What’s wrong with Twitter?

You can read this post en français on the Framasoft blog.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a quick note mentioning I now have my own Mastodon instance. But first things first: why?

My aim is to use Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter. While Mastodon is not equivalent to Twitter, many of its features are similar. And I’m looking for an alternative to Twitter because Twitter is not good for me.

Sometimes I assume me saying “Twitter is not good for me” is self-explanatory, but it’s not a universally-held opinion. It’s worth explaining in a little more detail:

Surveillance capitalism

In short, what is wrong with Twitter is surveillance capitalism. If you’re not already familiar with the term, surveillance capitalism is the business model of mainstream technology. The technology tracks us, watching what we do—that’s the surveillance bit. And then uses that information to better sell to us, often through “relevant” advertising—that’s the capitalism bit. For clarity and brevity, Aral calls it “people farming.”

On social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, we are generally aware that the ads we see fund the service that we use. However we are less aware of how algorithms affect which posts we see in our social network feeds, and what information is used to feed those algorithms. And how those algorithms, and the interface around it, are designed to manipulate us to interact with the service. We are broadly unaware of how most technology uses tracking, and their own algorithms, to addict us and manipulate our behaviour in a manner that is financially beneficial to them.

If this all sounds far-fetched, have a look at my blog version of my talk on ‘Digital Assistants, Facebook Quizzes, And Fake News! You Won’t Believe What Happens Next’.

What is wrong with Twitter… specifically?

Twitter’s business model of surveillance capitalism has an impact on every decision Twitter makes. Twitter rewards abusive behaviour on its algorithmic timeline because controversy drives “engagement.” Twitter builds cults of celebrity (be it around individuals or memes) because more people will signup to a platform to stay updated and prevent FOMO.

Twitter’s algorithm means Twitter decides what you see

Much like Facebook before it, Twitter’s decision to use algorithms to dictate what you see in your feed, rather than showing posts in a chronological order, means you can’t rely on the feed to show you the posts of the people you follow. (The workaround against the algorithmic feed is using Lists, but for that reason, I suspect Twitter will do away with the Lists feature at some point…)

You do not know if your tweets are being seen, or if you are seeing your friends tweets, because you have no insight into this algorithm. It appears that the algorithm favours popular and/or viral users and tweets, which then makes virality the ultimate aspiration for the seasoned social networker, on top of the very visible follower counts. (I’m not judging… I often decide if a person is worth following based on their follower count, don’t you?)

Twitter actually encourages abuse

Twitter lets abuse and harassment continue because engagement thrives on controversy. Dog-piling? That’s engagement! Women and people from marginalised groups being harassed off Twitter? But all those trolls are so engaging! What’s one woman leaving when the controversy will result in more people tweeting, or even signing up to have their say about the controversy? Why should Twitter, Inc. care about people when numbers is all that matters to the investors, and they’re the ones who keep the lights on? All social network corporations have to do is maintain the delicate balance of not making everybody so angry and alienated that they all leave. And given that so many of these folks are so “engaged” in Twitter (is this a good point to mention that “engagement” is probably just a euphemism for “addiction”?), they’re hard-pressed to leave. I am. Aren’t you?

If Twitter were to stick to a strict abuse and harassment policy, there would be fewer tweets. If Twitter were to give us adequate tools to moderate our own Twitter feeds, @replies, and messages, it would likely impact what the algorithm chooses to show us, affecting Twitter’s business which monetises what it prioritises on the algorithmic feed.

Twitter does not adequately deal with abuse

Moderating abuse is not easy. Deciding on what constitutes abuse, and how to appropriately deal with it, is an issue with every publishing platform and social network. They’re also systemic issues faced by local communities and legal systems. Which are usually handled (still often inadequately) by those communities and legal systems. But we have to be aware that technology amplifies these issues, by making it easier to target an individual and sustain an attack anonymously. And because we are using the platforms of big corporations, we hand the responsibility for decisions on how to handle abuse over to corporate control.

The staff at tech corporations should not be the people who decide what constitutes free speech and censorship on what has become our global social infrastructure. People who have financial interests in the outcome should not be able to make decisions about our rights, and what constitutes free speech.

Nuances

Of course there are also nuanced situations and design decisions around the algorithmic feed and the handling of harassment and abuse that are not primarily to serve surveillance capitalism. It could be that there are individuals working at the corporation who have benevolent intentions. (I have met some, I don’t doubt it!)

But because Twitter’s business model is focused around extracting information from people, design decisions that serve the business model will always be prioritised. Instances of benevolent behaviour are exceptions, not proving a pattern of “actually caring after all.” Such instances of kindness are unfortunately executed, or (to be generous) co-opted, to improve public relations.

Understanding my use

When asking myself honestly about why I still use Twitter, there are reasons and there are excuses. All my reasons are probably excuses, it depends how generous I am feeling towards myself on any given day. I am caught in a vortex of my beliefs vs my vanity.

Twitter is where I get news

Twitter is the first place I go for world and local news. It’s hard to find a news outlet that covers the current affairs and issues I care about without also publishing clickbait, listicles and SEO-driven junk. Unfortunately this is largely because web advertising (most of which is surveillance-based) is the business model of news publishing. So I curate my news by following a few news outlets and a lot of individual journalists.

There is a workaround: following Twitter accounts and lists on Feedbin, alongside the other RSS feeds I follow. All the tweets without the algorithm or apps attempting to manipulate your behaviour.

This is a temporary workaround as Twitter may find a way to ban this type of use. (Maybe we can move to RSS as our primary publishing means by then?) And obviously it won’t either help nor solve the issue of news media being reliant on surveillance capitalism as a business model.

Followers

Quite a few folks in the web industry have built up a big following on Twitter, and that’s hard to leave behind. (Mine is relatively small but big enough to flatter me on a bad day.) The nice way of looking at it is that you feel a responsibility to the people who followed you to keep up with industry news, and that you have a platform and reach to promote the issues you care about.

The cynical way to look at is would anyone truly notice if I stopped tweeting? I am one in a sea of many. Has a follower count just become another way to stroke my own ego, and prove my worth to myself because I’m hooked on the dopamine kick of a notification telling me that someone thinks I’m worth that tiny-click-of-a-button that is following? Maybe following me isn’t the joyous experience I smugly tell myself it is. There is no workaround for this except simultaneously self-improving and becoming less self-obsessed. As a millennial in a society driven by capitalism, I wish myself luck.

Friendships

Despite the follower/following model of Twitter, I do have friends on Twitter. I’ve gone on about online friendship before. I’ve made friends on Twitter, and I use it to keep up with people I know in person. I want to see how my friends are doing, what they are doing, and what they care about. I also want share small talk and meaningless nonsense with strangers, sharing in our experiences until we can become friends.

The workaround: Mastodon. A far-from-perfect but well-intentioned social network. In my next blog post, I’ll explain why (for now at least) it is the Twitter alternative for me.


Part 1 of a series on Social Networks