Typically, when the creators of a new product or service bring it to market, they have a clear idea of what its purpose is. That understanding is crucial because of how it informs a new offering’s marketing positioning. However, there are exceptions to the rule such as Twitter. Despite being one of the world’s most popular websites and applications, its purpose has remained elusive.
Twitter’s lack of definition has led to its being co-opted for a number of different causes. In its 13 year existence, it’s served as a media distribution system, a marketing channel, a political organ, and a hugely dysfunctional social network. It’s also proven highly effective at burning money; the company wasn’t consistently profitable until last year.
The platform has also been a consistent lightning rod for criticism from across the political spectrum. Leftists have slammed the company’s leadership for not taking a firmer stance on stamping out the spread of far-right extremism. Conversely, conservatives attacked the company for censoring or deplatforming prominent right-wingers.
Despite the service’s many significant problems, an incident that occurred earlier this week shows Twitter can be a force for good. But to do so, the company’s leaders must give it a new purpose. To be clear, the platform’s reason for being shouldn’t be any of the above-described functions. It should be an unfettered digital public forum. However, if it can resolve its current issues, Twitter can help make the world a better place.
It’s not Ice Cream
In its early days, Twitter’s founders almost seemed proud of their company’s lack of meaning. Co-founder Evan Williams admitted the site had no specific use but defended its existence by arguing it was a fun diversion akin to dessert. “Should we ban ice cream and all joy or can we have something that’s just fun? What’s wrong with that?” said Williams in 2010.
Though obnoxious, Williams is correct that it would be wrong to outlaw frivolous and fun things that make life pleasurable. But as the platform has come to serve an increasingly prominent role in global politics, it has lost its frivolity. Moreover, Twitter has become a lot less fun than it used to be. Williams and his co-founders, Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, have expressed profound regrets about creating the platform.
In truth, Twitter is a mostly unregulated forum where individual users can express their thoughts and ideas. However, the site’s 280 character limit makes conveying complexity difficult. Furthermore, it’s like and retweet buttons provide a hit of psychological satisfaction that promotes tweeting frequently and provocatively.
Twitter’s design flaws have fostered an environment of pithy, reductive, and antagonistic discourse. The platform’s threading feature mitigated this problem somewhat, but its current iteration still tends to provoke discussions that are ephemeral and inexact rather than the dense and nuanced.
Consequently, Twitter works well as an entertainment service, advertising platform, and political marketing channel because those things don’t require complexity. But it functions poorly as a forum and even worse as a social network.
Twitter isn’t a Social Network
Despite its branding and market classification, Twitter is not and never has been a social network. Millions of people use it as a social media platform, but its design makes meaningful social interactions more difficult. Until the service increased its character limit from 140 to 280 characters in 2017, users could only express their thoughts in one or two sentence increments.
By forcing users to break up their statements, the service made it difficult to craft messages with a clear sense of tone and context. Also, the site’s layout makes conversations difficult by creating discontinuities between responses. Twitter also muddies interactions by not aligning all comments made in a single discussion like actual social network Facebook does.
Another reason why Twitter is a forum, not a social network, is that it lacks proper boundaries. On Facebook, users have to mutually acknowledge their connection before exchanging messages. By default, Twitter forces connectivity between its users and requires them to create boundaries themselves. The platform’s lack of social standards has made it a breeding ground for harassment and public shaming.
Instead of cultivating discourse, Twitter’s dysfunctional design enables shouting matches where participants occupy the same space but don’t interact. Quote tweeting an idiotic or inflammatory comment can be a fun game, but it’s the antithesis of real conversation.
Twitter is Performance Space
Like a physical forum, Twitter functions equally well as a space for public discourse and performance. Because the service discourages thoughtful, multifaceted expression and rewards easily digestible, strident commentary, it has the effect of reducing three-dimensional people to one-dimensional personas.
As a result, the site has the appearance of being a social platform, but it’s a performance space. Individuals and brands that understand the service’s true nature have been successful at cultivating large parasocial followings.
Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian, and President Donald Trump all have large followings on the service because their Twitter personae are carefully crafted to appear relatable, aspirational, and galvanizing. The tens of millions of people that follow those three celebrities don’t have personal connections with them, but the platform makes them feel as though they do.
By harnessing that false sense of intimacy, Swift, Kardashian, and Trump have been able to sell millions of records, build sprawling commercial empires, and capture the presidency. Admittedly, legacy media platforms helped the trio attain cultural relevancy, but Twitter facilitated their unprecedented success.
Twitter’s tendency to evoke performative behavior, discourage genuine expression, and faculty as a performance platform has dramatically diminished its utility as a medium for social interaction. In March, the Washington Post reported around half the activity on Twitter is original comments, and the other half is retweets.
The Positive Aspects of Twitter
Despite being widely misunderstood and misused, Twitter is not without its positive aspects.
As a global public forum, it gives ordinary people a platform to address pressing issues. In its 13 year lifespan, the service has served as a space where revolutionaries have organized against repressive regimes. The company has also allowed individuals and groups to raise money for important charitable causes. It has also proved to be a useful news distributor and emergency notification system. And it’s helped police detect and react to incidences of violent crime with remarkable swiftness.
Twitter can also serve as a broadcast medium for people who don’t have access to traditional forms of media. While that feature can help figures like Alex Jones become popular, it also helps well-intentioned people bring light to issues that might otherwise go ignored.
Earlier this week, Katherine Gerbner, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, posted a multifaceted and provocative tweet thread. Gerbner announced her recent tenure and wanted to celebrate that fact. She utilized her newfound job security to tweet a 27-point critique of the university’s history of racism and anti-Semitism. The thread also talked about how that history informed present-day institutional tensions.
The historian explained she didn’t want to discuss such sensitive issues until she had the job security provided by tenure.
Professor Gerbner’s has less than 2,000 followers, but her thread was liked and retweeted nearly 7,000 times. It also prompted hundreds of comments from other users who were grateful for a presentation regarding inequity within the academy. The thread also provoked other users to finally speak out about their experiences with prejudice and discrimination in various public universities.
Democracy at its Finest
While Twitter is a private enterprise, its vast reach and popularity also make it a de facto utility. Gerbner’s thread is an example of the platform’s potential to serve as an expression of pure democracy. With her disclosure, the professor used her platform to educate and engage people from across the country.
Currently, Twitter’s design and weak-willed leadership are preventing it from fulfilling its mission, “to create and share ideas instantly without barriers.” As it stands, the site’s signal to noise ratio and lack of order undermine its effectiveness. But the service can become a vital part of society with a systemic overhaul and if executives were committed to implementing that renewal.
According to a recent BuzzFeed News piece, the company’s engineers are working on revamping the platform to make discussions more legible and performative commentary less rewarding. They are also developing new features that will make user interactions more humane and dignified.
Given the current polarized political and cultural climate, civilizing Twitter won’t be an easy process. Additionally, if the company’s changes cause the service’s engagement numbers to drop like YouTube’s did when it initiated a harmful content crackdown, it may reverse course. But if the firm can commit to making real improvements, Twitter will at long last have a meaningful purpose; making the world a more informed, free, and equitable place.