Who broke Twitter?

Those in the know think @twitter is dying. I am not one of those — either secretly informed or thinking that the fat lady is about to sing. Yet, Twitter has a big problem: a very bad signal-to-noise ratio.

The root cause of the problem is quite simple. Too many users, PR professionals, celebrities, activists, etc. keep churning out tweets with “I tweet, therefore I am” attitude. The rest of us are choking, not to mention new users who find it difficult to engage Twitter meaningfully in the first place.

The deluge of nonsense happens on Facebook and other social media platforms as well. Why, then, Twitter cannot cope with people’s existential anxiety like Facebook that has turned it into a massive success? The latter may have succeeded in hiring better data scientists to sort out social pulp algorithmically — I don’t know. However, it is important to observe that the two services espouse quite different models of human sociality.

In Facebook, your posts are aimed at entertaining your friends. This means that you probably put in a tiny little bit more effort to write or share something genuinely fun, relevant or informative to people who know you. In Twitter, the game is about broadcasting your existence to as big audience as possible. In this game, it often seems to matter little if tweets are in any way original, insightful or relevant — as long as something gets tweeted.

Fixing Twitter will require more than changing stars to hearts. Indeed, it should be seriously worrying to investors that such an irrelevant issue makes ironic headlines all over the web (The Atlantic, Chicago Tribune, Vanity Fair, BBC, Fortune, The Guardian, and so on). According to a blog post, “[w]e want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers.” Well, that maybe true but for sure not the biggest problem for new users. Given that @jack Dorsey has been busy mulling up the organization, he surely has the guts go beyond fiddling with icons that, honestly, only the old Twitterati care about.

Twitter could, for instance, remove the retweet feature and limit the number daily tweets per account to one. Yes, these are stupid ideas but let’s look at my reasoning behind them. First, disabling retweets would make it more difficult to mindlessly recycle stuff without actually adding any value to it. Users could still de facto retweet by using copy-paste, but since those tweets would have to be composed manually this would at least enforce the opportunity to add something to them. Second, limiting the number of tweets per day (excluding replies) may sound utterly artificial but, hey, so is the character limit. This would make every tweet count.

You may object that there are tools that help coping with the deluge of irrelevant tweets and hence there is no need to impose such artificial limits. I think it is just bad design if users are forced to look for complementary products to fix what is broken in the core platform. Importantly, it creates a huge obstacle for new users to pick up and enjoy Twitter.

It’s the people who broke Twitter, just as they will break any social media platform unless the platform learns to curate content for the crowds — not just for those on top of the publicity food chain.