We need to talk about twitter
3,795 days and 88,956 status posts later I’m tired.
Over the years Twitter has been invaluable to me. I signed up in the summer of 2007 shortly after moving from archaeology to a job in web design/development. In those early days, feeling my way in a new career and working largely on my own, Twitter helped me to connect outside of my office walls; a digital water cooler. More importantly, it helped me to learn and grow and meet others who did what I did. With time it helped me through low points – depression, redundancy, random PHP bugs – but above all it helped me to connect. Through Twitter, I have made lifelong friends, discovered Frome (where we moved to from Scotland in 2011) and found work. This is a tool that has in some ways changed my life.
Over this time, the world has changed and with it so has Twitter. What started off as a fun project amongst friends, growing rapidly through the geek community – fuelled by the emergence of the iPhone – has become a staple part of our modern, digital lives. It has shaped the way we consume and spread information and ideas. On the one hand, this has been an invaluable tool; mobilising action and ideas quickly, and democratising communication and media (see, for example, the dramatic Arab Spring of 2010). On the other hand, it has also been used as a tool for misinformation and misdirection. In the wrong hands, it has been the greatest propaganda tool the world has ever seen.
The brevity of Twitter was always its greatest asset, restricting messages to the character limit of an SMS message. As the old saying goes, less is more and particularly in its early use, there was a certain art to compiling a message to fit within the allotted 140 characters. But less also means more ambiguity and brevity has led Twitter to become less a platform for ‘micro-blogging’ rather increasingly a platform for inciting action and reaction. We self-validate by surrounding ourselves with others that share our beliefs, politics, affiliations and aspirations. And with this our opinions and identities become more entrenched, our views more polarised.
This has invariably changed the shape of the media – user-generated content has given real-time access to events around the world in an instant. But with this instantaneity, we lose the curation and rationalising of what we see and read. We see the undigested regurgitation of information, spreading around the world in an instant quick to reinforce our prejudices, good or bad. When was the last time you checked the source of something you retweeted?
But the brevity of a tweet makes it perfect for leveraging and sharing stuff on an emotive level. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story …
And this emotional level is what drives Twitter as a business.
Aside from the use of Twitter changing the entity itself has evolved over the past ten years. With time we’ve come to see the humble tweet evolve to include @ replies, hashtags and RTs (all user-suggested features), favouriting others tweets, delivering images and video, culminating most recently in a whopping 280 character limit (RIP SMS). With this evolution – in conjunction with an ever-expanding fanbase – Twitter has moved from communication tool to media platform to global corporation. And with this, the business has to make a profit and please its shareholders. But Twitter isn’t your normal kind of service.
Don Norman has spoken about the evolution of online services and how with many digital services now the User is the Product that they are selling. Twitter isn’t “selling” you the use of their service – it is “selling” others information about your use of their service. In the main this is used to help businesses target customers; “You write about camping? We can promote your tweets about camping gear to these users.”
But with the growth of Twitter that data has become increasingly valuable. With the US Presidential Elections in 2016 – and likely Brexit too – this data has provided the foundation for a new kind of political campaigning. Furthermore, this campaigning has targeted the echo chambers we inhabit and leveraged the reactive nature of how we use Twitter. This has been used as part of legitimate political campaigning and was extremely successful for Momentum and the Labour Party in the 2017 General Election, especially valuable with younger voters. However, we are increasingly seeing the manipulation of this service for disinformation in a new form of propaganda – on both Left and Right sides of the political spectrum.
And this is good business for Twitter. We have seen outrage after outrage (again, from all across the political and ideological spectrum) and this outrage creates data for Twitter and data is the commodity it sells. The Daily Mail thrives on this. It deliberately publishes articles that will inflame (some) users with provocative titles. And these users share these with abhorrence. And with that, the footprint of the Daily Mail’s presence is spread and visits to the site improve, generating more revenue from its advertisers. Disgust has become the oxygen of commerce.
And this concerns me.
I’ve always thought of Twitter as a meandering river. You can sit on the bank, occasionally dipping your toe in. Or you can kick off your shoes, roll your trousers up and go for a wade. Or you can immerse yourself in the fast currents. At times, in the early years, I was practically submerged in the depths of this continual flow. But I have found my use of Twitter has been increasingly spent in the shallow depths, or watching from the safety of dry land.
In the last week, we saw the President of the United States retweet three tweets from Britain First, a fascist organisation in the UK. As scary as these were in promoting and propagating xenophobic and Islamaphobic rhetoric, was the lack of consideration for their content and more importantly their context (the premise of the original tweets were proven to be false). This was a knee-jerk digital regurgitation from the man that has a finger on the button to start a Nuclear War. This is not Trump’s first offence but for me, it feels like – to use my earlier river analogy – the banks of Twitter have broken. Twitter has a perfectly decent Rules of Use prohibiting conduct that undermines others on the basis of religion, ethnicity or gender but Trump repeatedly flaunts these. And Twitter repeatedly fails to engage with this problem, largely because for Twitter Trump is good business.
Once again, disgust has become the oxygen of commerce.
Note this from Twitter’s Rules of Use:
“We believe in freedom of expression and open dialogue, but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. In order to ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs, we prohibit behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.”
This philosophy has become meaningless and Twitter is turning a blind eye to some of its core principles because it is making them money. And that makes me feel very uncomfortable.
So I’m taking a break from Twitter. It has been an invaluable friend and ally over the last ten years but it feels like the only action I can take that will make any difference is inaction. To return to Don Norman, with Twitter the user is the Product. But to go back to Marx, what we must also remember is that we are also the Means of Production. And without us Twitter has nothing.
Cole, thanks for a great piece of writing, an excellent read. And I agree with so much!
Love your analogy of the meandering river. Indeed, might be time to get out of the shallows and onto dry land—until things improve.