Why Twitter Represents Everything Wrong With America Today

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So for the seventh time, Twitter is trying to push its algorithmically-sorted Tweets into users’ timelines – and for the seventh time, Twitter users are angrily yelling, “Having our Tweets in the order they arrive in is a feature!  Stop fucking trying to change it!  Why do you want to change it?”
The reason they want to change it is a large reason why America doesn’t work well any more.
But first, let’s discuss why Twitter’s feed is a critical issue.
If you’re not familiar with how Facebook posts work – and a lot of you are not – Facebook itself decides what posts you see, based on an internal algorithm that scans each post and determines what’s important.  What’s resting at the top of your feed might have been posted three days ago – but it got a lot of comments, or it has buzzwords like “new baby,” or it’s got advertising dollars behind it.
And those algorithms are:
Frequently wrong.  I stopped adding friends on Facebook after the third – the fucking third! – time there was a death in a friend’s family, and Facebook’s algorithm decided it wasn’t important.  And my friends, who were consumed by the death of their mother and/or husband, naturally assumed that I knew because I was their friend on Facebook.  Which led to multitudes of awkward conversations when I met them in person and I said, brightly, “How ya doing?” and they went, “Well, it’s been hard,” and I asked, “Why? What happened?”
Subtly Biased. Hey.  Are you liberal?  Well, you’re gonna be more liberal on Facebook, because that algorithm is going to pick up on what you like, and it’s going to deposit more liberal news posts in your feed, and you’ll come to believe that the world is way more liberal than it is because Facebook is quietly sanitizing what you want to see.
Smothering Stories of Genuine Interest.  Ferguson became a national news story not because any news outlet wanted to pick up on it – they ignored it.  But people on Twitter kept posting about it, and because Twitter posts show up in chronological order, if you arrived soon after someone posted on Ferguson, you saw every post.  Eventually, enough people chained up interest that CNN and FOX news were forced to cover it.  Whereas on Facebook, which decided for you what you’d like, Ferguson waited for weeks before it started to be marked as “of interest,” and even then it only showed it to you if it decided you wanted to know.
Twitter wanting to move to an algorithmically-decided ranking means that it decides what you need to see.  And stories like Ferguson will be suppressed – not out of any Illuminati-style pressure, but because algorithms are crap at spotting trends with small data, which means if Ferguson started out small in an algorithmically-determined Twitter, it would very likely stay small.  When was the last time you heard of a news story breaking on Facebook that someone didn’t post on Facebook?
And every Twitter user I know wants chronological order.  That’s why we show up.  It’s messy, and it’s chaotic, but we consider “not having an algorithm decide what we see” to be actually one of Twitter’s greatest strengths…
And Twitter keeps ignoring what we want and keeps trotting out feelers to see if they foist this shitty concept on us.  (They’ve backed off this latest time, claiming that ha ha, they never meant to replace chronological order, but that’s what they said before – and yet once again there were reports that they wanted to roll it out.  There’s beta users who are seeing it.  For a company that doesn’t want to use it, they’re sure putting a lot of work into testing algorithms.)
Now, you may be asking, “Why does Twitter want to alienate its core user base?”  And the answer is simple:
They don’t want their user base.
They want Facebook’s.
The problem is that Twitter has a devoted user base, but it’s not growing enough.  There’s a lot of people who try Twitter, decide it’s not for them, and wander away.  There’s also like a billion people on the Internet, and not all of them want to use Twitter – a service which is, essentially, a global IRC chat.
Now, in a sane market, that would be enough.  People would go, “Well, Twitter has millions of deeply engaged users, so how do we optimize this experience for them?”  And they’d figured out ways to make Twitter better for the folks who use it, and determine better ways to make cash off a loyal user base, and make a decent profit.
Wall Street does not want decent profits.
Wall Street needs magnificent profits.
And that is a comparatively recent development.  There was a time not so long ago (well, the 1970s) where a good business could be run with modest growths, and that was considered to be a worthy investment.  There were lots of boring markets that just made constant, steady cash – and more importantly, new businesses could be designed to make boring, steady cash.
The point was not that every business had to engage in a tumorously-rapid expansion to grab all the marketshare – though the ones who could were hot tickets – but that back then, Wall Street understood that some businesses were just not designed for continual, explosive growth.
They don’t now.  Particularly in the tech sector.  If you’re not expanding, you’re dying.
So Twitter has continually spend its capital in attempts to satisfy users it does not have.
Which isn’t entirely bad – little changes like turning the “Favorite” (which used to mean anything from “Save this link to read later” to “Like” to “I acknowledge you made this reply”) into a heart makes Twitter’s complex interface less confusing for newbies.
But it does mean that Twitter is constantly asking itself the question, “How can we beat Facebook?”  And you can’t, with Twitter’s core market.  Twitter is designed as an alternative to Facebook – and Facebook is meant for small groups of friends and family to interact with, whereas Twitter is more global.
If Twitter acquired Facebook’s user base, it would lose Twitter’s.
Yet that’s what Wall Street demands, and that’s why Twitter is flailing both on Wall Street and in the public’s eye – its whole financial success is being judged by the question of “Well, how big is this going to get? Is it going to beat Facebook? Then it sucks.”
Twitter’s user base is angry that Twitter is ignoring them, and Wall Street is mad that Twitter isn’t ignoring its user base enough.
Which is a problem with America.  The new and rapacious Wall Street designed in the “Greed is good” 80s-era punishes markets that might be profitable, but not explosive.  And as such, we’re continually propelled forward in this cancerous cycle of “How do we grow?  How do we grow?” – even with markets that might be more profitable if they stopped focusing on growth and instead focused on satisfying a small but rabid client base.
In a sane economy, Twitter could pause and say, “Okay, we’ve got all these people who love us – so our priorities should be a) to figure out how to make a good profit from these folks, and b) make the people who love us love us more.”  (The two are not inevitably linked – users would love you most if there were no ads involved, but users are often very stupid people who get angry at your attempts to draw a salary.)
But because Wall Street demands SWELL AND EXPAND, what we get from Twitter is this muddled confusion of “Okay, yeah, our users want better anti-abuse tools” (which is critical because, as this Tweet explains, Twitter is the only social network where “being successful” means “you get abused”) and yet they’re pouring resources into “Stuff that people who don’t like Twitter might like.”
Which is something that makes me feel sad for Twitter’s people.  In a better world, they’d be focused on “What do Twitter users enjoy about us?” And they’d understand that question really well, and make a product suited for a comparatively stable user base.
Instead, we get Twitter programmers who are shocked by what happens on Twitter when a Tweet goes viral.
And I think Twitter’s not alone. Lots of America is shaped by this relentless Wall Street command that you must expand and be profitable now.  Your infrastructure? Doesn’t matter.  Your R&D? Fuck that, did you make a profit this quarter?  Your long-term plans for steady growth? Consumed in this blaze of GIMME CASH IMMEDIATELY.  Your boring lumber business? Well, will you sell wood to ten billion people? NOT INTERESTED.
Personally, I think America would be a lot better if Wall Street was less full of greedy cancerous fuckwits willing to destroy companies so long as they get a paycheck today, and more populated with people who understood that businesses have different needs, and some unsexy businesses can make steady profits without funding yachts filled with cocaine-encrusted hookers.
Until then?
We get Twitter.  Spasming in confusion, not doing well, beholden to two masters.
Slowly dying.

1 Comment

  1. David Klecha
    Feb 8, 2016

    Correct in all particulars, but I think there are huge swaths of the US economy that do operate largely on the “steady money” principle, with growth being an attractive concept but not such a driving principle that they’ll completely remake their products to try to make growth happen. Far and away most companies are privately held and not nearly as subject to the whims of Wall Street as some.
    The tech industry, however, is particularly affected by it. Wall Street types see tech as the next “grower” that they can ride to ever-increasing orgasmic bliss financial return. But I think some of that also comes from the way that a lot of startups are funded, with angel investors who are expecting at least some of their investment targets to go public and provide substantial return.
    If Twitter had remained privately held, I don’t think this would be so much of a problem. If Twitter had kept their ambitions realistic/close enough, they could have managed without the sort of investment that would have expected an IPO at the end. But I think the environment in the tech sector is contributing to an almost cartoonish “gold fever” that is forcing this kind of activity.
    And that is likely where the tech sector will go, but I’m not sure what will take its place, or if we’ll hit a place where sanity re-exerts itself and generally people understand that slow and steady is better than frantic, rapid, and prone to bubbles and collapses.

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