intellectual self-defence

Twitter is now the bad friend

Originally published 2022-12-23 at

I joined in 2009, I’ve tweeted 30,200 times, I loved the good times I spent on twitter, but those days are gone.

Yes, I joined mastodon. I was inspired by Brian Nosek’s collective action experiment from the end of October.

Enough of the people posting content I like moved to mastodon that I don’t need to read twitter any more. Yes, I’ll post there, and check replies, but it’s faded into the background of my attention, like facebook before it.

Yes, Elon Musk’s attitude to twitter employees, unbanning accounts, and ridiculous new features (blocking links to mastodon, wft?) didn’t help, but for a long time it was obvious that twitter was a bad friend.

Social media plugs into our natural instinct to relate to information in a social context. Not what was said, but who said it, and what everyone else thinks of it. Elon said (and was ridiculed) that twitter was a cybernetic device for collective intelligence. There’s lots to be said about this, but I don’t think he’s wrong.

If social networks support a kind of collective intelligence — and in the weak form of a kind of collective sense-making, this is undoubtedly true — we can ask what the design features of a platform are that support or hinder collective intelligence. Do the affordances built into the software encourage collective intelligence or stupidity?

Some features of twitter

  • Quote tweets: i.e. a context removal device, promoting reacting without understanding.
  • Surfacing tweets you’ve liked or replied to in other people’s timelines: the social media equivalent of sidling up to a friend as whispering “Have you heard what Tom thinks about X? What do you think about that?!”. Offline we’d call that shit-stirring, in social media it is called optimising engagement.
  • Prominent counts of likes, replies and RTs: social proof on steroids, collapsing it into a unidimensional metric of How Important this is, deprioritising information on why it is important.

And now, logging onto twitter today, I’ve seen that they put the number of views marked on each tweet. Why? So we can all feel bad about how few people read our posts? I suspect it is a desperate bit of growth hacking from twitter, prompted by what must now be obvious —millions, like me, are turning the attention away from twitter.

You won’t see this in the headline figures. I still have an account, still follow thousand of people. But I’m not reading their tweets, and I’m not logging on every 5 minutes like I was, and I’m not replying (and people aren’t replying to me — for a couple of years now I have noticed less and less substantive engagement on twitter. Maybe I’m more boring, or have minimised my attack surface for replies, or something, but I suspect that we’re all collectively waking up from the fever-dream of twitter). The people inside twitter must have the stats to confirm this, must be able to see what is happening to the platform.

Mastodon isn’t a perfect substitute for twitter, but many of the differences are features, not bugs. As Clive Thompson wrote, mastodon is anti-viral design. It’s not trying to maximise engagement by provoking controversy, it hides how many other people have boosted or replied to a post, encouraging you to think for yourself whether you want to engage, rather that take social proof. And, more importantly, it isn’t a platform which is selling your attention to advertisers.

The outcome is a platform which isn’t as slick, but on which I can discover interesting information and have sincere engagement with many different people. That’s enough for me.

The thing mastodon doesn’t yet have, and which twitter is losing, is that sense of being a public space, a town square, where people of all types, and all institutions, were represented and could take part in discussion. For years twitter seems to escape the contradiction between looking like a public space, but being a private company with a mission to make a profit out of people. Musk’s takeover may have just made that latent contradiction manifest. Twitter was remarkable because of its elite capture of journalists, politicians and institutions. Maybe there was a path to building it out from there to a sustainable service which contributed to the public good and made a profit. Rather, it looks like — in the manner of a Greek tragedy — twitter will make itself irrelevant by working it’s dark magic on its new owner. Musk-on-twitter will become a hollow caricature: endlessly chasing of engagement, subservient to audience capture, holding onto the rising balloon of shrinking attention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *