Whatever else you want to say about Twitter, you can't say it's not relevant. As anger, fear, tribalism, and mob behavior become the dominant notes of the national flavor profile, Twitter is right there to capture, distill, and amplify every last drop of it.
Twitter's critics say it's worse than that: The platform isn't just reflecting the state of fractured extremism in the U.S. but perpetuating and aggravating it by incentivizing bad behavior, providing a platform easily gamed by mobs and bots, and giving voices rightfully shunned from other venues the power to reach billions.
You could see how seriously Twitter takes these criticisms with the news this week that the company is considering eliminating the Like button, one of its oldest and most central features. That idea (nowhere near becoming reality anytime soon, it should be noted) is part of a broader push to promote what CEO Jack Dorsey has termed "healthy conversations."
In an appearance before Congress in September, Dorsey framed the need to detoxify Twitter as an existential issue for the company. "Otherwise, no one's going to use [Twitter] in the first place," he said.
But turning Twitter into a place for healthy conversations isn't going to be easy, if it's possible at all, and not just for the obvious reason: that trolling, harassment, and hoaxes are endemic to every internet platform ever created. Even if you could, somehow, regulate these things to a level considered "healthy," that would still leave the "conversations" part. And Twitter has never been a place for conversations.
Just what Twitter is for has never been easy to say, even for the people who run it. As the company was preparing to go public, in 2013, it attempted to codify what Twitter is all about in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Twitter, it said, has four essential attributes: It's public, real time, conversational, and distributed.
That might have sounded convincing to investors eager to get their hands on shares, but it was a recipe for conflict. Each of those attributes pulls against one or more of the others, with "conversational" usually ending up as the loser.
Take "real time." That was true enough in 2013, but since then, Twitter has been twisting the dial ever further in the direction of algorithmic (rather than chronological) presentation of tweets, surfacing older content in a bid to drive engagement. That means people talking about the same thing at different times, versus the synchrony of actual back-and-forth.
"Distributed" means content can easily be shared across the network or even off it--embedded on news sites like this one, for instance. But "distributed" is another way of saying "taken out of context," and thoughtful critics like Zeynep Tufekci believe the "quote retweet" function degrades discourse by giving users an easy way to caricature and dunk on one another's views selectively, rather than engage with them on a deeper level. (Tufekci thinks Twitter should give users the option to disable embedding and quote-tweeting of their tweets.)
Then there's "public." Aside from adding various functionalities to direct messaging, like the ability to send group DMs and attach videos, Twitter hasn't tinkered much with this attribute, and for good reason: It's the one that's closest to the core of what Twitter is. A mostly private Twitter is no Twitter at all. And Twitter's biggest draws have always been its most public figures -- the musicians and athletes and comedians and politicians who command audiences in the tens of millions.
But if Twitter will never be private, it has steadily, if inadvertently, been teaching its users that conversations ought to be, if they're to resemble conversations at all. Otherwise, you're liable to find yourself being harassed or hounded by people you never wanted to talk to in the first place, or just shouting into a void. And the people learning this lesson most thoroughly are the ones who, a decade ago, were telling the rest of us social media was the new public square.
"It's funny how the only interesting, good-faith debates I have are now functionally in private, as anything public is just a boring signaling pageant populated by craven opportunists, wild-eyed zealots, or fervent idiots reciting scripts," tweeted Chaos Monkeys author and Facebook veteran Antonio García Martínez.
That's not to say speech on Twitter serves no function. I've written that it's useful for advertising your ideas, and finding people who share them. But complete agreement isn't a terribly fertile basis for conversation, while disagreement on Twitter, for all the reasons outlined above, doesn't produce discussions but arguments--or worse.
(An aside: Quite possibly the reason long threads and tweetstorms have proven such a popular newish use case for Twitter is their attraction for people who might like to partake in a public conversation but have come to realize the only sane way to do it is, essentially, to act out both sides of it.)
It may just be possible for Twitter to become a home for healthy conversations -- but probably not while being the other things Twitter likes to think of itself as being. But maybe I'm wrong. Feel free to tweet at me if you think so.
Better yet: DM me.