Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The end of Big Twitter

As long as I’ve been on Twitter (I started in March 2007) people have been complaining about Twitter. But recently things have changed. The complaints have increased in frequency and intensity, and now are coming more often from especially thoughtful and constructive users of the platform. There is an air of defeat about these complaints now, an almost palpable giving-up. For many of the really smart people on Twitter, it’s over. Not in the sense that they’ll quit using it altogether; but some of what was best about Twitter — primarily the experience of discovery — is now pretty clearly a thing of the past.

Recently Marco Arment got into a something of a pissing match on Twitter, and says that he learned a few things from it. For instance, he’s going to stop hate-retweeting some of the nastiest comments he gets, which I have always thought was a bad idea anyway. He’s going to take more time away from social media. And he’s going to reconsider the access to his life that he grants, that all of us grant, to strangers on social media. “We allow people access to us 24/7. We’re always in public, constantly checking an anonymous comment box, trying to explain ourselves to everyone, and trying to win unwinnable arguments with strangers who don’t matter in our lives at all.”

Brent Simmons comments interestingly on Arment’s experience:

Even though I follow people I like and respect, there’s no way around seeing some of the crap that happens on Twitter. Even if you don’t use Twitter at all, you will have seen articles about people being harrassed and threatened. You will have noticed the pure toxic sludge that pours through the service. (A hypothetical “Dawn of the Idiocracy” prequel would feature Twitter prominently.) 

And it’s worse than any blog comments system, because if you use it, anybody can put something in front of your face whether you want it or not. 

Twitter is also wonderful, and I get so much value out of it. But it’s like 51% good and 49% bad. 

I don’t see it getting any better. Hopefully it can hold the line at just-barely-worth-it. (But the recent changes to the timeline make that a little less likely.)

I don’t see it getting any better either. And no one has offered a better explanation than Frank Chimero:

We concede that there is some value to Twitter, but the social musing we did early on no longer fits. My feed (full of people I admire) is mostly just a loud, stupid, sad place. Basically: a mirror to the world we made that I don’t want to look into. The common way to refute my complaint is to say that I’m following the wrong people. I think I’m following the right people, I’m just seeing the worst side of them while they’re stuck in an inhospitable environment. It’s exasperating to be stuck in a stream. 

Here’s the frustration: if you’ve been on Twitter a while, it’s changed out from under you. Christopher Alexander made a great diagram, a spectrum of privacy: street to sidewalk to porch to living room to bedroom. I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch — our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.

This is exactly right. I have found that my greatest frustrations with Twitter come not from people who are being nasty — though there are far too many of them — but from people who just misunderstand. They reply questioningly or challengingly to a tweet without reading any of the preceding or succeeding tweets that would give it context, or without reading the post that it links to. They take jokes seriously — Oh Lord do they take jokes seriously. And far too often they don’t take the time to formulate their responses with care and so write tweets that I can’t make sense of at all. And I don’t want to have to deal with all this. I just want to sit here on the porch and have a nice chat with my friends and neighbors.

But wait. I’m not on the porch anymore. I’m in the middle of Broadway.

So I’m doing what, it seems to me, many people are doing: I’m getting out of the street. I’ll keep my public account for public uses: it’ll be a place where I can link to posts like this one, or announce any event that’s of general interest. But what I’ve come to call Big Twitter is simply not a place for conversation any more.

I don’t like this change. I made friends — real friends — on Twitter when it was a place for conversation. I reconnected with people I had lost touch with. Whole new realms of knowledge were opened to me. I don’t want to foreclose on the possibility of further discovery, but the signal-to-noise ration is so bad now that I don’t think I could pick out the constructive and interesting voices from all the mean-spiritedness and incomprehension; and so few smart people now dare to use Twitter in the old open way.

Big Twitter was great — for a while. But now it’s over, and it’s time to move on. I’m just hoping that some smart people out there are learning from what went wrong and developing social networks that can strengthen the signal and silence the noise.


  • I can´t see where is the problem with a platform in which you can choose who to follow and what tweets you ignore/pay attention to ??? works just fine for me. I devote some time to "edit" twitter, I mean MY twitter.

  • The great thing about Twitter is that if your signal:noise ratio is wrong, you have no-one to blame but yourself: resolute use of the Unfollow button cures all ills!

  • Interesting that neither of these commenters knows that people you don't follow can reply to you on Twitter.

  • yes, I´m aware of that (don´t happen to me often thoug). but you can ignore (block?) them. But I can imagine that could be a real pain in the ass for somebody.

  • Yeah, I believe there is this thing called "blocking" which sounds like it would sort that out, but being in a fairly unverbose corner of the Twitterverse (by virtue of the aforementioned ruthlessness with my timeline) I've never really felt the need.

    I should perhaps add that I try toreserve Twitter as a unpolluted noosphere of intellectual affinity, following and unfollowing accounts without any recourse to 'in real life' sentiment. I reserve Facebook for that, and it's interesting how rubbish my FB feed is as a result. But as it's being posted by people I'm glad to know that they're alive and kicking, I put up with all the nonsense that ensues there.

  • But you can't block people until they tweet at you — that is, unless you want to go looking through Twitter for nasty people so you can block them in advance, which would be, you know, pretty counterproductive. And anyway, it's kind of mean to block people just for missing the point or writing unclearly. No, the block option doesn't address this issue.

  • I am quite new to Twitter. I also sometimes have the problem of misunderstanding tweets. Even after reading their past posts.

    I have decided to use a list, a simple whitelist. I have now a little Twitter "cohort" of 300 people I follow (and who follow me) and whenever I see someone writing funny, intelligent or even harmless weird tweets they go on my list. That simple. I can always remove them but most of "the chosen ones" are still there and I enjoy their tweets. My main TL is out of sight most of the time. I only look at it infrequently.

  • not only. it's also a place where people educate other people. first were most educated people. then low educated ones. and they can read newspapers they would never have known, posts they would never have written. in the begining of twitter, i thought i wav always right and i spoke on an arrogant way. now, i red so much amazing people (that i woule never have met without twitter) than i became more realistic about myself and i think twice before twitting. i read also people who think the opposite of me, and i can consider their ideas, which make me think + large. i think twitter educated me a lot. and i think people just got saved in some lands like haiti in 2010 or in Libye in 2012: remember Mo!

  • Like some of the folks I follow on Twitter and elsewhere, I've been online since the days of packet email and BBSes running on IBM clones in someone's den. And I have yet to witness a community that didn't eventually turn into something far less appealing than it was in its early days. The facile analysis, of course, has long been that it's always September somewhere on the net. But clueless noobs are rarely the ones who are truly at fault.

    From Conrad: "In Patusan they had found lots of pepper, and had been impressed by the magnificence of the Sultan; but somehow, after a century of checkered intercourse, the country seems to drop gradually out of the trade. Perhaps the pepper had given out. Be it as it may, nobody cares for it now; the glory has departed, the Sultan is an imbecile youth with two thumbs on his left hand and an uncertain and beggarly revenue extorted from a miserable population and stolen from him by his many uncles."

    Anyway, thanks for your participation in these precincts. I share your hope that someone figures out a lasting better way.

  • Eternal September strikes again.

  • I'm sorry but this doesn't make sense for me nowadays. I'm not a big account (close to 1.5k followers) and I suffered serious trolling, threatening and harassment due political ideology (striking harder on electoral campaign). My notifications were full of their tweets.

    First, I blocked them and report them to Twitter. I got their accounts suspended but they came back within a few days. This lead me to a different strategy and mindset. I saw their tweets but I "felt" them as what they were: noise.

    Do you know that pain-in-the-ass noise that you ignore after a while? Somebody drilling, i.e. That kind of noise.

    When I realized this, I didn't care about them. I just passed through them, ignoring actively. They eventually stopped harassing. They became powerless.

    With this experience I developed a fine sense to detect useless discussions, allowing me to even get in one on purpose if I'm bored enough. Even if I'm in the mood I can answer them but when I do it I use to be right on the spot. They tend to stop after two or three tweets.

    I think everybody should develop this kind of mindset around Twitter. Obviously, this won't work in other types of harassments beyond "intellectual" one. They should be dealt in more severe ways.

  • I think there is a vast difference of experience that is dependent upon the number of followers you have. From my sense of things, those of us with less than 1,000 followers rarely get the troll or unwanted reply activity that those of you with thousands of followers get.

    On a personal note, @ayjay- I for one will be sad to see you go. You were one of my first follows and I found many other smart and interesting people through you. This I think was/is? one of Twitter's greatest strengths. You could lurk in on smart conversations without feeling a need to contribute- just appreciate.

  • I am new to Twitter and inexperienced when speaking to its scope and scale. However, this article supports the need of education and educators to teach critical thinking and analysis strategies if we are to equip students with the skills necessary to engage in and evaluate content and conflict encountered via the internet. Social Media provides opportunity for invaluable networking and resource gathering, but the potential for personal and professional suicide lurks around every corner. Educators must teach students to evaluate information and source.

  • In 2007 and 2008, Twitter was my main social media site to exchange information and ideas with teachers; people were responsive, and we actually had conversations. Unfortunately, it now mostly seems to be people talking at one another rather than with one another (or even worse, people announcing some great, new product). Although there are a few groups / people who provide value and push the conversation forward, Twitter has definitely evolved into, for me, a less useful platform.

    Chris Cotter

  • Haj Melek said above (Sep 1, 4:52 PM) "I have yet to witness a community that didn't eventually turn into something far less appealing than it was in its early days."

    Of course. The community comes to be dominated by the most productive. Because their utterances tend to have the least substantive content, the rest of the members fade away out of boredom, leaving them to trade verbal spitballs with each other.

    In Twitter, hashtags should in principle solve that problem, transcending stale networks by encouraging focus on the topic at hand. This seems to work for current events with a short shelf life. But hashtags referring to longer-lasting interests --analogous to Usenet's newsgroups -- attract spambots.

    Charles Packer

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]