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Twitter Headquarters on Market Steet in San Francisco, California. (credit: InFootage / Shutterstock.com)

Twitter+

Some unsolicited—and probably unwelcome—advice on where Twitter should go from here.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Mark Twain’s life did not overlap Twitter’s by nearly a century, but he still managed to provide the single best commentary of what Twitter is, and should continue to be. Brevity is Twitter’s essence and that should never change. Any idea which takes more than 280 characters clearly needs more work, a modern day Twain might have said. Twitter’s enforced brevity is not a constraint. It’s liberation. Forcing my verbose, disorganized thoughts into 50 words or less makes them better, not worse.

Apart from that one thing, however, almost everything else about Twitter needs to change.

If you want to see people at their absolute worst, give them anonymity. Add the cover of others who are similarly anonymous, assemble them into a tribe, fuel them with a little anger and you have the only ingredients necessary for certain disaster. Examine the worst examples of humans’ atrocious behaviour toward others and you won’t have to look far to find a relatively normal society turned monstrous in the form of a faceless, angry mob. Their anonymity prevents any notion of accountability. The gravitational pull of social norms no longer applies and chaos is the result.

This is essentially where Twitter is today.

So—no more anonymous participation in the Twitterverse. Yep, you heard that right. No more clever handles, cute nicknames or ‘parody’ accounts. We will all know who you are and, in a broad sense, where you live. Everybody has a blue ‘verified’ badge. If, for whatever reason, a prospective user can’t meet that still relatively low bar, then they are not welcome to tweet. It’s just that simple.

To resource the massive effort which will be required to establish this one-to-one mapping of accounts to actual, identifiable human beings, Twitter would take all the resources currently doing content moderation and shift them over to account verification.

The sudden shutdown of Twitter’s moderation department, such as it is, won’t matter much. Twitter, along with most other social networks, has a near perfect track record of abysmal failure in content moderation. That’s not really their fault, though. The leaders of these social networks are spectacularly unqualified to determine what content belongs on their platforms and what doesn’t. Getting mad at them for an objectionable video or for messing with elections is like getting mad at the plumbers when the leaky faucet you called them to fix flows fluoridated water. Or doesn’t, depending on which side of that thorny issue you stand. What makes more sense is to have the only slightly less unqualified city council wrestle with whether we fluoridate or not. In that regard we can focus our fury, or delight, on them which is where it should be.

Instead of content moderation on Twitter, there would simply be radical accountability for what is tweeted by the person who tweeted it. There are already plenty of laws which protect or limit free speech which can be mapped through the platform to the individual who is the source of that speech. That person will then bear 100% of the responsibility for what they say. They will enjoy free speech protections already on the books. They will also be limited by statutes on hate speech and other content society—through a political process—has deemed unacceptable. Violating any of these laws either on a sheet of paper, at Speakers’ Corner or on Twitter makes not one wit of difference in how they are handled and the attendant consequences.

If I were Jack Dorsey, I would be running towards this imaginary future as fast as possible rather than continuing to fight a hopeless, ultimately losing battle to be anything more than the plumber.

Hashtags have got to go. Well, maybe not all of them, but most of them and the ones left still need to change. There should be no more than, say, three per tweet as a rigidly enforced limitation. Their scarcity means you will actually have to think about them a little. I even see these vestigial hashtags being shifted out of the 280 character budget similar to the way images were a while back. Then, everyone will finally realize the ‘#’ character actually serves no useful purpose other than provide even more visual clutter. The new ‘hashtags’—just plain old tags is what they really are—should be given their own screen real estate, separate from the main text. While Twitter’s software engineers have their patient open, they might as well soup up the ability to find and re-use existing tags, emphasizing that over creating new ones. This is so tags actually return to what was intended in the original design of Twitter—categorize content so it forms part of a broader conversation on a given subject.

“But wait a sec,” you might say, “don’t hashtags allow me to ‘discover’ tweets I might not otherwise have seen?” Back when Twitter was starting out, and computing resources were somewhat constrained, indexing algorithms would have required the specific identification of the words to include in the index, which is what the ‘#’ character prefix did. But technology has caught up and overtaken this original concept. Every meaningful word in a tweet is now indexed just like it is in Google. Doubters can prove this to themselves by going to the search box in Twitter and type in whatever search terms they want. They can do so without the slightest regard for whether these terms are hashtags or not. The search will still return the best results even if the search terms are found in the non-hashtag text. In that case, what’s the hashtag actually doing?

Hashtags are also pretty easy to abuse, in at least a few ways, all of which make Twitter less useful. The first is when the tweeter uses certain hashtags solely to attract impressions as opposed to accurately reflecting the tweet’s content. This does nothing but contaminate the pool of tweets for which the hashtag does accurately describe the tweet’s content. The second form of abuse is to make more-or-less every word a hashtag. This is a waste of time because, evidently, it’s the way the Twitter index is already working. The third form of abuse is the hashtag chosen for its uniqueness, rather than it’s ability to broadly categorize. Something like #MarksLousyBBQ, for example, and often added at the end of a tweet as a punchline. It may deliver comedically, but otherwise serves absolutely no purpose other than, maybe, highlight the text in a contrasting colour and making it ‘clickable’.

Promoted tweets, similar to hashtags, also have to be thrown over Twitter’s transom. Allowing Twitter users to buy their way into any feed any time they want degrades the quality of these feeds. Furthermore, Twitter inserting a promoted tweet into your feed is a zero sum game: it’s in their best interest to squeeze in as many as they can because the more they do, the more money they make. On the other side of the ledger, the more they clutter up your feed with what is just advertising by another name, the more your experience of Twitter is degraded. Twitter is betting that it won’t be so miserable an experience you end up reducing your use of Twitter or—horrors!—quitting the platform altogether. So long as Twitter remains one baby step back from these precipitous cliffs, they make money. Lots of it.

However, there is a more subtle, more broadly experienced and more pernicious impact of promoted tweets. This is the ability to tilt public opinion based on how much money you are willing to spend. It’s yet another opportunity for those who have, to shout louder over those who have not, regardless of the merit of the shouter’s ideas. That’s not inherently wrong, but it relegates Twitter to being another version of traditional broadcast media rather than the interactive, playing-field-levelling platform it was originally intended to be.

To illustrate, let’s look at both ends of the spectrum:

At one end there is, candidly, a guy like me. I have exactly zero dollars available for promoted tweets. The only way my tweets are going to show up in your feed is either for you to voluntarily follow me, or for the content of my tweet to satisfy the search criteria you specify, regardless of whether you follow me or not. In other words, my tweets show up because you choose to opt-in to my scintillating feed or where what I’m saying is of sufficient interest to you. In either case, what’s important is that you are in control, not me. I have to earn the impression from you and that’s really, really hard.

At the other end of the spectrum are individuals or organizations who do have money to spend on promoted tweets. In some cases, tons of it. A well-funded political action committee, for example, can buy their way into the Twitter feed of just about everybody who’s even vaguely related to their target demographic. The person or organization spending the money is in control, not you. They didn’t earn your attention. They bought it. Without your consent.

It makes Twitter kind of like politics in a broader sense. Until such time you get the big money out of it, it’s corruptible by that money. Similarly, until you get the big money out of Twitter—for promoted tweets, at least—it, too, is corruptible.

This is likely the point where you think I have either totally taken leave of my senses or fundamentally don’t understand how Twitter makes money. Or both. I’m pretty sure the former isn’t the case—at least not quite yet—and I am well aware promoted tweets are at the core of Twitter’s revenue model. For the moment, at least, I’m going to ignore that fact.

I am not naïve. There is not a chance in hell Twitter is going to adopt any of these ideas. Not now, certainly, and probably not ever. The status quo has just too much money being made by too many people. If the hallmark of Twitter’s core brand is brevity, however, there may be some wiggle room in that for a sub-brand which I will call Twitter+.

First, Twitter+ will be strictly opt-in. If you want to convert your account, you must first agree to the principle of radical accountability—to take responsibility for what you say. Just like in real life. You would know, going in, if you violate the laws of the jurisdiction in which you live, you will be afforded no protection by the platform. If you can’t live with that, don’t join.

You will also be OK with limiting yourself to the restrictive new content tagging system. What you lose in your ability to jauntily express your ideas with the old hashtags will be compensated by having content categorization which is actually useful for something. When you filter by tag, you will have a fighting chance the tweets which contain that tag are on point.

Finally—and this is the big one—you would be willing to pay a subscription fee. This would be the sole source of revenue for Twitter+. Let’s start with a buck a month for the basic service, paid monthly, cancel anytime. Would you be willing to pay that to know you’re not dealing with some bot churning out clickbait tweets by the thousands? To never see another promoted tweet again? To know it’s actually a fair fight in the battle for the best idea? To know you’re not a unwitting participant in the willful destruction of democracy?

Would you pay that subscription fee if, at some point, you could filter out all the old style Twitter accounts, en masse, because the signal-to-noise ratio is just so unbearably low.

I certainly would. Would you?

©2019 Terence C. Gannon

Thank you so much for reading. You can also listen to this essay as an episode of the Not There Yet podcast, read by the author. Also you can find me on Twitter, of course, awaiting the arrival of Twitter+ and patiently earning the occasional like, retweet and new follower.

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Not There Yet.

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