And with multiple entry points like Tech / Money / Cryptography > Cryptocurrencies > Bitcoin. There are easily thousands that can be defined (Topics is a far cry from what could be). Then figure out how to allow users to define new categories, maybe put the blue check to good use!
The upshot? This would also be a great business decision. Twitter’s Q1 2020 CPM was $4.97. If they were to fully embrace contextual advertising, leveraging their first-party data as well, they could own a burgeoning segment of the digital ad market and raise their avg CPM well into double digits. Think about it, has a Twitter ad ever actually made an impact on you? Contextual is the natural response to the death of the cookie, most competition in this space won’t have the first party data nor the free inventory.
Make likes only visible to both the liker and likee. Twitter is optimized for virtue signalling, period. We’ve all read how tribal Twitter is, well this single feature is the forcing function of that tribalism in every last vertical.
By making likes private, Twitter can still use the signal to optimize the home feed algo. In fact this will provide a much richer signal as the likes become a more honest indication of someone’s opinions, while preserving the personal satisfaction (dopamine) users get from likes. I’d wager this would make engagement go up!
What about the ability to scan someone else’s likes? Maybe this is where a new Quote Tweet comes in. A separate feed created by users that allows them to syndicate tweets without the full endorsement of a Retweet or the aforementioned problems of a like. No footprint on the tweet object itself.
On April, 6 2015 the Quote Tweet was born. I do not believe it an accident that, at least anecdotally, the culture of outrage and personal attack has grown exponentially on Twitter in the last 5 years. “Dunking” on someone seems to be the primary use of the Quote Tweet feature, and so many of the viral outrage tweets are in the form of the Quote Tweet.
Now, users were hacking this together before it happened so it’s obviously a popular feature. It makes sense; syndicating information is the primary purpose of Twitter - whether that’s from your brain or another source, everyone’s just a router. But the madness must stop.
Add permissions on any tweet that gets Quote Tweeted:
OR, drum roll please… edit button! It would solve so much. Then add a versionsioning system to allow the original to be preserved.
Federation will actually solve this, but without it, these solutions are necessary.
One of the questions raised by the federation idea is, what happens to generally public features like Trends? Twitter as a resource for breaking news can’t be disputed at this point; that functionality must be preserved and strengthened. But the current set up just aint it.
Here are two tweets taken from two recent trends, ‘Susan Collins’ and ‘Nancy Pelosi’ respectively.
F*ck Trump— José (@yoruguaenusa) July 11, 2020
F*ck Lindsey Graham
F*ck Mitch McConnell
F*ck Susan Collins
F*ck Ted Cruz
F*ck John Cornyn
F*ck Tom Cotton
F*ck Cory Gardner
F*ck Chuck Grassley
F*ck John Kennedy
F*ck Matt Gaetz
F*ck Jim Jordan
F*ck Kelly Loeffler
F*ck Rand Paul
F*CK THE ENTIRE GOP pic.twitter.com/PR0KyoE5K8
@JoeBiden @SpeakerPelosi Sums it well https://t.co/OnsAyce9Mp— nicole (@nicole47877716) July 11, 2020
Both of these were less than 20 tweets into the “Top” section that is ostensibly a filter of quality compared to the “Latest” option. Twitter has to stop this type of hyperbolic outrage, and nonsensical filler. Those tweets are of no value to anyone (not to mention, inciting violence?).
If those same accounts wanted to make reasoned and informed arguments against those politicians, by all means. Even if the arguments are far outside the Overton window, so long as they are thoughtful they should be surfaced equally.
Sentiment analysis, scoring primarily thoughtfulness, can raise the quality bar. Modern advances in NLP should make this not only possible but possible to do well.
Secondly, sentiment analysis should be used to grade tweets that begin to go viral. Auto-braking tweets at certain Retweet and reply counts could be detrimental when serious breaking news occurs, so that will have to be a consideration. But scoring the sentiment to make sure it’s not vitriolic outrage based in emotion could lower the speed of hate and reduce the collective blood pressure.
As a general rule of thumb, the Lindy effect should be the governing principle. If you cap Retweets and replies in absolute numbers or by sentiment, and the content is actually good enough, it will continue to rise to the top over time.
Threads are awesome, but there’s a reason services like unroll exist. Reading a thread interrupted by the username, picture, etc. every 280 characters is taxing. Secondly, syndication of a tweet in a thread can lose all context.
Convert the thread into a single object segmented by 280 character fields, separated either by nothing or slightly darker/lighter backgrounds. The reader sees breaks every 280 characters like normal, but it’s much cleaner and more importantly - will convey a sense of coherence. The world is an incredibly nuanced place. Discourse in 280 characters is not.
The user can then choose which tweet in the thread serves as a wrapper. And/or when Retweeted, that user can choose which tweet will serve as the wrapper. The wrapper is more or less a headline - when the user clicks on the wrapper tweet, they move to the seamless thread.
This solution has the additional benefit of synchronizing replies onto a single thread object.
So much of the nonsensical outrage comes from usernames like ‘jack09324189’. The username from the Pelosi example above is ‘nicole47877716’, and the account is following 5 people with one follower.
I’m against a strict real name policy - but Twitter can also make a constitutive choice that bifurcates users into real names and pseudonyms. If you’re going to use a real name - great, you must have a real profile. If you want to be anonymous - great, you must set up a truly pseudonymous account. The strangle between the two is what accounts for most of the filler in replies.
Facebook is obviously a bit draconian with their policy, but at least they have one. If Twitter is to be the public agora, it must build the mechanisms with which discourse worthy of that title can flourish.
Lastly, replies need to be fixed but I don’t really have a solution. Federation and cleaning up usernames would absolutely help, but don’t constitute a silver bullet. Having 5k replies on a tweet is pure insanity, as most of those replies prove. Would love to hear ideas here.
I think it’s fair to say Twitter (the company) subscribes to the theory of stakeholder capitalism. If there is any stakeholder of Twitter worth protecting, it is Western civilization. Designing the product with this in mind is the only way to add civility and nuance on Twitter.
Traditionally we’ve regulated the means of communication that carry political messaging, but the digital frontier is a brave new world, we don’t know how to regulate it. I’d be remiss if I said I thought regulators could solve the problem. Though parallels exist, we force auto manufacturers to add brakes, and we tax cigarettes because they’re bad for us. Twitter needs brakes.
It’s incumbent on leaders inside Twitter to lead. Take the reins and implement changes that will benefit society writ large. There need not be some blue ribbon commission, some special committee, no DC panels, a long study, or a non-profit dedicated to some ethics in tech. We need action. Yesterday. Great things happen fast. Twitter only needs to do the right thing.
First published on July 12, 2020