I’m going to be honest for a minute, here. My Twitter timeline is a dumpster fire right now. I’ve been on Twitter for almost a decade now, and there’s a great many things I absolutely love about it. I’d hate to leave it behind, but it can be tough to be on, lately. Recently, I needed a break, so I stayed off Twitter for most of December. When I came back over the holidays, I was happy to be back, but many of the things that caused me to leave remained. I started breaking it down a bit, taking a look at what was causing me to have such a bad time, evaluating what I can do to improve my experience, and analyzing my options if I can’t bring Twitter in line with the experience I want to have online. Here’s that breakdown, in extremely long form.
Why I like Twitter
According to Twitter, I joined in October 2008. Twitter still advertised itself as a microblogging service. “Let people know what you’re up to, 140 characters at a time” was the elevator pitch. A lot of people didn’t get it at the time, and I still hear derisive jokes about the “what I had for lunch” tweet. It was often scorned as a service that no on really needed.
Well, it turns out I needed it. It’s an awesome service. In spite of the jokes, I joined largely to hear what people were having for lunch. My first follows were direct family, with a handful of real life friends following shortly after. Keeping up with all those people was still pretty hard at the time, and getting a picture of someone’s life through the small, mundane moments we all share felt connecting in a way that was hard to maintain otherwise. Even with the advent of alternatives, Twitter has still been a great way to keep track of what many of my family, friends, and coworkers are up to.
What makes Twitter unique
It’s important to acknowledge that the alternatives at the time kind weren’t great. Smartphones were technically around, but weren’t yet ubiquitous, and many of us were still getting charged a fixed rate per SMS messages that we typed on T9 keyboards with terrible prediction. I wasn’t that far removed from using a private IRC channel to keep up with some of my friends (a practice that still lives on for many through Slack and Discord these days).
Twitter was relatively unique at the time in that you subscribed to people not groups/channels and that those relationships were directed and didn’t require reciprocal authorization. I was free to follow who I wanted without them necessarily having to follow me back. Directed relationships are fairly common now, but Twitter still handles one element of it differently than everyone else, which is in replies/comments: if someone replies to your tweet, I won’t see it unless I follow both of you. This means I can read the things you say without your dirtbag friends or racist uncle’s replies showing up on my timeline unless I expressly followed them, or you consciously decided to retweet them. This is something that sucks about almost every other social network, still, today, and in my opinion, was one of the key features that made Twitter successful and useful for me in a way that no other social network’s been able to.
Critics will often point to Twitter and other social networks as “social fast food,” condemning it as a hollow form of interaction that is not a real replacement for an actual relationship. That’s absolutely true, and the critics are right, but I think many of them fail to realize the alternative. It’s not like if I was off Twitter I’d be spending every evening writing hand written letters to all of my 300 follows. Honestly, I just wouldn’t talk to a lot of them. I wouldn’t know what they were doing. I wouldn’t be seeing their kids grow up. I’d just fall out of contact with most of them. That’s fine for some of them, but I’d consider a damn shame for most.
In the aggregate, I’m downright awful at maintaining social relationships. Ask anyone on my side of the family! Hell, I’m pretty sure my father went to the grave thinking he’d somehow failed me by never being able to successfully maintain a relationship, when in reality, I failed him by being garbage at incredibly simple things like returning phone calls. It’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s not something I’m making excuses for. It’s something that I’m striving to improve on, and I’m slowly making progress at. I don’t think I’ll ever really be good at it, however, and I’m grateful that Twitter and the internet at large has helped me form and maintain relationships I otherwise just wouldn’t have.
Furthermore, I have a lot of friends who are also isolated introverts. I work in an industry full of them. Almost all of them manage Basic Human 101 better than I do, but a lot of them still aren’t exactly great at it. And they’re amazing people that add a lot of value to my life, and even if hearing their hot take on whatever video game they’re playing at the moment doesn’t exactly constitute a life long bond, I’m happy to get it, especially if the alternative is silence.
What’s wrong with Twitter today
For all the things I love about Twitter, it’s been pretty intolerable lately. I still keep an eye on it pretty regularly, but it’s become difficult. I still often open it excited to see what my friends are up to, but quickly close it again when I’m reminded that, oh, right, I don’t get that anymore. It’s just relentless anger.
It’s not difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when everything took a nose dive. Things were trending down, but when the 2016 Presidential race metastasized the rate accelerated significantly. My entire timeline was aghast at basically everything Donald Trump said or did, and, uh, sure, that dude’s a dangerous, terrible joke. It’s understandable to be upset. But since then, my timeline has largely become a stream of comments on the last stupid thing to come out of Trump’s mouth. I don’t follow Donald Trump, but it doesn’t matter. Everything he says is retweeted into my timeline, often replying directly to him, as though he is going to be reading these poignant takedowns instead of me. He’s not, and I have serious doubts about the net good this lashing out is bringing to the world.
It’s not just Trump, though. The sheer amount of borrowed rage on my timeline is way too high. I don’t want to see any more hot takes about the latest mass shooting. I definitely don’t want to see some random stranger’s hot take on it. You want to share your grief and sorrow? I’m here for you. But you can keep the self-satisfied condescension that often underpins the tweets that make the rounds after events like this. I’m tired of it.
Or how about my favorite: the retweet of something awful happening, accompanied by some rider that begins along the lines of “If you’re not angry about this…”?
Well, I am angry. I’m doing everything I can not to drown in it, and I’m just barely keeping my head above water.
I’ve been actively fending off depression for the last couple of years with a powerful vigor. I’ve lost some battles, and suffered some casualties, but for the most part I’m winning this war. But it’s been a lot of work. And while I can point at all these specific events in my life over that time span that have been traumatic or grueling or tragic that have created that situation in my life, I honestly don’t think my circumstances are that different from anyone else’s. Many of us are caught up in this emotional maelstrom. And we all need to look at the cycles we’re a part of, and ask if they’re virtuous or vicious, and I think Twitter (or at least my corner of it) is spiraling downward.
To be clear, I’m not saying it’s not okay to be angry or upset, nor am I saying you shouldn’t react to any of the things that are going on around you. But if the best you can do is retweet someone else’s anger, well, I’ve got to take care of myself, too, and for my own benefit, I might need to get you off my timeline.
Twitter (the company)’s role
While Trump’s Presidency is not Twitter’s fault, necessarily (I know it’s debatable, just go with me here), Twitter (the company) controls the overall shape of the Twitter (the service), and some of their decisions have also affected the service’s ability to meet my needs and its influence on my mental state. I’m gonna break down some of the changes that have happened over the last 10 years that, cumulatively, have begun to drive me away from the service.
280 characters, easier threading, “Add comment” retweets
Here’s two things I think are great features overall, but have enabled some unfavorable behavior. I think it’s important to take a look at the subtle ways they’ve interacted with other features to sometimes contribute to a more toxic environment on Twitter.
I’m really grateful that Twitter’s recently made longer Tweets a thing. 140 characters wasn’t some algorithmically divined number, it was just the lamentable result of having to work under SMS’s 160 character restriction. The 160 character limit on text messages was actually reasoned about, which frequently left the 140 character compromise just short of what was necessary to communicate clearly. This limitation lasted way too long; ain’t no one texting 40404 anymore, right? I’m thrilled to see 280 characters.
Aside: I’ve never seen a group of people so determined to prove that they shouldn’t be trusted with nice things, though. After this feature landed, it felt like my entire timeline was determined to prove out every negative corner case of being allowed to communicate more clearly.
The codifying of threads and easy methods of authoring multiple tweets at once was also a nice concession to the way Twitter was actually being used. Sometimes you just can’t fit everything in one tweet, and it’s nice to have a supported way of chaining those messages together. Good job, Twitter!
These two features have some unfortunate interactions with the “quote tweet” style of retweets, however. When they come together, it makes it very easy to borrow a lot of content from someone else with additions that often seem trite. Every time I see a lengthy thread retweeted by someone who merely prepends the text “THREAD”, I can’t help but being disappointed. I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly why, but somehow, these tweets often feel incredibly intrusive. If you follow me, I imagine it’s because you want to hear what I have to say, and if the best I can muster is a small novel written by someone else, well, I think you deserve better.
Look, we’ve all got to eat, so I’m not getting too down on them about this, but I don’t think it’s radical to say that advertisements in my feed decrease the value of my time on Twitter. I hope one day we can find a way to expose the financial burden of online services to end users in such a way that we’re happy paying for it. In the meantime, though, advertisements suck, and if we’re analyzing the elements that have underpinned my deep dissatisfaction with the service, well, every time I see an ad, I do ask myself “why am I even spending time with this?”
Out of order delivery, “In Case You Missed It”
I actually have a ton of sympathy for the desires that motivate Twitter to want deliver tweets out of order. People tweet at different rates, and trend towards different times of day. Delivering everything in order means you’re more easily subject to missing that one important tweet from that one friend that only tweets once a month because that one guy decided to retweet like 37 pictures of Pharmercy smut again. I don’t blame Twitter for maybe wanting to swap out one or two of those tweets for something a touch more relevant.
Ah, but what’s more relevant? Well, the naive method would be to just boost things with high engagement, like tweets with images, popular retweets, and things with a lot of replies. I’m sure the algorithm is more complex than that, but it fits my experience pretty well. But if my principal problem with Twitter is that low-effort, angry tweets make their way into my timeline too easy, these kinds of reply/retweet snowballing algorithms work fundamentally against my desires.
Out of order delivery has some other downsides, like that weird embarrassment that comes with replying to something that no longer contains any relevance, but the algorithm wasn’t smart enough to figure its moment has passed and just showed you now.
I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that chronological sorting is actually a pretty awful way to determining relevance, it’s just better than Twitter’s algorithms that only half heartedly have my best interests in mind. At least you can trust in order delivery to be honestly, earnestly crappy.
Likes in feed/notifications
Twitter has flirted on and off with showing things that your follows have liked in your timeline. This one baffles me. If I want to put something in someone else’s feed, I already have a button for that. That’s a retweet. That’s literally what the retweet feature is there for. I usually see this happen mostly when multiple people like things, so maybe the thought was that 2 likes is, like, mathematically equivalent to a retweet, I guess?
The beautiful thing about the favorite/like mechanic is that it’s a cheap and lightweight way to supply positive feedback to people. By making it so that everything I like might secretly show up in others’ feed without me knowing it completely changes the way I interact with the feature. It’s now no longer lightweight; retweets are a significant act! Likes have now become a “maybe retweet, who knows?” button. Who wants that button? Was that something in demand? The like that was a free, beautiful shot of positive reinforcement has been replaced with the like which is a paranoid act of covert reproduction. Something good has been directly substituted by something bad with no replacement.
It’s clear that every like isn’t treated equally under this scheme, either. The liked tweets that show up in my timeline almost exclusively have images attached. I wonder how many of those people know they put half naked anime girls in my feed. Again. And every time I see one, I can’t help but wonder how many scantily clad anime women I’ve accidentally put in others’ feeds. Maybe that was the goal? Maybe they want me to have that twinge of fear and shame every time I hit that heart button? Somehow I doubt it.
While that’s all bad on its own, the final straw for me came for me when these liked tweets started showing up in my Notifications panel, replete with the “You’ve got new notification” alert that normally comes when one of your own posts has a like, retweet, or reply. This happening was the catalyst for me taking a Twitter vacation. That was the moment that convinced me that, finally, Twitter was no longer the thing I fell in love with.
I’m not proud of it, but I live for that “you’ve got notifications” alert. It’s silly, but it feels amazing when someone likes a funny joke I made or a picture of some bread I baked. It’s cheap validation, but it’s validation, and who doesn’t want that? Then the alert pops up, and actually, no, we lied, no validation, but here’s some other people that are really popular. That’s not only dishonest, it’s a pretty cruel bait and switch. Remember when I called it “a free, beautiful shot of positive reinforcement?” Well, now it also comes with that hint of paranoia that makes me instinctively recoil a bit when I see it. Why would you want do that to your users?
I’ve shipped products that have made exactly this mistake. Let me tell you how this happens. Someone wants to make sure you get at least so many notifications, because data says that if you get them at a certain rate, you engage in some way that Twitter likes. So we have to give users a notification at least that often, right? We’ll just make up some new things to stick in that panel that we can control! But the fact that you can’t trust the notification works against you in two ways: anger every time it lies and isn’t relevant to you, and fear and tension in the time between every alert and finding out what the alert actually is.
This bit is especially offensive because it’s not only manipulative, it’s also lazy. It’s a classic correlation/causation mistake. Users who get a lot of notifications are spending a lot of time on Twitter? Of course they are! They’re clearly very popular! But it’s not the Notification tab itself that’s causing it. It’s the validation that comes along with the notifications. Just putting garbage in the tab isn’t going to work. If you do want to be shady and walk the road of impelling your users like that, you’re going to have to work harder and find a way to fake validation. Oh, that’s hard? Then don’t do it! But definitely don’t take this rather poor half-step. No one, not even Twitter, is served by these crass, trash manipulations.
Inability to truly disable “features”
You can opt out of “show me the best tweets first”, but even with that on, “In Case You Missed It” keeps popping up in my feed, only to go away for a while after I click “Show me less often”, relentlessly reappearing later. I suppose they’re doing what they said they would; the button does say “less often,” but the fact that there’s no way to just turn it off is dumb. It’s pushy and intrusive and it presents itself in a way that seems clear that Twitter knows it. I mark tweets that show up as liked by my follows similarly, but they reappear after just enough time has passed.
This obnoxious dance just makes it incredibly transparent that Twitter doesn’t really care that much how I want to engage with the service, but rather that they only care about how they want me to engage with it. It’s rationally understandable, but it’s frustrating, and furthermore? It’s sad and upsetting. Twitter made something genuinely useful and wonderful, and then, in some ways, just took it away from me. It’s hard not to react with anger and scorn to that alone, but when Twitter continues to push features with an not-exactly-apologetic-but-mildly-diffident “Listen, I know you hate this, but maybe try it again?” presentation, it’s frankly downright offensive.
Breaking the fundamental contract
Earlier in this bit, I said that Twitter’s unique special sauce was its ability to expose you to your network while minimizing your exposure to those outside its network. It’s a nut that no other social network has been able to crack in the same way. A theme you’re going to see throughout these criticisms of Twitter’s changes is going to be the breaking of that contract. I’ve noticed a direct correlation between my satisfaction with Twitter and the instances of people I haven’t followed in my timeline. Correlation isn’t causation, I know, but I think I’m on to something, here.
The allure of engagement
There’s another theme in the list: the desire to increase the time your eyeballs are on Twitter. It’s easy and convenient to demonize this behavior as for the benefit of advertisers. That’s true, but crucially, it isn’t complete. It’s also natural to want to see your service succeed, and I’m sure that the vast majority of people within Twitter genuinely want to bring value into the lives of their users. They want you to be satisfied! And it’s incredibly seductive to quantify that satisfaction in terms of the things you can easily measure. I can’t blame Twitter for evaluating success on things like virality and engagement, but it’s dangerously shortsighted.
I lived through the brief but violent life and death of social games. It swept through the larger umbrella of the video game industry like a hurricane. I watched as hordes of my friends were vacuumed up into the soulless void of places like Zynga, and even did a stint at one of those companies myself. It was awfully depressing at the time, seeing all of these incredibly talented people set to work on games we knew weren’t good, trying our very best to make the best of them. And even from inside the tempest, it seemed obvious to me and many others that minmaxing games for all these easily measured metrics was a short term solution. But we did it anyway, both at the behest of executives who earnestly believed that time spent and quality were tautologically the same, and because as developers, we’re gamers ourselves, and if you give us a set of stats to optimize, you know we’re gonna go in.
Well, that sub-industry crashed, and while many insist on perpetuating the same mistakes across the wider game industry, many have learned that if you want long term success and if you want genuinely happy players that eventually leave your game with fond memories, you can’t rely on simple metrics like play time. Twitter will eventually learn this lesson or it will perish. History tells us it will perish first; Twitter’s a publicly traded company, now, and constant growth is a requirement once you’ve had an IPO. Shareholders won’t be happy unless Twitter can point to numbers that are going up.
I’m sure you can see how these two themes interact. If success is determined by engagement (number of clicks, likes, and retweets), then increasing success means getting more of those. Eventually, you’re going to try and get those by putting tweets in the face of those who don’t want them. And that’s largely why Twitter’s where it’s at, and why I’m thinking of leaving.
What’s to be done about it?
Do we have to stand by and take it? Do we need to let The Rage Vortex and Twitter’s questionable management ruin the service for us? Well, the jury’s out, but here’s what I’m doing on Twitter to salvage my experience.
Turn off “Show the best Tweets first”
Listen, Twitter’s algorithm might be bad, but at least they let us turn it off, sort of.
Use the feedback features that do exist
Every tweet has a “I don’t like this tweet” button. I’m hitting it like mad, lately. I don’t think it does anything, but, hey, at least when chronological delivery inevitably bites the dust, hopefully I’ll already have trained the algorithm well.
There’s also the “Show me less of this” button that shows up on Twitter’s subversive out-of-order features. It’s not a great solution, but it technically does what it says.
Turn off Retweets for people
If you visit anyone’s Twitter profile, there’s a button to turn off retweets from that person. Relentlessly applying this feature has been the biggest single improvement to my timeline since I’ve been back. I can’t recommend it enough.
This doesn’t turn off quoted tweets, but hell, at least your follows have to have something to add to it for you to see it, even if it is just “read this thread” 90% of the time.
It’s unfortunate that this turns off the “good” retweets as well as the bad ones, but, well, you’ve got to evaluate for yourself how much negative refuse you’re going to allow in your feed.
Unfollow some people
You can’t keep up with that many people anyway. Sometimes good people have obnoxious twitter personas. Find new ways to engage with them. I’m not sure what Twitter’s version of Dunbar’s Number is, but there’s got to be some number that facilitates a better level of engagement with those around you.
Support independent social media
Twitter’s missteps are largely frustrating because there’s simply no recourse outside of running away to the next social network and hoping it waits longer before screwing over its users. But there’s no reason we have to keep putting our faith in these companies that create a service first and figure out how to make it survive at our detriment second.
Listen, I’m not sure the Mastodon experiment will work out, but we need something like it. An open source, federated social network means there’s no central place that bad decisions can be made. If I’m on an instance and I don’t like something they’ve done, I can move to another instance, and crucially, I can do it without convincing all my friends to move. I can still just follow them on whatever instances they’re still on. And it leaves room for instances to experiment without putting its users in a place where they have no alternative. One instance can try ads, and another subscription fees. And if all else fails, you can run your own instance. Let’s try some things. Let’s figure out how to make this work.
Looking to the future
Our relationship with social media providers isn’t healthy. Furthermore, our culture isn’t healthy right now. A lot of my interactions online are doing more damage instead of helping to repair things, and I’m hearing the same from many of the people I care about. But for many of us, social media has proven to be a really valuable contributor in our lives. It’s not without a significant number of negative elements, sure, but the fact that we stick with Twitter and Facebook despite all the rot that they put in our faces just proves that it’s filling some niche in our lives, and I think that niche is worth fighting for. I’ve covered the strategies I’m employing, but it’s just scratching the surface. I’m really curious to hear what you all have got in mind.