We didn’t ❤ the fire

This week, Twitter made the decision to tweak their interface across the board, replacing the ⭐️ with a ❤. According to Akarshan Kumar (@akik), Product Manager at Twitter:

We are changing our star icon for favorites to a heart and we’ll be calling them likes. We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers. You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite.

Predictably enough, response to this development has been mixed. For my part, I’ve been making deadpan jokes that replace stars with hearts, that only a few of my friends seem to get: want to go to ❤bucks for a coffee? have you seen the new ❤ Wars trailer? did you catch this week’s episode of DWT❤s? OMG! a new ❤ Trek series! when’s it going to ❤t?

Anyways. As many people have already observed, ours are charmed lives if the most rage-worthy thing that’s happening in them is a social media platform deciding to change emoji on us. And yet, I find myself more than a little sympathetic with those who object to the change, so I wanted to write a bit about whether and why tweethearts should matter to us.

❤ of Darkness

In announcing the change the way that they did, Twitter has already ceded any claim that it doesn’t matter. By presenting the change as strategic, they’ve identify what they perceive as flaws in their platform: Twitter’s not as easy or rewarding as it should be, and the success of ❤ on Periscope suggests to them that they would be better off investing in a “common language for our global community.”

Whether we buy these rationales or not, it’s difficult to ignore the possible connections between this decision and at least a couple of high-profile suggestions that we may have passed peak Twitter. First was Umair Haque’s discussion about the problem of abuse on social media. While the problem is much broader than a single platform, Haque’s piece is titled “Why Twitter’s Dying,” and Twitter seems to provide the most acute example of a platform where

if all it’s used for is to relentlessly demean, bully, assault, torment, pick on, trample, bicker with, shout at people, well, it’s a pretty good sign that people aren’t using it for much of value. And that is a central point. When a technology is used to shrink people’s possibilities, more than to expand them, it cannot create value for them. And so people will simply tune it out, ignore it, walk away from it if they can.

Nor is it simply that Twitter is struggling to attract new users. Robinson Meyer’s recent essay for the Atlantic, “The Decay of Twitter,” suggests that a sea change has happened among its userbase as well:

In the final paragraphs of this article, let me assert something I have very little data to support: At some point early last year, the standard knock against Twitter — which had long ceased to be “I don’t want to know what someone’s eating for lunch” — became “I don’t want everyone to see what I have to say.”

In Meyer’s closing, he implies that Twitter has to this point thrived on tensions that may be reaching the end of their life-cycles. The 140-character limit that encourages us to get to the point can defeat our attempts to provide context when those points require it. The absence of filters that allows breaking news to go viral there also makes it easy for small, dedicated groups to overwhelm individuals with virulence. The openness of the platform has made it difficult (if not impossible) for the company to reap the rewards of the obvious impact they’ve had on our culture.

(Edit: As I was writing this, I came across Jason Whitlock’s recent column over at J-School about how “Journalists Should Stand Against ‘Twussification.’” Whether you agree with him or not more broadly, Whitlock’s column is a pretty frank discussion of how Twitter privileges certain kinds of practices at the expense of others.)

Total Eclipse of the ⭐️

Faced with a multi-faceted crisis that is having a measurable impact upon the company itself, it’s almost comical that Twitter’s response would be to replace ⭐️ with ❤. And to be fair, that’s not the only change that they have been discussing (nor the only one they’ve made in recent years). But there is a kind of simplistic, “power of positive thinking” logic here that’s hard to ignore: if public perception of their space is negative, then perhaps populating it with ❤ might change that perception? At the very least, maybe the change blurs the lines separating Twitter from other platforms, at a time when it’s being targeted as an (negative) outlier?

The idea that design might positively impact experience isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. As Judith Donath writes in The Social Machine,

To shape online culture, we must be able to identify elements and features that encourage or daunt particular behaviors and uses. The restauranteur chooses between bright lights or candles, washable surfaces or fine linen, open communal tables or hushed, quiet spaces….The interface creates an environment that is conducive to certain types of experience and activity… (10).

The icons that we click on are certainly part of that, as is whether they signify “favorites” or “likes.” But Donath also includes features like anonymity, personas, success models, and audience reaction in that package, qualities that can be “encouraged” through design but not controlled or determined. And I think some of the disappointment over the ❤ is the sense among users that Twitter has deeper problems that a change in icons both gestures toward and cannot truly address.

For some, myself included, the “less confusing,” positive icon replaces one whose ambiguity has been productive for long time users. The change calls to mind Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essay on the typology of the ⭐️ as she uses it on Twitter, “Faves,”

When Twitter did not have a mechanism to maintain social niceties or to reward social hierarchies that come with real-world consequences, people made them. They turned a utilitarian fave into a complex web of social functions and cross-platform functionality.

As Cottom herself notes, that complex web of functions isn’t simply erased with the substitution of a ❤, but transformed into something else entirely. “Hearts don’t work like stars. Hearts mean something and the something is too particular for some people.” Or as Zeynep Tufekci observes in her critique of Facebook, “Not everything in life is ‘like’able”:

The choice of “like” as a primary signal in the world’s biggest social network has substantive political consequences. Signal collapse, or the choice of conflating signals to the algorithm for calculating visibility with our social signals to each other for sympathy also has consequences to our social interactions, by skewing visibility toward the sympathetic and away from the difficult or distressing. Neither of these design decisions truly support an “open and connected” world.

A significant part of Twitter’s success has been predicated on its openness and the relative immediacy of the content we find there. While changing the star to a heart has no necessary, functional impact on the platform itself, it does change our (affective) relationship to it. If users worry about whether RTs imply endorsement, the choice over whether or not to ❤ something raises a whole new set of questions.

What theWants

When I try to imagine what Twitter (the company) thinks it’s doing, I suspect they feel the pressure of watching many of their best features (hashtags, trending topics, and most recently, their save function) picked up by Facebook. To paraphrase the Borg, it sure seems like FB is intent on adding Twitter’s technological distinctiveness to their own. But I guess I’d just as soon not see Twitter hastening the process, and at a time when Facebook itself is at least flirting with the idea of a broader range of possible user reactions.

It may simply be that Twitter’s particular mix of affordances and constraints has simply hit its ceiling. There will still be plenty of room for the various niches that have emerged there; it remains a useful platform for me in certain contexts. But I can’t help but feel like the company is asking itself “why isn’t everyone using Twitter?” when they could be spending more time and energy considering how it’s already being used. I’ve found Twitter useful for the things other platforms don’t do, not their ability to approximate (imperfectly) their competitors.

I don’t know that the ❤ will ultimately have the impact that Twitter or its detractors predict. But as a strategy, at a time when both Twitter the network and Twitter the company (Meyer’s distinction) are struggling, it feels like whatever the opposite is of having your cake and eating it too.