How Twitter could help creators and journalists, undermine trolls and grow its user base

Lately I’ve been thinking about the challenges facing content production and journalism quite a lot. As the recent election has shown, writing good or even factually correct stuff doesn’t seem to be enough. Every writer out there is struggling with two basic truths:

  • If you need to make a living out of it, the piece you’re writing almost certainly needs to bring home as many clicks as possible and
  • An horrible amount of readers doesn’t seem to care about accuracy, decent prose, or even a vague resemblance of truth. Since real-time fact checking is not a thing, you can as well write whatever crosses your mind

The combination of these two factors has given us an internet landscape where shit content is almost always netting you a better reward, being it visibility, profit, or progressing a particular agenda. To this, we need to add the echo chamber effect: you keep hearing only what you want to hear because you surround yourself with likeminded people. Even when you don’t do that an algorithm narrows down the selection of content for you.

Just the other day I was commenting with a friend on an article The Verge published. Here’s an excerpt:

Zuckerberg was speaking at the Technonomy conference, where interviewer David Kirkpatrick pressed him on Facebook’s growing power as a distributor of news and information. He said people who reacted with shock to Trump’s victory had underestimated his support. “I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news,” Zuckerberg said. “If you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message the Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”

What Zuckerberg says here is not wrong, obviously, the problem being only that his platform enables people to vote on false premises. And they do that because a vast majority get their news from Facebook.

Facebook feeds them whatever “they enjoy more”, which has in all probability nothing to do with good and impartial content. In the best case scenario it’s an endless list of click bait articles, in the worst it’s actual shit spamming related to a specific agenda. Zuckerberg himself tried to address this point in a recent post, after the inevitable round of finger pointing.

“Oh shit”

So, the question is, how do you fix this? How do you make sure writers can set out to to the best possible job and not “the most convenient” job if they want to be able to pay their bills?

It all begins with Twitter

Premise: I don’t have the whole solution — this is a complex problem involving technical matters and freedom of speech. However, I think there’s a combination of tools already in circulation that could help us move in the right direction.

Let’s start with the problems Twitter has:

  • They can’t grow their user base fast enough
  • They can’t monetize very well as ad campaigns don’t seem to be as effective as they are on Facebook
  • They have massive problems with trolling (just look at the amount of options to stop people from broadcasting — I picked Motherboard randomly, I actually like their tweets)

I like Twitter a lot. I use it to follow all the topics I care about, and I love that I can pick exactly who I’m following without the implicit assumption that I have to follow friends and family (hey guys, I love you!).

For me Twitter has always been the“I will follow you if you say something interesting and for no other reason” social network. It has also completely replaced my use of RSS: 95% of my reading list comes now from links I found on Twitter. There’s amazing stuff happening there, including a lot of comedy in 140 characters, which always makes my days more amusing.

Wouldn’t it be nice to reward the people you follow and like directly, without waiting for them to, I don’t know, publish a book like Melissa Broader or Tim Urban had to do to keep doing what they are doing?

Flattr does some things right

Flattr is a little known microdonation service I’ve been using for some years. In their words:

Flattr is a social microdonations service
Founded 2010 to help creators get paid for their digital content in manner that is aligned with how people use the internet.
When you’re registered to flattr, you add money to your account and set a monthly budget. During the month you flattr creators by clicking the Flattr-button next to their content. At the end of the month, your monthly budget is divided between all the things you flattered and sent to the creators.

The idea is simple and powerful. Implementation is… ok? It’s an embed. I mean, I find it easy enough to use but as a matter of fact the system is simply not that widespread. However the basic idea is brilliant and integrating it on other services could be a real incentive for good content.

Enters the Twitter creator account

So I started thinking: why Twitter can’t have “tips” when you enjoy the content that is shared there? It would work more or less like this:

  • You can change the tier of your account, from Basic to, say Creator account
  • When you have a Creator account you can receive tips, but only if you also give tips. In practice, it means that each month you set a budget, starting at $5 or so, and each time you like or retweet something, that specific tweet gets “marked”.
  • At the end of the month, your budget is then divided among all things you liked or retweeted. If you don’t tip anyone, the budget simply goes to people responsible for the tweets you have interacted with (yes, this is a big minus if you’re a troll).

This new account tier would have some immediate effects, such as:

  • People creating good stuff would actually get tipped. Most of them won’t be able to make a living out of it — not straight away at least. But seeing that there is a return, they would be incentivised in creating more good stuff.
  • More creators would join Twitter because now it would be a viable way to get rewarded for your work.
  • Egglike trolls would be weakened: sure, they can continue to whine and harass, but they won’t be able to deny the appreciation other people have for your work. Most of those accounts would never, ever become able to be tipped in any significant way and even if they would gather a significant following, Twitter could prevent them from switching to a Creator account if they indulge in hate speech and such.

Does this system solve the fact checking issue, or the echo chamber effect? Of course not, but it could definitely create an environment where shitposting is not anymore the best possible option. Thoughts?