Adjust Your Expectations

Two well-intentioned but ultimately wanting takes on the Twitter experience came out today and so, you know:

The idea of “fixing” Twitter is so fucking bizarre to me.

What, precisely, are we fixing?

The valuation issue? Where Twitter’s value was wildly inflated due to post-crash wishful thinking and a lack of historical precedent for the new platform’s growth rate, leaving the company (today) handcuffed to ROI expectations it could never, in a million years meet, because most people on Earth will simply never, ever find Twitter useful?

Are we fixing the user experience issue? What is the user experience issue? The character limit sucks, the new reply feature is confusing and pointless, why did they change favs to likes, I can’t block people fast enough, oh my god my menchies, I’m still mad my avatar isn’t animated anymore (not kidding I’m personally mad about this), why can’t I just see my tweets in order rather than algorithmatized…there doesn’t seem to be a single feature addition or change since the late 2000s that anyone using Twitter has been happy about it. Though everyone seems to agree that the worst part of the user experience on Twitter is the tone of the user base.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe the user experience issue is harassment, full stop, and that right there is why Twitter can’t fulfill its 2009 destiny as a True Competitor to Facebook. Maybe, as more or less every single web culture pundit ever has suggested, people don’t use Twitter because Twitter is a cesspool, a “dumpster fire,” filled with Nazis and abusers and Russian troll bots. Twitter’s growth is limited (or at least, doomed to mediocrity, a necessary but little loved source of news) by its lack of content filters or proper disciplinary levers. Is what they say.

But…ok there is some vile shit on Twitter. Arguing for a safe space for Nazis by citing the first amendment makes you either juvenile or evil, so fuck you either way. Removing Nazis, homophobes, sexists, and shitheads of all other ilk from the platform is a moral issue as well as a UX. But its really worth noting why Twitter doesn’t prioritize that: because harassment does not matter to Twitter, the company.

Twitter, the company, is concerned with user growth and profit. Twitter has a shitload of investors who expect an absurd return on their investment. They raised $770 million prior to their IPO, the last $400 million of which on a $9.25 billion valuation, and that was before anyone in the open market got in on the action. About that absolutely hilarious valuation: VC firms have an interest in driving valuation as high as possible, because they build guarantees into their contracts ensuring return on their investment prior to anyone else getting paid out. It basically says we’ll give you all this money, but if there’s cash from this we get 10x on our investment before anyone else gets anything. In other words, despite being so obviously worth much less than $9.25 billion, that’s the figure Twitter execs are forced to aim for if they ever want to get real fucking rich from this thing. Which I assure you, they really do.

Twitter, the company, needs to do three things in order to remain a viable company: it needs to add users, it needs to users to keep coming back, and it needs advertisers to pay to get in front of those users.

Right so back to harassment. Ignoring for a moment that nobody who makes decisions at Twitter actually use the product, which makes it by definition a shit product, Twitter approaches user experience like any other tech company does, through quantitative (closely watching user activity data) and qualitative (interviewing users and non-users) analysis. Twitter execs know they “suck at dealing with abuse.” But is abuse preventing new users from joining the platform, driving away users in droves, or driving advertisers away from the platform?

The answer to all above is almost certainly no.

Twitter has seen a massive decline in active users since 2011. The above chart is around 2 years old, but my understanding is that Twitter has now reached the (comparatively enviable) state of simply stagnating, no longer bleeding users like the elevator in the Shining.

What is driving people away?

Well let’s try to answer this first: are there obvious signs that harassment is driving people away from Twitter?

Ok that’s super noisy. But what is clear from the above two charts?

  1. People are aware that Twitter harassment is a thing.
  2. Mentions of Twitter harassment do not track to decline in active users.
  3. Twitter currently has over 300mm active users.
  4. Twitter is effectively not growing whatsoever.

We don’t have user exit interviews for Twitter, though there’s certainly no shortage of anecdotal evidence of harassment quits in the form of extremely fascinating and compelling confessionals of why [writer from New York] quit Twitter. So we don’t know, quantitatively, if harassment is driving Twitter’s shit growth numbers.

But I think this is clear from the above: Twitter has capped out.

Considering:

  1. How many inactive accounts litter its wasteland (around 550 million accounts have never tweeted, and as of 2014 43% of all registered users had not tweeted within the year)
  2. The fact that Twitter is integrated into every televised sporting event, news article, current President of the United States, and yet the platform still cannot manage over 1% YoY growth,

Indicates that everyone who could ever conceivably try Twitter has done so and has already formed an opinion.

So people just don’t like Twitter, by and large. Or at least they don’t like to tweet, personally. We can’t get that close to Twitter’s data anymore (ever since they stopped bragging around 2014), but extrapolating from the above, its pretty certain that most people who ever tried Twitter either never tweeted or got bored years ago. Harassment on the platform could be the primary explanation of that disinterest, but that’s incredibly unlikely. For example: Twitter is a very white, male place overall (despite having some of the most vibrant, engaging, important discussion spaces for women, PoC, and queers on the entire Internet), and white men are rarely the target of online harassment. Plus only something like 30% of Twitter users are in the US and, despite one very good report by a known Bernie bro, you basically never hear about Twitter harassment outside of US audiences.

Anyway here’s a simpler explanation than everyone left cus of harassment: Twitter is a niche product with a surprisingly large, but limited, target audience. It caters to people who are absolutely addicted to perpetual information feedback and engagement. That simply excludes a vast swath of the world, the billions of people who are neither irony poisoned nor masochistic enough to gaze daily at the horrors of Current Events. It caters to narcissists, who need to see their voice out in the world. This is why Twitter, at the end of the day, has become the platform of choice for Nazis, SJWs, leftists, and #TCOTs: its for people who desperately need attention, not normies.

Here’s my take: Twitter as a company sucks, but it knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s not fixing harassment because, not only does it have no idea how to do it, but harassment isn’t even in its top 3 problems, from a business perspective. It needs to grow, it needs to keep its users, it needs to keep advertisers. PR issues and visibly hurt users aside, Twitter knows harassment isn’t keeping people from Twitter. Twitter is keeping people from Twitter.

You don’t fix Twitter. Twitter is what it is. The company is fully woven into our media, and yet it does not grow. The company tries every new fancy integration and experience tweak it can imagine, but it does not make its users happy. It is simply a platform, with an essential identity that contains unchanging pros and cons. You cannot “fix it” any more than you can make Facebook good for idle banter, or Snapchat good for discovery, or Instagram good for ephemeral moments. Twitter does not have a problem, there are simply limits to what it can be. Twitter’s investors will have to accept that, and stop dreaming of a gloriously wealthy future, when everyone on earth tweets daily. And its critics will have to accept that Twitter, like every deeply damaged friend you just can’t quit, will never actually change for you.

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