A little while ago I read an article from WIRED about harassment, negativity and abuse on social media platforms. It focused on Twitter, for all its faults my favourite platform by a distance.
Twitter is toxic. It’s toxic in little ways that damage discourse and big ways that poison culture. It is deeply flawed, undeniably problematic and outright dangerous.
Bots are bots. That’s a known and documented issue and one that ebbs and flows as Twitter catches up with one farm and misses the next. But the experience of using Twitter isn’t ruined by bots. It’s ruined by dickheads.
In her WIRED piece, academic Katherine Cross examines Twitter’s toxicity as a function of stratified harassment campaigns. According to her research, these ‘campaigns’ flourish because social media platforms are designed to “cultivate almost automatically” the crowdsourcing, organisation and longevity they require.
It is not – so the headline goes – your fault you’re a jerk on Twitter.
“The problem isn’t that Twitter’s users are toxic,” writes Cross. “It’s that the platform makes toxicity the path of least resistance, and turns even intentionally positive commentary into just more fuel for the fire.”
In other words, Twitter is designed in such a way that behaviours related to negativity and harassment are all but inevitable. Even defensive and well-intentioned actions fan the flames; regular Twitter users with a keen eye for critical quote-tweets of trolls, provocateurs and scumbags will recognise the principle.
That’s not to let the dickheads off. Reflecting on road design in the Netherlands and the USA, Cross suggests that, “social media is designed in a way that agitates, rather than calms, its traffic,” but, for me, the responsibility remains with the user as well as the platform.
There’s plenty of blame to share between the two. At the intersection between dickhead user and malevolent platform lies the issue at the heart of the Twitter experience.
Several times a week, I see a headline that begins with the phrase “Twitter is testing” – it’s testing, alright – and the breakneck rate of innovation is impressive. Tweaks happen every day. New features pop up in this market and that, some making the grade, others going the way of Fleets, others still not even making it that far.
This year alone, Twitter has made significant developments to the platform in order to strengthen some key products and features in its arsenal of tomorrow, most notably in service of monetisation, premium users and audio. Blue and Spaces are just a couple of the features bolstered and tweaked already in 2022. The list is huge.
But the single killer feature Twitter is missing, the one thing it’s running out of time to resolve for its genuine users?
Being useable. That’s all. Just being a social media space where social outranks media and the space isn’t a cesspit.
Twitter ads are a necessary evil on the platform, but evil is not. Everywhere I turn there’s a Nazi or a bot. Sponsored tweets need some work, to put it charitably, littered as they are with questionable targeting and bizarre content. From luxury lifestyle to dodgy cryptocurrency recruitment to simple tweets from nobodies with no call to action, there are advertisers throwing money away and the user experience diminishes further with every one.
Like the enormo-brains behind any social media platform, Twitter’s geniuses like to tinker. They’ve dedicated a lot of time to pissing about with the Home/Latest Tweets toggle, which allows users to switch between the timeline format everyone prefers and an alternative that nobody wants. Sooner or later they’ll take the former away again.
One gets the sense that Twitter – again, not unlike the other platforms – would benefit greatly from a better understanding of its users and grasping simple truths like the fact that clicking ‘Show me less of this’ isn’t an act of timeline fine-tuning but the only choice we have in the absence of an ‘I didn’t ask to see these tweets so stop fucking showing them to me’ option.
And, yes, Twitter is a cesspit. I can only speak from my own experience, which means a snapshot of Twitter use as a football enthusiast. That’s now dominated by the parasitic and anticultural phenomenon known as ‘Football Twitter’.
In the early days of Twitter, the football conversation boomed. Optimistic or pessimistic, united or adversarial, it was always lively and – save for the onset of clickbait – it was generally relevant. It enhanced the football experience.
Now, every football conversation almost without exception is soiled and sullied by these feckless little charmers churning their copy-paste nonsense and humourless irono-banter at a rate the Prime Minister would look upon with envy. It’s just a noise. It’s gone. Dead. Wholly and irrevocably unuseable.
I make no apologies for sounding like a bitter old fart when I admit that I wish Twitter could find its way back to what it was good at ten or more years ago, when it helped build my career and introduced me to many friends, albeit necessarily on a Big Tech scale compared to those first five years.
That’s fundamentally impossible, of course, but it’s nice to dream. As a guiding principle for the platform and the positive actors among its decision-makers, just focusing on making it somewhat useable seems like a decent place to begin.
If I knew how to get there I’d be a very rich man but it’s clear that action is needed. We need more reporting options and a more robust report-and-appeal process to help weed out trolling and social sabotage. We need real, firm and swift consequences for racisms and threats, not mealy-mouthed and arbitrary decisions based on who knows what.
As for Football Twitter and its sister movements elsewhere in global culture, we need some way to address the dickheads. They might be spoiling the platform within its guidelines, but they’re still spoiling it.
Solving that isn’t my problem. If it becomes too much, I can leave. If what I get from Twitter is outweighed by soul-sapping tedium – and I have to work harder and harder for that to be the case – I’ll be off. I won’t be alone. That’s Twitter’s problem.
If Twitter fails to address the irritants and issues faced by normal, right-thinking, positive, human users, its concerns will be bigger than needing to build subscription models and tip jars or compete with Clubhouse. If the early adopters and advocates of the platform jump ship en masse, Twitter might never emerge from the swamp that will, finally, swallow it whole.