Ten Years On Twitter
This month was my ten year anniversary on Twitter. With all the controversy at the moment it felt like time to remember why Twitter was once so much fun.
For many years the only Twitter account I’d ever blocked had an erect penis as its avatar image. Every now and then I would report the account to Twitter, for being offensive, or violating the rules, but nothing ever happened. This seemed emblematic of the state of Twitter for a very long time. Few reasons to be offended, but whenever you reported something, nothing happened.
Then, some four or five years ago, things started to change. The number of accounts I blocked started to grow, and a steadily growing stream of people I loved and respected, friends and peers from my creative and professional circles, began to quit the platform.
Their reasons were always the same. The platform had become less hospitable and often downright aggressive. Many of these folks had joined Twitter before I did, ten years ago.
I used to say that if you didn’t enjoy Twitter then you were just following the wrong people. Change who you follow and you change the experience. For many years that was true. But it isn’t that simple anymore.
A History Of Twitter
When Twitter began it was touted as a “microblogging” platform. From 2003 to 2007, blogging was massively popular. A lot of people had a go at it. There was a view that every artist, every creative, every business, should have a blog. Many tried. But it often proved too difficult and time-consuming.
Twitter was lighter and easier. Yet it still enabled you to get your ideas out there. And getting your words out there was a huge part of the appeal. It felt like a radical next step in the evolution of publishing, of getting your voice out to the whole world.
There was a standard joke: Facebook was full of people you’d already met and Twitter was full of people you wanted to meet.
The joke worked because it was true. Meeting people was a big part of Twitter’s appeal. It was common to see lists of suggested people to follow (under the #FollowFriday or #FF hashtags every week). Following back people who followed you was the norm.
Also, the Tweetup, or real-world meet-up of people you’d spoken to online, was a huge part of its early culture. Participating in the Twitter conversation at events and conferences, often connected to the event hashtag, was frequently a precursor to meeting people in person.
I met hundreds of people this way during my first 4-5 years on Twitter.
I also learnt a lot. Questions about everything from wine to astronomy were answered by experts and professionals. You never felt alone when starting a new project or visiting an unfamiliar city, with practical, up-to-date advice on tap from people who lived what they recommended.
Twitter In Practice
“What are you doing?” This is the question that used to greet you when you wanted to create a tweet. It suggested a personal status update. Just 140 characters, no photos, no video, and if you wanted to share a link you probably had to use a third party link shortener to make it fit.
Politics didn’t feature much in the early years of Twitter – at least not the way it does now. People were far more likely to share TED talks than news stories.
It was geeky. But it was also more oriented to learning and to lived experience. People tweeted about what they were doing and seeing around them.
It was a window into how people lived, and that made it fascinating.
When politics did feature on Twitter is was often connected to the organising of real-world political protests, most notably Iran’s green revolution, but also protests around the world.
This was again an example of early Twitter’s power to bring people together physically.
Twitter changed the prompt in late 2009, to “What’s happening?” They played down the significance at the time. But it was the beginning of a fundamental shift in how the platform worked.
Leaving Experience Behind
From 2010 to 2014, Twitter started to grow. Not just the number of users, but the cultural influence. Twitter started to be co-opted by broadcast media as a kind of online comment channel.
The two-screen era had been born. People were watching things on their big screen, be it a live event like the World Cup or Eurovision song contest, or a hit TV show, or news programme, and commenting in real time on Twitter.
The same dynamic that had brought people together locally, for Tweetups or protests, was now bringing people together virtually, around televised cultural events.
Twitter started to change, from “What are you doing?” to “What are you watching, out there, and how do you feel about it?”
Increasingly it seemed like there were fewer personal experiences being shared, fewer windows into different ways of living, drowned out in a swelling torrent of news. Political hashtags like #QandA and #AusPol in Australia, and tags related to specific elections, parties and satirical late-night programmes in the US felt unavoidable.
This was also when Twitter started to become more aggressive. There were always trolls on Twitter because there have always been trolls online. But the attacks started to become more frequent and increasingly felt more coordinated. And the language and tone was increasingly nasty.
2016 – Twitter Has A Winter Of Discontent
There’s no question that Twitter changed in 2016. Spiteful and divisive election campaigns in several countries exacerbated its existing problems. It suddenly seemed like many people logged onto Twitter solely to fight, argue, and express their pain and outrage.
Whatever Twitter had become was now a long way from the relatively calm, kind, and helpful platform it had been. It was open season for attacks on the experts and professionals. Everyone started to be more guarded about the advice and recommendations they gave.
Perhaps Social Media Is The Real Problem
Over the summer I read Jaron Lanier’s new book, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Amongst the standard claims against social media, like the harvesting of your data and being held hostage to advertising and fake news, Lanier repeatedly came back to a compelling theme: social media kind of makes you miserable.
Whenever I found myself wanting to argue that point, especially as it relates to Twitter, a voice in my head kept asking, “Fernando, is that still true?”
Sure, I had made a lot of friends through social media, but was that still happening? Sure, social media had helped grow my professional network and brought me great work opportunities, but was that still the case?
Being on Twitter these days is like fighting shadows. This is the harsh lesson soon learned by anyone who has been trolled. What the troll hates about you, what the gang wants to tear down, might not even have anything to do with you – it’s what they interpret your shadow to mean.
If Twitter went from “we share what we’re doing” to “we share how we feel about what we’re watching”, then this latest version feels like “we look for instances of things we hate so we can yell at them”.
For anyone doing any kind of creative work, this is a miserable place to be.
For a whole host of important creative and psychological reasons, you should diligently limit how many people get to talk to you about who you are and what your work means. Everyone can have an opinion, and the more the merrier. But spending your days mired in other people’s perceptions of how you should be, trying to parse and understand every fragmentary take on who you are, is potentially destructive.
Twitter Failed To Care
It would be wrong to place all the blame on Twitter’s users. Political upheavals, trolls, bad actors, and changing social media habits are only part of the equation.
The other half, probably more than half, is Twitter’s own decisions not to make the service safer and more manageable for users.
Twitter decided some time ago that in order to survive as a business, it would need to run ads in users’ timelines and take advantage of the two-screen era. This in itself isn’t a problem. Barring some massive charitable grant, the only option for a service like Twitter would be to run ads or charge users. It chose advertising.
In order to make the service as ad-friendly as possible it had to encourage users to focus on their main timeline and to game that timeline, so that ads and paid-for tweets would appear regularly.
But even in the early days, before Twitter became popular, users had realised that sticking to the main timeline was a terrible way to use the platform. So they used lists. This allowed you to segment the people you followed into specific interests (close friends, people in your city, celebrities, authors, and so on).
While lists were prominent in early versions of Twitter, they increasingly got hidden in the interface and harder to use. I wrote a guide in 2013 when it became clear that many folks not only didn’t use them but didn’t even know they existed.
Twitter also started to mess with the timeline, breaking the chronological presentation of tweets in the order in which they were written, and replacing it with an order that, on the surface at least, pretended to second-guess what you might like to see.
Of course, for many users, including me, this never matched up with what I wanted to see.
You could get around this by using lists, which retained the old chronological presentation of tweets, without ads or algorithmic second-guessing. But since most users weren’t using lists, the frustration just grew.
Twitter also repeatedly messed with its API, which undermined companies that created services to make Twitter easier to use, from clients with better interfaces, to apps and sites that helped you manage your users or organise them into lists.
But Twitter’s biggest failure was not dealing with the way the changing culture was making the service increasingly hostile. Twitter introduced verified accounts, which was a good move, but it didn’t grow the culture of verification to include other users without the same kind of public profile who nonetheless wanted to contribute to a positive and non-anonymous culture of conversation.
Twitter introduced tools and measures to deal with harassment, but they always felt like too little, too late, arriving years after they should’ve done, and being supported by inconsistently enforced and often poorly thought-out policies.
While we now have tools to better manage notifications, to mute users or turn off their retweets, the mute topics function doesn’t really work, you can’t globally turn off retweets, and the direct message system is an unusable mess.
Even back in 2010, when Twitter was still a great place to be, it was clear that the company wasn’t thinking strategically about the potential risks of the way its culture was evolving. Change happened in response to crisis.
If Facebook wanted to create an economy out of distraction then Twitter seemed content to create one out of angst.
After 10 years I’m thoroughly disenchanted with Twitter. From 2009 to 2012 it was my favourite part of being online. Now it’s just a tool I use, sometimes grudgingly, like email or Google Analytics. It helps me stay connected but I’m constantly trying to minimise the time I spend on it.
I long ago stopped using Twitter to fill empty moments in the day and I’m just not curious any more about what’s trending on the platform.
Have I thought about quitting Twitter? Several times. I’ve taken a lot of breaks and I’m about to take another one.
Could Twitter become better than it is right now? Maybe. Will it ever return to what it once was? No, I don’t think so.
Twitter made sense when it was people sharing their lived experience in a culture of curiosity about how others experienced the world. It doesn’t really make sense as a news platform where people are made to fight with voices they disagree with. In its first vision, Twitter was an expansive tool for learning and discovery. In the second, Twitter has become a divisive tool for conflict and controversy.
Maybe Twitter is just a symptom of a deeper problem with social media, and possibly with what the internet has become. Fragmented and over-commercialised, fraught with angst and conflict, it’s hard to spend more than a few minutes on social media now without becoming anxious or miserable. We run a finger down the screen, hoping for a sense of connection, a moment of joy or validation, but instead we feel like the algorithms have hooked us again, giving a little but withholding the joy we crave.
The scroll is no longer a gesture of connection and we are left clutching for the hand of a ghost.