The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.
– “Two Minutes Hate”, George Orwell, 1984
Jack Dorsey has posted a tweetstorm outlining what is wrong with Twitter, and how he proposes to fix it.
In it, he committed to:
“help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.”
To achieve this, he plans to put in a measurement system for ‘conversational health’:
Our friends at @cortico and @socialmachines introduced us to the concept of measuring conversational health. They came up with four indicators: shared attention, shared reality, variety of opinion, and receptivity.
These are nice words, but will they fix Twitter?
Twitter operates on a system of rewards and incentives – retweets, messages, likes – and these reward the most incendiary messages and the most impulsive reactions. It’s not that moderate voices don’t exist on Twitter – you just never see them.
The emotions that generate engagement on Twitter are the emotions that have generated engagement since time immemorial: outrage, jealousy, gloating, FOMO, and loneliness. Even if Twitter didn’t make a conscious decision to promote this content, the machine learning algorithms that govern Twitter’s timeline would surface this content anyway.
As such, on Twitter, bad behaviour isn’t just not punished – it is encouraged. Over time, the platform has even grown to include this behaviour into its core functionality. Via the “Quote Tweet” mechanism, we are explicitly encouraged to present other people out of context, we are prevented from explaining ourselves, the most incendiary messages are rewarded, and we are driven to take sides.
Far from helping people to reach common ground, Twitter obscures it. Rather than driving people toward focusing on what unites them, as Twitter works better when people fight. Even when those people have a lot in common already.
Twitter likes to frame its behaviour in the language of the global commons. Dorsey’s own memo says “We love instant, public, global messaging and conversation. It’s what Twitter is and it’s why we‘re here.”
Twitter’s business model isn’t conversation though, it’s advertising. My Twitter data page reveals that Twitter has collected 252 apps from my devices, sorted me into 88 interest buckets, grouped me into 114 interest buckets. It tells me that I am currently part of 286 audiences from 115 advertisers, from Calvin Klein to NBC to Macys to political columnists like Iain Martin. Twitter’s primary interest isn’t conversation, it is monetizing my outrage to sell to people and companies.
The top celebrity accounts serve to amplify this outrage. A top celebrity account will post a message, which millions of people will then see, and then others will send tweets agreeing or disagreeing with them. Very little new information is presented, just a shout into the void which is guaranteed a response of some sort.
Twitter can be a force for good. Back in 2008, Twitter might even have been predominantly good. But the fact that guns can also be used for sport does not obviate the need control. You can take your personal gun to the shooting range, just as you can diligently use Twitter to follow Elon Musk’s tweets.
It doesn’t change what Twitter was designed for: low latency, quick trigger, highly charged back and forth with zero time to think. By the time regret kicks in, as it did for Sam Biddle after he essentially ruined Justine Sacco’s life over a tweet at the expense of white racists to her 200 or so followers, it is too late and the outrage machine has moved on.
Sacco was later quoted as saying “‘Someday you’ll Google me, and my LinkedIn will be the first thing that pops up.’”
Sorry Twitter, you’ll never change.