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Let Twitter Be Twitter

[First published in New York Magazine, August 10, 2015]

Twitter is a mess—everybody says so. Twitter is mostly nonsense. You can’t find what you need on Twitter. Twitter is all haystack and no needles, all static and no signal.

By the lights of many investors Twitter is floundering. Its long-time CEO (five years is long in Internet time), Dick Costolo, jumped or was pushed in June, the board is scrambling to find a replacement, and Wall Street is sounding the alarm. The company’s revenue merely doubled last year, to $1.4 billion. Only 300 million people use Twitter every month. Apparently that isn’t enough.

Advice is flowing in torrents: “How Twitter Can Be Fixed”; “Re-imagining Twitter.” A Washington Post column explains “How to Fix Twitter, As Told via Tweets.” Twitter must pivot, must be transformed, must “reinvent itself.”

“I yearn to know where this company is headed,” writes one of its earliest and largest investors, the internet billionaire Chris Sacca. His 8,000-word  screed, “What Twitter Can Be,” has been making the rounds for weeks. His motivation is simple: “I want this stock to be worth more. I own more of it than virtually anyone working at the company.”

What’s the problem? Twitter isn’t growing fast enough. Maybe it is reaching a plateau. Five times as many people use Facebook—something like a billion and a half active users per month, which, if you believe it, is almost a quarter of the Earth’s population. Twitter makes money from its modest amount of advertising, but it could make so much more.

It’s hard to use. It’s a textual medium, which means reading and writing. It’s intimidating. “N00bs just don’t get it,” says Wired. Vast numbers of Twitter people just lurk and never tweet. (No one considers that this may be a happy choice.) Twitter can be lonely. Sacca says, “Almost one billion users have tried Twitter and not stuck around.” No one knows, however, how many of those billion were bots, pseudonyms made up on the fly, changes of alias, and just plain fake users—created and sold by the million to make celebrities and politicians look popular.

The main case against Twitter, though—the heart-rending frustration felt by Sacca and so many others—is that it’s a mess. It is large, it contains multitudes (for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you), and no one can find what they need. “All of the news, sports, entertainment, human interest, music, branding, social justice, humor, politics, celebrities, technology, and beyond,” writes Sacca. “Twitter not only has it all, Twitter has it in real-time.” But users get lost. “Hundreds of millions of those tweets are noisy distractions. For any sample of accounts, the odds are extremely high that the most recent tweets are not the best tweets.” It’s time to abandon the idea that users can find what they want just by choosing other users to follow.

Sacca was featured on the cover of this year’s Forbes “Midas” issue. Attire: signature embroidered cowboy shirt. Motto: “When I invest, I’m in your face.” He urges “scheduling and promotion to build traffic.” Sacca-ForbesOther analysts want Twitter to add buy buttons. Some dream of smart algorithms. Some want active human editors and “thoughtfully curated follows.”

None of them trust the users.

These people threaten to destroy one of the internet’s nicest things. Twitter is a happy accident, a fortuity, a quirk. A giant quirk, to be sure. Its inventors had no idea what they were creating (see Nick Bilton’s excellent history, Hatching Twitter). Even now no one really understands it. It’s an elephant surrounded by more than the usual number of blind men. A hundred forty characters? That makes no sense, but it creates a microblogging protocol of exceeding simplicity, with particular constraints that contribute to its power—like Haiku. (It’s just well as that Bashō never said, hey, we could juice this up by letting the poets attach selfies.)

Its investors are getting golden eggs but they want foie gras.

I am “on” Twitter (odd phrase). I’m not on Facebook; I don’t like the caged environment, with marketers and algorithms absorbing my information and distracting people with shiny objects. Twitter is a free-for-all. I love it, but I would never advise anyone else to “join,” so I may be part of the problem the owners are trying to solve.

I know I’m not a typical Twitter user. I also know there is no such creature. Reasons for using Twitter, or being on Twitter, are hard to categorize. There are a variety of models, like parallel universes, coexisting and barely aware of one another. A partial taxonomy:

  • Giant celebrities with millions of followers. @JustinBieber. @TaylorSwift. At last count @KatyPerry was number one, boasting 72,930,106. How many in these statistical mobs are sentient humans, no one can say. Lately @KatyPerry is tweeting in promotion of a fragrance. Does she perform her own tweets?katyperry If it’s a bot, they haven’t got all the bugs out.
  • Politicians. @BarackObama’s account is operated by his staff, and it says so. The newer @POTUS account seems, relatively, more real, and Obama will pass it on to his successor. Another politician with a huge and loyal Twitter following is Hugo Chávez, who tweets in Spanish. Or did. He died two years ago and still has four million followers. It is conventional wisdom now that the modern politician must use Twitter to “engage” with the public. (By the way, power tip: if you want to be retweeted by a celebrity politician, trumptweet something supportive of @realDonaldTrump.)
  • Pretty much every business and organization, pro forma. You’ve got to do it. Everyone says so.
  • Friends and relations. Twitter is routinely called a social network, but I think that’s misleading. It’s not social for me. I don’t follow most of my friends (to use the word in its old-fashioned sense) and they don’t follow me. I don’t tweet what I’m eating, and I certainly don’t tweet family news. Why would I do that in a public forum? In turn, I want to know the version of my friends they show me in private, not the version they create for the world.
  • Fast-moving political movements. Riots. Freedom fighters. Terrorists. They’ve found a channel for fast messaging, and newspapers and TV commentators sift it for nuggets.
  • Hookups, sex pictures, et al. I didn’t know Twitter was a practical way to transmit photographs of one’s genitalia until Anthony Weiner demonstrated that it isn’t, but amateur and semipro erotics are quite rampant in the Twitter universe. As in every other human communication channel.
  • Information of immediate but localized concern: “#Vancouver Police are responding to Seymour St & W Pender St for reports of 10 people fighting and using their fingers as guns.”
  • What might loosely be termed educational initiatives. Fun facts. Twitter is full of unaccredited popup mini-universities. @frenchwords_, to pick one at random, tweets a French word every day.
  • Random chatter. Many people seem to tweet fragments of thought passing between the medulla and the thalamus—their mood, their desires, their “status,” their dreams. In all the languages. They act as though their messages were private, and in a sense they are, protected by the blooming noise all around. “I dont want to get out of my bed.” “High babe love you” (retweeted by thousands, because why not?). “I need someone to go to Walmart with me. By go with me I mean I give you my keys and you drive me there.” “Super babe kskskskskssk oh deus.” “Dog-snores.” (The science-fiction writer Nick Harkaway tweets from London, “Thank God Twitter isn’t some appalling mass broadcast medium and it’s just us here.”)

None of this is how I use Twitter. I usually keep my status to myself, and I don’t know what’s “trending.” These worlds barely impinge on mine. But I breathe their air. I hear their murmurs.

Twitter for me is what the printing press was for Robert Burton in the seventeenth century: “I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c. daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears.” Some people say vast confusion like it’s a bad thing.

If you go to tech conferences, a word you hear constantly is curation. Sometimes curation is the problem and sometimes it’s the solution. This is an old concept that’s become a buzzword. Curation is what museum curators used to do: put the right stuff on display and organize it intelligently. Curators point users to what matters and keep the detritus in the basement. Wise old booksellers and librarians were curators, consulted for their knowledgeable recommendations. Newspaper editors decided what was fit to print; now the blogging hordes print everything. So experts either bemoan the loss of curation or hail the new algorithmic curators: recommendation engines, collaborative filtering.

Twitter executives are obsessed with curation or the lack thereof. In March they announced Curator, a tool “to allow media publishers to search, filter and curate Twitter content” and gain “audience engagement, participation and attention.” In May, shortly before his unceremonious departure, Costolo was talking about “migrating” Twitter from “being tech-centric, follow-based, reverse-chronologic-centric to a mix of that and curated, media-centric relevance-based content.”

They’re missing the point. Twitter—the epitome of shallowness and distraction—has already solved the curation problem. It has created a paradigm of human curation: dynamic and recursive. This is its genius.

Twitter is not about who follows you. It’s about who you follow. Personally, I follow about 150 people. Everything they tweet appears in my “timeline,” in chronological order, which means semantically jumbled. This is thought to be a problem. Sacca again: “Twitter timelines are spontaneous, but scattered and of inconsistent relevance.” He wants “consistent, focused content.” My timeline is the opposite of that.

My 150 people are a small number, almost infinitesimal, not even a millionth of all the twitterers. I stop following people all the time, even when I love and admire them, because they tweet so much I can’t keep up. Some Twitter users follow thousands—some follow millions—but obviously they aren’t reading their timelines. As far as I’m concerned, the timeline is the whole point.

Though I follow only 150, each day I see tweets from thousands, because the people I follow retweet the ones they most value. A man calling himself @TheoTypes is stuck in a train under the Hudson River. Who cares? But he tweets. “My train is stuck under the Hudson River. @NJTransit just announced that the tunnel power cables have become unstable. Train 5126.” Within a couple of hours, nineteen of his followers retweet this to their followers. A few of them retweet it to their own followers. A little cascade is under way,  a chain reaction, analogous to the kind that leads to a nuclear explosion. Virtually all Twitter chain reactions fizzle out quickly, of course. I don’t follow Theo. But somewhere in the chain of Theo’s followers’ followers’ followers is ProfB, at the University of Pennsylvania. Theo’s plight stirs something in her: “Whooo no sir … be safe!” she tweets. I don’t follow her, either, but the science-fiction writer Jack Womack does, and for whatever reason he finds this amusing or interesting, so he retweets it, and there it is, in my timeline.

I can hardly claim that this particular tweet has made me wiser or more knowledgeable or more au fait. But it’s a piece in the puzzle of how my timeline makes me happy. My timeline brings me news that may be beneath the notice of the New York Times. It brings me weird and insightful commentary. Tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villanies Pepysin all kinds … Thus I daily hear, and such like. I hear Steve Martin experiment with the medium, trying out new joke forms. I used to hear Umberto Eco tweet experimental mini-essays,in English and Italian, though he seems to have gone silent (he recently described social networks as “legioni di imbecilli” but I still follow him, just in case). Joyce Carol Oates recaps True Detective epigrammatically.Samuel Pepys tweets from the grave.

My timeline is unique to me. No one else follows exactly the same shifting group of gurus, so no one assembles exactly the same set of maskings and mummeries. This is my exceedingly fine slice across the global conversation.

In the same way, when I tweet something myself, the only immediate recipients are my followers, another infinitesimal cohort in the Twitter universe. But any of my tweets is liable to be retweeted by someone or other. If  @Famous-Novelist retweets one to her hundred thousand followers, then my voice has been momentarily amplified. They don’t need to follow me; they receive a special subset of my tweets, chosen for them by @Famous-Novelist. She is a curator. I am a curator. Everyone is part of a limitless branching tree of curation, and everyone is choosing a particular tangle of branches. The whole is an interlocking library of Best Of playlists.

This is what the company is trying to muck up. They push extraneous tweets into my timeline, especially sponsored tweets, supposedly targeting my desires. Please, Twitter—don’t do that. I would prefer to pay directly. A monthly fee would be fine. A few others might join me.

Don’t send me other people’s random “favorites.” They tried that last year and caused a minor uproar. The science writer Ed Yong tweeted: “Everyone: ‘TWITTER, WHY?’ Twitter: ‘Cos monkey press lever, monkey no get snack, monkey sad.’” (By the way, “favorites” are not “likes.” Twitter’s Favorite button is another example of technology subverted by users for their own unpredictable ends. The sarcastic favorite is a thing.)

This fall Twitter plans to unveil another high-octane addition, codenamed Project Lightning, possibly to be called Moments. It is said to be centrally curated, visually driven, and packaged. In other words, everything I don’t want. “This beautiful vessel for us to surface great content,” Katie Jacobs Stanton, a Twitter vice president, told Buzzfeed.

Twitter doesn’t just want to make it easy for users to find tweets. They want to make it easier for marketers to find users. Everyone wants to know the secret of how to use Twitter to reach their million potential customers. I will tell you the secret. You can’t do it. Twitter is not a giant megaphone. There is no mouthpiece. Those 300 million people, that glistening prize, are not waiting for your message. They’re not tuning to your channels. They’re choosing their own.

Twitter wants to monetize them nonetheless. The company wants to know what they like and what they don’t, and they want to sell the knowledge. This is the FaceBook way; for that matter, it’s the Google way. Of all the internet giants only one, Wikipedia, has created a service of immense value without monetizing its users. The venture capitalists can’t help it. Twitter has already made its creators very rich, but now it has shareholders, buying and selling, and they feel entitled to make some money, too. The company is legally obligated to them. Their interests and the customers’ interests are, famously, not always aligned. For that matter, the shareholders’ long-term interests may not be the same as their short-term interests, and nowadays the short-termers tend to prevail. Once a company goes public, as Dick Costolo said, “You’re on a 90-day cadence.”  When it reported quarterly earnings July 28, Twitter’s revenue was up 61 percent and the stock, naturally, plunged.

Reaching for more, Twitter keeps buying companies that might help: most recently, Periscope, for live streaming of video (and presumably ads), TwitPic for sharing photos (and presumably ads), ZipDial, an Indian “missed call” marketing platform, CardSpring for real-time commerce, whatever that means (something about tweets and shopping carts), and Trendrr, to “help us to build great tools for the rest of the TV ecosystem.”

They should let Twitter be Twitter. A vast confusion. A global conversation. A repository of wealth not measured in money. No thought is wasted, no joke is lost.

That Forbes Midas List yearly honors tech investors who “embody the Midas touch”—the ones looking for “the next billion-dollar score.” In twenty-first century America, have we forgotten the point of the Midas story? Look again. Midas is not to be admired but pitied. What he loves, he destroys.

5 Comments

  1. James, I am a bit late reading this fantastic post. I think Twitter is a very powerful tool if you use it right. I agree that there is lots of “noise” these days. When I first started using Twitter in 2007 pre-celebrity accounts,you could tweet with anyone and expect a reply instantly. Not so these days but it has an incredible search database that is second to none. Where else can you jump into total strangers conversations(without getting punched in the mouth) and engage with the world. Twitter will be fine and it is a rose between many thorns.

  2. Robert says

    The folks at WhatsApp can handle computational loads exceeding Twitters with a team of 40 engineers and about 100 servers.

    Twitter should reduce its staff to 75 people, make it as efficient as possible, leave the product alone, and be one of the most insanely profitable companies (and highest revenue/employee) around.

  3. Thank you so much for saying this. I love Twitter as it is, and I wish they’d stop trying to kill it.

  4. Meena says

    You are so right! @twitter empowers me while FB limits me. The cacophony on Twitter is democratic & the ability to engage with remarkable people from across the planet is truly liberating! Why should money be the only yardstick? I hope Twitter discovers the backbone to push back shareholders and take on board stakeholder concerns but please #BringBackTheStar

  5. This is the first ever “What to do with Twitter” post I’ve ever agreed with. Thank you.

    Even when we wrote the first book about Twitter back in 2008, there were many telling us what Twitter and the users should or should not do. Our response was a seldom used hashtag, and the first two words in the book #NORULES.

    Twitter is chaos. Thus it reflect real life in real time.

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