Twitter Should Have Groups and Here Is How They Should Work
How a Simple Product Enhancement Could Alleviate Twitter’s Community Woes
This post has been in gestation for years. Whenever there’s a new flare-up concerning Twitter, which is comically often, I dip into my Drafts folder and dust off this post, but due to the exasperating complexity of the topic, never muster the polish to hit Publish. It happened last summer, during the public tussle over purported “shadow banning,” which induced John Herrman to write “Twitter’s Misguided Quest to Become a Forum for Everything,” and again during the fracas over Sarah Jeong’s tweets, which induced Ezra Klein to write “Twitter Is Not Your Friend.” These skirmishes arise at a steady clip, and the sturm und drang surged again last week, after the abject failure of something regrettably called #KaraJack, which induced Taylor Lorenz to write “It’s Impossible to Follow a Conversation on Twitter.” Many people have enunciated some version of the problem, but this quote from Taylor nudged me back into the misbegotten Drafts folder, to dust off this post one last time:
The theoretical benefit of being on Twitter, a broadcast-based open social network, is to talk with other people and follow their conversations, even ones that don’t include you. Somehow, in 2019, the product has degraded to the point where this has become impossible. It’s like running through a public square shouting at people, trying to start a dialogue while getting jostled by a crowd.
There are many problems with Twitter. There’s the abuse problem, the bots problem, the threading problem, and the hellfire nazi shithole problem. I will not feign to solve every headache, but I will say this: Most of the woes emanate from a single disfunction at the core of the product — a lack of organizing structure. Twitter is just too damn miscellaneous.
Are the Constraints the Message?
Designing software is the art of creating constraints. Before we even encounter the written rules of a new platform — its standards, its policies, its terms-of-use — we contend with its informal strictures. And Twitter is incredibly unique in this regard, because it has effectively zero product constraints.
Let’s compare. When one opens Facebook, a highly structured system unfurls before us. Options exist for posting photos or links, commenting, interacting with groups, chatting with businesses, checking into locations, attending events, and heaps of other functions that vacillate between public, semi-public, and private. When one opens Reddit, a passel of subscribable groups (subreddits) appear, each offering its own set of policies, content, and contributors. They are distinct: /r/AskTrumpSupporters/ is wildly different from /r/MemeEconomy/, not just in content and design, but community policy.
Now, open Twitter, and you gets… tweets. Lots and lots of tweets. The only attempts at structure are hashtags, which have become a superfluous nuisance, and threaded conversations, which are confounding AF. Twitter’s sole design constraint — a 280-character limit — is less an ingenious rampart of quality control than an atavistic leftover. Twitter has no taxonomy, no media types, no formal structure beyond Follow and Unfollow. On Twitter, everything is, as Lauryn Hill said, everything.
You cannot “organize a community” on Twitter, nor “create a set of standards.” You can only… tweet. And the only context for that tweet is… Twitter. There is no governing framework, no metadata, no structure. The context of a tweet is the universe.
Gaze into this abyss.
It is impossible to form a cohesive community on Twitter, which might be why social misanthropes are so drawn to the platform. For a long time, this attribute — this indifference towards hierarchy, this valorization of the ephemeral — has been perceived as a core feature of Twitter. Just type into a box and hit publish! But now it is time to finally acknowledge that this lack of organizing structure is its fundamental shortcoming.
What Can Be Done Given Where We Are?
I suspect Twitter itself already recognizes the problem. Designing software is difficult, and most “solutions” offered by the commentariat (including investors) make appealing soundbites but conveniently skimp on the details.
And in the case of Twitter, the most neglected detail is also its greatest handicap: its history. If you were to build a real-time short-message platform from scratch today, you absolutely, positively, unequivocally would not build Twitter. But because of its history (originally erected on SMS) and early product decisions, there are limitations on upgrading the core functionality of the platform. (We cannot “undo” the decision, for instance, to make replies ontologically equivalent with tweets — the original sin of the platform, as far as I’m concerned, which has made threaded conversations so infuriating.)
All of which is to say, this post will not take the form of a tirade, dashing off a list of unwieldy product features that ultimately fall into disuse. (Whither, Moments? Music? Lists?) Rather than devise new icons to bolt onto the nav bar, I will propose adopting community incrementally. And instead of appending cumbersome features, I will advocate resurrecting a comatose one — hashtags.
Whoa, Why Hashtags?
Hashtags were originally introduced as an ad hoc method for applying taxonomic order to a highly disorganized system. (The clever term folksonomy was coined in 2004 to connote a collaborative classification system, while the hashtag plopped onto Twitter in 2007.) Simply stated, hashtags categorize the miscellaneous. By definition, hashtags are groups, so I propose reconstituting them as such. #MakeHashtagsGreatAgain!
To do this, we need to rescue hashtags from the clutches of the thirsty, and integrate them as a legitimate product feature. First, let’s take the blob of arbitrary tweets on the main timeline and apply distinct categorization:
Tweets still dominate the main timeline, but a new goal surfaces: to direct you into distinct venues of conversation and community. Or basically, make Twitter seem smaller.
Everyone has opened Twitter and been vexed by the flood of arbitrary tweets about The Bachelor finale or the NBA Finals. Yet everyone also has their version of The Bachelor finale or the NBA Finals — topics you yearn to discuss, but fear breach some unspoken etiquette about blasting tangential musings to everyone. (Some of you should fear this more!) Twitter Groups solves this problem: Scribble your witticisms into #TheBachelor and #NBAFinals, and you instantly cease annoying the 90% of your followers who have no interested in Colton or LeBron.
When you tweet from within a Group, your message is placed directly into the context of that Group. Those tweets are still public, in the sense that anyone can still find them, but they are suppressed from the main timeline, unless the viewer has also joined that Group. This serves the dual purpose of removing mass noise and encouraging niche conversation. Interactions become lighter, more intimate, more contextual.
If you tap into a Group, you will find more than a stream of tweets. A community is forming…
You can subscribe to a Group, but unlike a user profile, which you Follow, the prompt here is to Join. This is a community, which shifts the goal from broadcasting to participating, with special emphasis on LIVE interaction.
Okay, time for questions!
So it’s like a Facebook Group?
Somewhat. The big difference is that all Twitter Groups are open, at least at first. This lightweight system incrementally establishes a framework for community, which can be expanded later with enhanced features — moderators, private groups, etc.
Groups are just hashtags? That’s barely a feature.
That’s right. It’s barely a feature.
Rather than adding bulk, I propose taking a moribund feature and injecting it with community capabilities, which also improves the quality of content on your main timeline. Hashtags already exist, but only the thirstiest use them; ergo, #MakeHashtagsGreatAgain.
How will Groups improve my main timeline?
Right now, Twitter lacks a true taxonomy, so it tries to infer your interest graph, which has been widely mocked for its inaccuracies. (My personal graph currently itemizes Canada, Fashion & Beauty, Geology, and The Apprentice among my interests.) Instead of trying to guess your interests, an opt-in system of Groups would provide a much better signal for surfacing tweets relevant to you.
Is anything else like this?
Slack and Reddit both use the hashtag syntax, and Instagram last year added the ability to follow hashtags.
So this is like those features?
Not exactly. This implementation avoids upending certain core Twitter principles, especially its open nature. Right or wrong, tweets are now deemed public utterances — just ask James Gunn, Kevin Hart, Trevor Noah, and countless others. Rolling back that perception is, as they say out West, beyond scope.
We need a compromise, and Twitter Groups strikes a balance between public and private. With the new system, if you want to continue blasting all your followers with musings about Modern Monetary Theory or Saturday Night Live, go crazy. But if you desire a specialized audience who cares deeply about niche topics, or if you want a real-time discussion about live TV that doesn’t firehose your friends, Groups are the feature for you.
But what if I care deeply about Modern Monetary Theory or Saturday Night Live?
You’re awesome. You should check out #MMT and #SNL, and contribute to the mountainous archive of expertise.
Who is this feature for?
Right now, Twitter encourages having opinions about everything, and because journalists have opinions about everything, they tend to use it as their own public chatroom. That’s fine, we cannot throttle those miscreants. But we can design features to circumvent the dilettantes.
So Groups encourage expertise?
Communities are synonymous with expertise. And because in-group users have expressed an affinity for your area of passion, they will be more likely to interact and follow you.
Are you worried this feature creates filter bubbles?
LOLOLOLOL. Filter bubbles are not Twitter’s cardinal challenge at the moment. When I open Twitter today, I see an EXTREMELY WIDE spectrum of political opinion blasted at me. Not to exaggerate, but maybe the widest spectrum… in the history of political thought? Don’t worry, the Overton Window is preeeeety wiiiiiide open right now.
But to assuage your sociological angst, I suspect Twitter Groups will incentivise real-world cohesiveness, not discourage it.
Do we have to call them “Groups”?
Nah. Taylor Lorenz recently pointed me to a post that proposed a similar feature called Rooms, which is probably a better term, but implies something more chatty. Maybe we call them Channels; in a pinch, Clubs. But be forewarned: If anyone tries to focus group Tribes, I’ll simply die on the inside.
Would you use this feature?
I would dogfood the heck out of this. There so many instances where I want to interact with a small group and not blast all my followers. (I wrote about one case on Twitter.) Tweets, right now, are like bottled messages, tossed in the void and found years later by the wrong civilization.
Plus, I have so much to say about #MMT and #SNL.
Will @RealDonaldTrump use this feature?
Fail, whale! I cannot solve all the problems.
Does this solve the Nazi problem?
No, but I think it helps. I’ll save how it helps for the conversation on #MakeHashtagsGreatAgain.
What about the Edit button?
I am a media collector, writer, and product consultant. I recently published my first book, The Encyclopedia of Misinformation, an interactive romp on the history of trickery and deception. Over on that helter-skelter pileup known as Twitter, I am @fimoculous, and doy, I have a newsletter — sign up here.