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The Problem With Twitter.

24 February 201912:00AMrants

It's about using the platform, not letting it use you.

The sludge

Twitter is a a microcosm of the internet as a whole. It's public. It's anonymous. It's divorced from any sense of humanity. Anyone can comment on anything, and that means some truly horrible stuff is only a click away. You might control what tweets you see initially, but the context you see them in - the replies - that's under the control of complete strangers with nothing to lose.

That's easy enough to control, just as it is on the rest of the internet - don't read the comments. But Twitter's developed this odd habit of inserting random content into your feed from complete strangers, like bizarre intrusive thoughts.

I get why. It comes from the desire to 'surface' new content and drive your follow count up and boost your engagement time and sell more ads. I understand it, but that doesn't mean that I consent to it.

I keep my feed deliberately low-politics for my own sanity, and Twitter are pushing that junk into my face and I don't want it. It's intended to drive engagement, but that increased engagement comes at a cost of decreased enhjoyment.

We seem to have fallen, as a society (and this is a much larger issue that I am really only touching on) into the delusion that getting angry at people is a) a fun pastime, and b) the best way to change minds. And neither of those is true.

So either because people have come to enjoy shouting, or because the platform can't tell the difference between constructive dialogue and horrific trolling (they're both increased platform engagement after all) - or maybe both - the interface injects stuff into my feed when I don't want it there, with the hope that I'll take the bait.

In other words, the platform itself is trolling me.

The rush

Once you actually stop and think about it, notifications make exactly zero sense. Why do I need to know if i've been liked or retweeted? I cannot action that in any way - it's just to give me a nice little dopamine rush.

A little more insidious, though, is the little "pull to refresh" action at the top of your feed. It's a literal Skinner box, conditioning you into pulling that lever over and over because you never know what kind of tasty snack will fall out.

And sometimes, just to keep you on the hook, it refreshes on its own, pulling you out of wherever you're at to take you off to something fresh and new. You can never be finished, you can never be focused. The stream moves ever onwards. The more people you follow, the longer it takes to swim against that stream.

I - and I suspect I'm not alone - like to feel like I'm up to date, and I will keep checking until I am. I want to batch process my twitter feed the way I scrub my inbox - once a day, all at once. An unpredictable streaming timeline makes that impossible.

And again, I get why. It drives engagement, which drives ad sales. But what's good for advertisers isn't necessarily a good experience for users.

The noise

Let's get right down to it - the real problem with Twitter is that there's no single clear reason to use it. Instead you get all your friends, all your interests, all your news, running down one continuous timeline. Which sounds attractive in theory, perhaps even seductively so - one place for all my things, and so many things I like in one place!

Those are actually very different uses for a platform though, and I don't want them all jumbled up together.

I broke mine down by category, and there's about five distinct things I use Twitter for:

  1. I use it to keep up with my friends.
  2. I use it as a platform to directly consume content (mostly bots)
  3. I use it to stay on top of news (mostly science)
  4. I use it to get updates for content on other platforms (mostly blogs)
  5. I use it for service provider notifications

That's a lot of conceptually separate stuff all in the same channel, and it's enough to do your head in.

The solution?

Here's the kicker - none of that is inherent to the platform. Twitter was - and still is - a collection of users posting public timestamped messages. These odd behaviours are entirely an artifact of the interface they've layered on top of that database. Nothing about tweets necessitates streaming updates, or 'surfacing content', or having a single timeline. Those are interface decisions, and you can work around them.

So I've turned off push notifications and automatic updates. I don't get updates on likes and retweets. I use the pro clients, built for the people who sell ads, not the ones who consume them, which have no intrusive content.

And suddenly Twitter is a nice place again.

So what?

If you've come here from Twitter: I will respond to your mention or your DM... eventually. I probably won't pay any attention to what you like and retweet though, so go nuts.

But in terms of a moral? The simple message is that you don't have settle for the interface you're given. The broader message is maybe think about the way you use your technology - and the way it uses you.

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