The trouble with Twitter

October 31st, 2014

The Problem with Facebook is well explained in this video by science communicator Derek Muller. Basically they algorithmically filter your news feed in such a way that you probably won’t see most of what your friends post. This is contrary to what users expect to happen, but they are none the wiser because they don’t know about what they don’t see.

Of course it’s all about this button, the heart of Facebook’s business model:

boost_post

Once you give them cash they’ll show your post to all your friends / followers and of course a load of other people who don’t know you too. Fine: they have to make money. I just happen to hate it because it feels dishonest to actively hide things like that.

Facebook would argue that they’re trying to make my new feed “relevant” and “manageable”, something which Twitter does not do.

I’ve always greatly preferred Twitter’s follow model to Facebook’s friend model because I’m not socially obliged to follow my friends and family. I might be related to you but I’m not necessarily interested in your town’s local politics, or whatever. On Twitter it is left up to me to curate my feed by following the accounts I find interesting.

However, it’s changed. I joined Twitter early when it felt like a close-knit little network. For ages I followed about 40 people, most of whom I knew personally (early adopter web industry-types) plus a handful of other interesting people. Posting a Tweet was like putting something up on the village noticeboard. Most if not all of your followers would see it. And I would see all of my followers’ posts; in fact at first I received an SMS message whenever one of them tweeted. My feed was a mix of industry stuff and <= 140 character witticisms. However—grumble grumble—Stephen Fry joined and got stuck in a lift then it went mainstream. Soon those 'brand' things got in on the action and it became a marketing and news platform, all about driving clicks to websites. This has driven real human users away. I'd say 80% of the people I used to connect with on Twitter no longer use it. Or if they do they're completely silent and passive. "Last tweet: July". The trouble is that now when I post a tweet it feels like I'm standing at Oxford Circus during the morning rush hour. And most of the people surrounding me in the crowd are announcing things through megaphones. If I'm lucky perhaps I'll glimpse a familiar face but – to continue the urbanisation analogy – most of my friends don't come this way any more because they find it unpleasantly busy and they've moved out to the country. Evidence of this data overload symptom is the regular appearance now of ICYMI tweets. Often re-posting something a few hours later I’ll get a number of people commenting on it that I would have hoped to have seen it the first time but it’s now a mile down their timeline.

Solutions do exist: Using Twitter lists or TweetDeck, and the act of curating your following list by unfollowing non-human accounts. Sadly what’s left when you take away the noise is a bit of a ghost town.

For me Twitter was most interesting as a system for connecting human minds in real-time, not unlike Conjoiner technology in Alastair Reynolds’ fictional universe. That was genuinely exciting. Sadly, real-time is only usable up to a certain tweets-per-hour threshold. I don’t want to be connected in real-time to machines.

Here are two hypothetical experiments (that of course would be completely at odds with Twitter’s business model) that would make it very different but to me more interesting:

  1. Limiting the number of people you anyone can follow to 100
  2. Not allowing any links or media in tweets*.

A third experiment would be the option of following things that ONLY appear in a list and / or making a list your default timeline view, which would have the same effect.

But maybe it’s too late for all that. Or maybe I’m just being a sentimental Old Web guy.

*Yes, I tweeted a link to this blog post.