I love Twitter. So much information and commentary is shared there, so quickly, that it is a vital source for “what is going on on the Internet today”. At the same time, I hate Twitter, for all the bad behavior performed on the platform that Twitter, the company, tolerates. I’m not alone. A lot of people I follow feel the same way. I see tweets like this almost every day:
Brad DeLong: “I wish there was a network like twitter, but not, you know, actually Twitter”
The folks at @twitter are spineless cowards.
I wish there was a network like twitter, but not, you know, actually twitter
— Dave DeLong (@davedelong) November 30, 2017
The thing is, practically since Twitter’s inception, alternatives did exist. I know. I used them: Identi.ca, StatusNet (the successor to Identi.ca), Pump.io (the successor to StatusNet), and App.net (a for-fee Twitter that got a lot of press but not so many users). And, I abandoned them and went back to Twitter, despite its flaws. So did everybody else.
Why is Twitter so sticky, and nothing else is?
What makes Twitter is valuable not what it does—microblogging is relatively easy to implement these days—but who is on it: Famous people! Intellectuals! Politicians! Journalists! These people and many more are not only publishing there, but reading there, too. Communication with, and between, influential people there can be two-way, and is usually in public, which is fascinating to read and unlike any other communications platform that had come before it. Twitter can amplify the voice of the non-famous and non-published people, too—the under-represented—which is often great.
Why is Twitter described as a cesspool?
Sometimes, though, amplifying under-represented voices is not great. Some voices are under-represented because they are malicious: Racists! Nazis! Liars! Sexist doxxers! Spammers! Russian bots! Malicious people have unique incentives to exploit and abuse a communications platform like Twitter. First, simply having a medium and a platform to spread their message is unique to them, because these people have been barred or banned elsewhere from spreading their message. Second, access to this new platform may be fleeting, because they could be banned there, too, for the same reasons they have been banned elsewhere. Third, people who want to spread malice are not the type of people who are concerned with preserving the health of the platform’s community, or the platform’s reputation in the wider world. Therefore, they can destroy the platform in the process of spreading their message.
Why can’t Twitter fix this?
The world is too complex to separate people, or Twitter users, into good and bad actors. What is unpopular or under-represented today may be celebrated tomorrow; it may be true and worth spreading today. Understandably, Twitter doesn’t want to choose who gets to speak on their platform. Therefore, they tolerate hate speech on their platform to a degree that makes some of their users angry. It puts the company in a difficult position when hate speech is broadcast (retweeted) by the President of the United States, as it was this week.
I understand Twitter’s problems as a company. It needs eyeballs on it to sell ads. Controversy on the platform, and the sheer number of active users (whether they are real people or bots), lead to greater traffic, greater revenue, and greater return on investment for their investors—at least in the short run. In the long run, however, poisonous speech on the platform poisons the platform.
What to do about it, as a Twitter user?
Basically, it is hard to see how, as users, we can improve Twitter. Twitter, the company, owns the platform. Consequently, it has the sole power to fix its flaws. Improvements to blocking and reporting abuse that Twitter has implemented have not satisfied the users who need them the most.
Moving away from Twitter entirely, onto another, similar platform, can work for small communities who primarily wish to communicate amongst themselves. It is unlikely, however, that a critical mass of influential users—the celebrities, journalists, etc., who make the platform valuable—will move to a different platform at this point. Without those users, another platform, however superior from a technical or community management standpoint, would not have as much value.
As a Twitter user, you really have two choices now: live with the abusive users, and report and block them as well as you can; or, if Twitter abuse is bothering you enough (or worse, threatening to your safety), stop using Twitter entirely. That is a sad conclusion to make, but I think it is realistic. Twitter’s ad-based model, need to generate both traffic and return on investment to satisfy its shareholders are, in the short run, at odds with its stated goal to improve safety, and therefore community, on its platform.
Fortunately, there are other ways to write content on the internet for free, such as WordPress. The problem is, you may never achieve the same reach with these other platforms as you would with Twitter. That is why I am sticking with Twitter myself. From a moralistic point of view, I would love to ditch it for something else. Despite that feeling, I get enough value from Twitter to keep using it, despite the sick-to-my-stomach feeling the Twitterverse gives me some days.