I typically don’t care for the financial side of the tech industry. As long as the companies I patronize make enough money to keep making the products and running the services I use every day, the specifics of the profits and loss statements for the quarter don’t matter to me. Let alone the damn stock price. Maybe if I had enough money to play the markets, that would change, but it’s doubtful.
But one company did announce earnings yesterday that caught my attention—Twitter. Their revenue is down, their monthly active users have plateaued, and their stock price has responded in kind.
Is this a surprise to anyone? Twitter’s revenue is dependent on advertisers, and user growth is dependent on a positive view of the company. Right now, Twitter has a whole lot of neither, right now, owing in no small part to Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones’s very public experience with abuse on Twitter. This itself is just another example of the endless harassment problem on Twitter that first blew up with GamerGate, but goes back far longer than that.
What advertiser would sign on to have their message run on a network that has the valid perception of being loaded with abuse and harassment? Even Twitter’s in-house solution for its users to buy promotion on the platform has no abuse oversight. Early on, noted neo-Nazi troll weev managed to get a white supremacist message into a promoted tweet. After opening the account verification process to users, a phishing scam managed to get a promoted tweet through. At least it’s not just abusers Twitter doesn’t care about.
Sarah Jeong, in her excellent book The Internet of Garbage, made a point that resonates hard in the recent Twitter news:
When people are invested in the community, the community will police and enforce norms, but when unrepentant bad actors are never banished or are able to reproduce their presence at an alarming rate (sockpuppeting), community trust and investment will evaporate.
I don’t trust Twitter, and a growing number of people in my timeline feel the same way. And there’s no shortage of people posting ways in which Twitter can improve. It’s practically a cottage industry. So far, after two years of promises, Twitter has barely made even the tiniest dent in the problem, and I’m counting banning Milo as part of that.
We haven’t up and left yet, but I’ve seen grumblings. I created a new account on App.Net, not because I’m worried Twitter is going to go under or get bought out… just to get ahead of the exodus if it happens again.
What has happened is advertisers are showing they want nothing to do with Twitter’s nonsense. Without new users and without advertisers, Twitter is dead in the water. And nobody is likely to pay for a moribund service with an abuse problem and declining revenues. Well, maybe Verizon.
Maybe, just maybe, a crashing stock price combined with the bad press over Leslie Jones’s harassment will be enough to either get Jack Dorsey to make fixing Twitter’s harassment problem a priority. I have my doubts. At this point, the apathy and disdain for dealing with abuse at Twitter is embedded in the culture.
Those in the community around preventing online abuse who have connections at Twitter say there are people there who do carer and are working hard. I don’t doubt it. I just doubt the ability of Twitter’s corporate bureaucracy to let them do their work and make the changes so desperately needed to make Twitter a useful platform again.
I want to be proven wrong. And so do many, many other Twitter users.
I want you to imagine you’re at a party. Not a great party, more like one of those dull work parties, where nobody is really thrilled to be there, but attendance is mandatory. And imagine, if you will, someone saunters in and takes a gigantic dump in the punchbowl.
What would you do? What do you do?
Bringing it up with a manager seems like a safe bet. So you tell the person in charge of the party that someone took a shit in the punchbowl. “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” they say. “We’ll get someone to take a look.”
So the party continues, with a big turd floating in the punchbowl. Occasionally, someone tries to get punch, ignorant of the turd, and is stopped by someone with enough sense to know you don’t drink from a turd-filled punchbowl. The conversation at the party shifts from work mundanity to why there’s a turd in the punchbowl, who shat it, and why nobody’s done anything about it.
“Yeah,” says Dawn in accounting, “I brought it up with the Office Manager an hour ago, and it’s still there.”
Now, it turns out, this party is actually being sponsored by one of your company’s clients. So, when the client’s guy shows up and sees the turd-loaded punchbowl, what happens then? They technically paid for that punch that nobody can drink.
Suddenly, now it’s important. Nobody at the party can drink the punch, the entire vibe is ruined, and nobody’s happy—but because someone with a financial stake in having drinkable punch raised the issue, now someone’s motivated to address it.
Any similarity to the above story to recent events involving a certain right-wing provocateur—by which I mean serial harasser—on Twitter, is far from coincidental.
It’s incumbent upon any organization that tries to be a space for social interactions online, that they both acknowledge someone’s going to try and take a shit in the punchbowl. It’s human nature. Someone’s always going to try to ruin the fun for everyone else. When this happens, you can’t just stand aside, tsk, and then fall back on some vague platitudes on “free expression,” or whatnot. Instead, you remove the turd, you dump out the punch, you clean the bowl—or just replace it completely—and kick the punchbowl pooper out of the party.
And that last step is not censorship. If someone shat in the punchbowl because they didn’t like the punch, didn’t like the party, or didn’t like the company running the party, it doesn’t matter. There’s better, politer, more constructive, and less disgusting ways to express your dissent. Ways that don’t ruin the party for everyone else, that don’t risk making everyone sick, and might actually make things better.
Let’s dispense with the metaphors for a bit.
Internet trolls and abusers love to make a false equivalency between their targeted campaigns of hate and simply “disagreeing” with what their victim is saying. This is absurd on the face of it, but I’ll explain why in a bit more detail that is inevitably going to read a bit like a Monty Python sketch.
Disagreement is an intellectual process, wherein you express a contrary view to someone and present evidence and reasoning to back it up. Harassment and abuse is insulting, threatening, and hounding a person with repetitive comments—even if those are attached to a valid disagreement.
To put it another way, disagreement is saying “I don’t agree, because of x, y, and z.” Harassment and abuse is saying “I don’t agree, because of x, y, and I will murder you and your family because of it.” The former of these is protected speech. The latter is a criminal threat, but good luck getting it prosecuted in a court of law.
And, while we’re on the subject, nobody online is obligated to get into a debate with you if you disagree. Even if you’re polite about it. Someone’s refusal to debate you is not even close to the same thing as being harassed or abused yourself.
As long as the trolls have free reign to shit in the punchbowl, everyone else is going to have a very unpleasant experience on Twitter. By banning one of the service’s serial punchbowl poopers, they’ve at least taken a major step in showing they care, just a little bit, about having punch that’s free of turds for all of us to enjoy.
My suspicion is, however, that they only care because the punch was paid for by someone who needs to have Milo’s latest victim using Twitter as part of the promotional strategy for the new Ghostbusters. Only by threatening Twitter’s ad revenue could Jack and his team decide that enough was enough, and give Milo a long overdue push out the door.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he’s gone. I just don’t have much hope that Twitter’s going to do much to prevent anyone else from shitting in the punchbowl. I hope I get proven wrong.
A couple of years ago, in a fit of pique and a desire to clean up my data trails, I nuked my LinkedIn account. I wasn’t using it, I never liked the company, and it felt like another leech on my mind. I had recently started a new job after a year working for a Fintech startup that required a LinkedIn account—it was the major method we used for social sign-on—so that made me doubly interested in nuking it. All was fine with my LinkedIn-free existence, until I started to get restless, and look for another job.
Interviewing at a Redacted Consumer Technology Blog for a Social Media Coordinator role went well… until I was asked about my lack of a LinkedIn profile. It looks really bad for someone who is ostensibly a Social Media-slash-Community Manager person not to have a profile on the Largest Professional Networking site or whatnot. After I got home, I scrambled to put together a new LinkedIn profile, though not without grumbling as I did so. Once I had some connections and a profile, my job search turned around almost immediately, though I didn’t get the job with the Blog.
It’s getting harder and harder to opt-out of services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google. We can choose not to use them, in much the same way that we can choose not to have indoor plumbing, but it won’t be easy or comfortable. When the vast majority of my friends and family use Facebook as their primary method of communication, what is the alternative? I am not going to be able to drag all my friends with me to a competing platform I can trust, assuming there is one. Most of them don’t know about the alternatives, and even if they did, odds are they don’t give a damn. And why should they? The privacy and security minded among us have been raising a fuss for nearly a decade now without much effect.
We claim “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” It’s true. Social media companies make their money by collecting our personal data, chopping it up, and selling the resulting sausage to advertisers with barely a token amount of obfuscation. It doesn’t make a dent. People are more afraid of hackers than they are of the companies that have access to their data. It’s only a matter of time before someone cleverly social-engineers their way into Facebook or Google’s database and gets away with a chunk of user data that will be disseminated over the Dark Web. It will be a dark day for the Internet, especially if they also get away with data on the profiles these companies have collected upon us. I just hope Have I Been Pwned? is using some heavy-duty caching when it happens.
So everyone stays on these services, and people like me would would prefer not to are caught up in the web of social obligation that these companies depend on. Because of this, I can’t just pull a Louis C.K. and quit the Internet. They’ve become the de facto plumbing of the Internet, and how do you opt-out of plumbing? At least there’s reasonable alternatives to most Google services—the majority of my searches go through DuckDuckGo these days—but as mentioned before, any alternative to the social plumbing online is either just as bad, worse, or so obscure as to be useless. How many of your Facebook friends are on Diaspora? Who is still posting to App.Net?
When does it become easier to just give in to corporate surveillance and the misery of tracking and ads if you want to keep in touch with the people in your life that you care about? When does it become worth giving in if you want your existence to be known for a career, for your art, for anything?
If I had the answer, I wouldn’t be writing this.
I recently had a discussion with Zac Cichy on the benefits of third-party Twitter clients. It was enlightening, since it became apparent that both of us use Twitter in very different ways. One reason why I use Tweetbot and Nuzzel for Twitter is because I want two different Twitter experiences: a social experience, and an informational experience—and I want them separated. Zac wants a combined experience that surfaces the best content. I don’t trust Twitter to do that right, and prefer to miss out rather than get irrelevant info. Then again, I don’t trust anyone to get that right.
That there’s no one way to use Twitter is the core of Twitter’s problem, and also the solution. In a world where Facebook dominates social with a one-size-fits-all platform, a flexible and extensible platform is a harder sell to investors. If Twitter decides to embrace it instead of becoming more like Facebook, however, it will completely upend the way we do social media. Imagine, if you will, a Twitter that worked like plumbing to a robust ecosystem of apps that slice and dice your feed into useful information. Twitter could be the back-end to a news aggregation service, a chat room, a way to share media, and more all depending on the apps you hook into it.
If this sounds a bit like the App.Net elevator pitch, you’re right. App.Net, though roundly viewed as a Twitter clone with an entry fee and longer posts, was supposed to be a platform for social apps. This didn’t work, and it was largely because the public image of App.Net ended up myopically tied to the paid Twitter clone part. The rest was because the interesting apps to leverage the network never really materialized. Just look at the App.Net Directory. I recall a Foursquare clone, an Instagram clone, a notes app, a file sharing app, and several Twitter-like clients, but all were hampered by ADN’s poor reach. Fortunately, if there’s one thing Twitter has, it’s reach. Twitter is where stuff happens, where people communicate—even if those people are often celebrities or presidential candidates.
To make this work, Twitter needs to rethink the basic experience of the platform, though it won’t be all that dramatic of a rethink. The current, out-of-the-box, Twitter experience sucks. It sucks for new users, it sucks for power users, and it sucks in a lot of the same ways for both. For new users, Twitter is confusing. Not just in terms of terminology, but in how to get the most value out of it. They’re the ones who would benefit most from a robust app ecosystem. If a new Twitter user wants news, peeks into celebrity lives, or just to gossip with friends. Power users need a more flexible platform and APIs to both make the apps and use their feed in better ways.
Twitter’s first-party web and mobile apps need to become gateways to different ways to get more out of Twitter. They could cram all of these ideas into the main app, in much the same way they’ve crammed Moments in, but that doesn’t solve the problem. Instead, Twitter should focus on four core apps, and let third-party developers do the rest. Those apps are:
This is the existing Twitter app: a straight chronological firehose of tweets, possibly with optional algorithmic surfacing of content you missed. The focus of Timeline is on the “core” Twitter functionality of Follow, Post, Share, and Favorite. Timeline would also serve as the gateway to Twitter’s other app offerings, first- and third-party alike. If a user starts following news sites, push Twitter News as a way to get more and better news. Did they import their Facebook friends? Twitter Chat.
Why this doesn’t exist yet, I simply cannot imagine. If there is one app Twitter desperately needs to make, it’s a private messaging app. Twitter’s Direct Messaging feature is one of its strongest assets, and they recently rolled out group messaging. A chat app would also give people who are worried about posting publicly a way to use Twitter socially without the risk of being mobbed. Chats could also have the option to be semi-private, allowing for jump ons, while keeping it segregated from the main timeline.
A lot of people use Twitter for news, so Twitter should have a content consumption app with a focus on links and media. (Pro Tip: if a Twitter executive is reading this, buy Nuzzel and you’re halfway there.) Twitter News would both surface links of interest shared in your timeline, by friends of friends (another Nuzzel feature), or from curated lists based on topics. Users can either follow those curated lists, or build their own based on news services they prefer.
Somewhere between Vine and Periscope, Twitter Video would let you post, share, and stream video. A similar app might be good for photos, but Instagram has that market locked up. I won’t say Twitter shouldn’t try, but I think they have a better shot at Video, building on the success of Vine and Periscope. Twitter Video can also feed into Twitter News to aid in citizen journalism: a user can go from a live, amateur stream of an event, to Twitter News for the official story, and back.
Third-party developers could pick up from here, though as long as we’re entertaining fancy, I would love a Twitter Music app. (Yes, they had one before, but it sucked.) A good Twitter Music app would let me follow the bands and musicians I adore, and keep me up to date with upcoming shows, new releases, and general band gossip. You know, like Apple Music Connect, except not terrible.
Another useful idea: Twitter Local—aggregating local Tweets and trends so you can see what’s going on nearby. Something I miss, dearly, from the early days of Twitter, was being able to see who near me was tweeting, especially if something was going on in my neighborhood, like cops swarming an intersection. How about CelebriTwitter: an app just for following celebrities? A Twitter dating app? A Twitter app for finding out what events are going on nearby? With a robust API and enough exposed data—most of which already exists, the possibilities are almost limitless, and it might not even be all that hard to monetize it.
These ideas alone won’t make Twitter not suck. There’s no shortage of low-hanging fruit Twitter can knock off to improve the existing experience. Hell, I’d probably switch from Tweetbot to the official Twitter client in two heartbeats if they just provided a goddamn Edit button for when I make a stupid typo in a Tweet. Twitter needs to embrace the fundamental flexibility of its platform. It’ll be a much harder sell to investors than simply copying Facebook, but the potential payoff could be huge.
I love Little Voices to get a peaceful Twitter experience. I don’t love that I can only get it on my iPhone. I check Twitter on all my devices, and going from the quiet feed of Little Voices to the chaos of my standard feed is counter-productive. If only there was a way to get at least some of the Little Voices experience on my other devices…
Oh, wait. There is: Tweetbot. Specifically, Tweetbot’s mute filters.
Tweetbot’s mute filters are insanely powerful, and can mute keywords, clients, and even with regular expressions. I set up three filters to approximate the Little Voices experience in Tweetbot. Here they are:
This regular expression mutes all tweets that start with an @-reply. A lot of the people I follow also follow each other, which is fine, but I don’t need to see everyone’s conversations in my timeline. If someone wants to @-reply me, though, I still see it in Tweetbot’s replies tab, though.
This one just blocks links. I’m using Nuzzel to see what links are being shared in my timeline. Nuzzel isn’t perfect, but it helps me to separate the social aspect of Twitter from the news gathering aspect.
My last mute filter blocks quoted tweets. I like the Quoted Tweet feature to add context to links, but it’s increasingly just snark and other noise. Hiding them feels much calmer and relaxing when I check the feed in Tweetbot. It also hides images and video posted through Twitter, which is most. I might add additional filters to hide other images, but I think the link filter above should cover that.
The only thing I can’t do with Mute Filters that Little Voices does is hide retweets. That has to be done on an account-by-account basis. Fortunately, in Tweetbot you can easily turn off retweets by long tapping on a user’s profile picture in your timeline and hitting “Disable Retweets.” I’m not going to disable retweets from everyone, anyway, RTs are a great way to puncture my filter bubble. I’ll just turn them off from people who don’t really add much to my timeline.
With just a couple of simple filters, I’ve made my Twitter experience much nicer. Plus, since Tweetbot mute filters sync between devices, I get the same, peaceful experience across every device I use to read Twitter. For any of you who feel overwhelmed by their social media feeds, consider throwing down for Tweetbot, and taking control with filtering. You might want to keep links in, or media, or whatever brings you joy. Don’t just take the firehose, or let an algorithm decide what you should and should not see.