How Twitter builds villains, and how to fix it.
Products don't exist in a vacuum. The things we build and the people who use them can interact with the wider world in unexpected ways.
Katie Hopkins no longer has a Twitter account, and this makes people happy even as it poses a problem. A villain has been vanquished, the heroes have won the day, but can the show survive in the absence of a great antagonist? “It's nuts,” observed Jim Waterson, “how much the outrage-click-industrial-complex relies on people like Katie Hopkins having a Twitter account.”
Twitter has become synonymous with drama in a way that’s both deeply boring and utterly fascinating. It’s boring because the output of even some of the soundest thinkers has devolved into a sort of noxious bilge-water of half-baked thoughts and paranoid exclamations. Little of interest or import can be said about the second-hand theories of a shouty man with a hashtag in his bio.
It’s fascinating because of the dynamics of how this came to be. How did the bright new ‘microblogging’ platform of the noughts become so fraught? Did Twitter create this problem, or did the problem happen to Twitter? Is this the failing of a product, or the wider ecosystem it inhabits?
Let’s start with Twitter itself. Launched at the tail-end of the SMS era, ‘Twttr’, as it was almost known, offered a generation who grew up texting their friends the opportunity to text… anyone. You could broadcast inane status updates about your day to the entire world, and talk to - or more appropriately, ‘at’ - everyone from Beyonce to the Pope. It was so unlike anything else that existed that a new term had to be invented. “Microblogging,” explained one paper, “fulﬁlls a need for an even faster mode of communication [than blogging]. By encouraging shorter posts, it lowers users’ requirement of time and thought investment for content generation.”
What could possibly go wrong?
In the early days, around the time of SXSW 2007, Twitter looked a bit like a village notice board, a cosy space for a few thousand like-minded tech nerds to keep up with their community. But then it grew… rapidly. What worked for tens of thousands of users started to fall apart for millions. Meaningful connections became harder to establish in an endless sea of human noise pollution.
To counter this, Twitter’s users began inventing their own new features, many of which were then adopted by developers and integrated natively into the platform. Quartz have a fantastic article-slash-museum-exhibit tracing their development of some of these, which include the mention/reply, hashtags, retweets, quote-tweets, and lists. It’s striking that all of these features share one common purpose: creating the maximum possible amplification for the minimum possible effort. Does typing a few characters take too much thought and effort? Just spam the RT button.
These features seem so inevitable now that we rarely question them - we accept them as part of the fundamental fabric of the universe. But in hindsight, they were the equivalent of walking into a noisy bar, and handing every person a megaphone to help them be heard over the din.
In a global context, where a tweet might reach thousands or millions of people, the experience simply doesn’t scale. People began to mass and move in gigantic waves across the network. Random comments and conversations enter the timelines of completely unintended, often hostile audiences - a phenomenon known as context collapse. At best, a retweet from somebody with a hundred thousand followers can render the site unusable for a day - an unparseable wall of noise. At worst, it can result in incidents like the infamous mobbing of Justine Sacco.
And then came the news.
As Twitter expanded, journalists, editors and news influencers saw its potential as a place to discover and share interesting news. The impact of Twitter on news reporting is a discussion for another time, but what’s important here is that, like the observer in a quantum physics experiment, these journalists unwittingly changed the nature of the product they were watching.
It became possible, for the first time, for someone to be ‘discovered’ by this audience, to find book deals, talk to celebrity followers, get invited on radio or television, as long as they could get their tweets in front of the right people. If the growth of Twitter led to an attention arms race, the involvement of mainstream media was like hurling lightsabers into a brawl at a Star Wars convention.
The result has become an exhausting cacophony of demands for our attention, where people are incentivised to be as melodramatic, controversial, outrageous or offensive as possible in the quest to be noticed. Every day is a fresh apocalypse, every issue a matter of life and death. Suggestions are posed as demands: we must address this issue, we must tackle this injustice, we must care about all things all of the time. A cycle of unproductive anger and outrage with little benefit to the wider world, whose only real function is to generate engagement with content.
News websites live or die by their audiences, and editors quickly learned how to harness this drama for profit, monetising every stage of the outrage-click lifecycle. Every good drama needs a villain to provide fuel for this outrage, and that is the role that people like Hopkins and Milo Yiannopoulos played perfectly. They posted their nonsense, and thousands of enraged people obediently retweeted and shared their content across social media.
Editors and producers picked up on the ‘interest’ and published new articles about the villains, or provided them with platforms on TV and radio, attracting even more clicks and views from the haters. Successful villains could build entire careers, even business empires, generating big bucks for engagement-hungry media companies, all thanks to the willing participation of people happy to feed the trolls.
It’s easy to point the finger at Twitter or mainstream media, and both of those groups deserve criticism, but this is also a problem of user behaviour… of our behaviour.
I’ve started unfriending people who spend day after day posting endless miserable stories about bad people are ruining the world. You doubtless have friends like these: “OMG this is APPALLING,” they shout, or “They’re going to kill THOUSANDS of people with this,” or “Look what Trump has DONE!” Do you ever wonder what they’re trying to achieve with this barrage of misery?
If you’re one of those people, this may sound callous. It’s not that I don’t care about these issues, but I neither want nor need my timeline to be filled with upsetting demands for me to get angry. I’ve seen the news. I don’t need to be constantly reminded about it in every waking moment, especially if I’m affected by it. You’re not making your friends aware of anything we don’t know. You’re not inspiring action or making the world a better place. Your one-dimensional comments provide no useful insight. There is no catharsis to be found in this activity, or you wouldn’t be compelled to keep doing it hour after hour.
You come across like an unhappy person, addicted to the ongoing drama, trying to make your friends and acquaintances feel the same crappy way that you do… which is a pretty dick move. At some point the energy you put into the universe is the energy you get back from it. If your output on social media is an endless procession of anger and unhappiness, calculated to upset the people you love, then it seems like your relationship with the universe is pretty unhealthy. For my own mental health, I’d rather not be a part of that. Sorry.
The same goes for the many, many people who have amplified voices like Katie Hopkins. People who chose to broadcast noxious racist content into the timelines of their friends without using a shred of emotional intelligence to question whether this is actually useful or helpful, or just pointlessly upsetting people while pouring attention on a troll. The world does not need you to tell us about awful people saying dumb things - we were quite happy ignoring them, before you helped them get a TV gig and a slot on LBC.
So let’s imagine you’re in charge of Twitter, and you’re faced with this complex problem, this disorder of your ecosystem. What would you do to solve the problem? Sadly, I’ve run out of my allocation of words for this post, but I’ll be posting part two of this essay in the next week, taking a more positive look at how social media could be improved. If you’d like to know when it appears, please click the link below to subscribe!
In the meantime, how would you deal with this mess of a problem? I’d love to hear more in the comments.