Copyright Marisa Allegra Williams (@marisa) for Twitter, Inc.

It’s Past Time Twitter Grew Up

on Tuesday, Dec. 9th

When we look back at 2014 in five years and think about social media our memories are going to look something like this.

First, we’ll see that Facebook continued to strengthen its grip on the world’s attention and publisher’s wallets. The sheer number of people who are connected to the social network gives it a gravity that makes it difficult to escape. You may want to step away, but almost everyone you know doesn’t care enough to leave and so you find yourself stuck in the high school reunion you can never leave because you can’t convince your best friend to stop talking to his old flame.

Then we’ll think about Twitter and what might have been. Twitter will be dead by 2019, because in 2014 it blew it.

I say this with love. I say this out of fear. I say this because, much to the detriment to my mental health, Twitter is the first thing I check in the morning and the last thing I look at before I sleep. With Twitter woven into my life as it is I can tell that something is deeply wrong with the company the way you can tell when a dear friend is losing it.

Twitter has spent most of 2014 just spinning its wheels. It keeps threatening to alter user’s Timelines in order to create a more curated experience. That’s what Facebook does, and Facebook is more popular, therefore it must be the right thing to do!

This misses the fundamental reason why Facebook is considered essential: the gallery of profile pictures. Facebook is where people go to see how each other define themselves over time. Every single person reading this has surfed backwards on someone else’s profile pic page. Every single one of you. Don’t lie.

What makes Twitter essential is that it is the answer to the question “What’s going on in the world right now?” in a way that cable news never managed to achieve. It is an unrelenting hurricane of reality accompanied by a shitstorm of senseless opining.

Twitter has a growth problem because not everyone wants to open themselves up to the full fury of the world in conversation with itself. It thinks the answer is going to be taking the reigns from users and providing a managed product. If the brass takes that step they will destroy the thing that makes Twitter an indispensable reflection of the world: it’s real-time bluntness.

With that bluntness comes another problem: trolls. So many trolls. So many destructive, disturbed trolls who make death and rape threats. Who clog useful hashtags with sick images. Who flag valuable on-the-scene accounts from hotspots like Ferguson as having questionable content. These trolls hurt the network as a whole by making it a difficult place to go about your business without getting into a brawl.

I think it’s possible to kill two birds with one stone. To make Twitter more attractive to new users and a saner place to be for veterans tired of trolls and the firehose of content that can just be too much.

What’s needed are refinements in the filtering systems across the two core experiences: Timeline and Mentions. Let’s start with Mentions, because that’s where the pain of trolls is most keenly felt.

It’s already possible at Twitter’s site to switch between a view of all your mentions and just the mentions of people you follow. A similar thing is possible within the mobile app. These kinds of blinders slow down discoverability, but they are fair first lines of defense against trolls.

They can be made better by adding some granularity. Provide a setting that allowed for mentions from people who are followed by the people you follow. This opens up the aperture of the network while still providing some social proof protection. After all if Jon follows Dany she’s probably pretty cool.

This is how social circles work in real life, and that kind of understanding of “the social graph” seems to be missing from the DNA of Twitter’s brass.

The Timeline can use a lot of love, but one relatively simple (all this stuff requires coding and sweat) thing would be to bring in some of the power of TweetDeck into the core Twitter experience, and tweak it to be a little better.

For instance: it’s already possible to gin up a Twitter list full of your favorite people and then throw a word-ban down so that all tweets with, say, “reindeer” just don’t show up. It would be nice to be able to take that a step further. Say you have a buddy who really hates reindeer, while you’re somewhat fond of them. You like your friend, but if he brings up his hatred of Rudolph one more time you’re going to go Full Scorsese on him.

So you put some bans on certain terms coming out of certain mouths. Or out of the whole shebang. Or in your mentions so that if people start talking to you about ethics in video games they are invisible, but if they talk to you about pizza we’re all good.

It doesn’t change that person’s ability to talk, it just means you don’t have to listen to their mess.

So how would these power user features help Twitter with new users? Think about the main problem with Twitter: it is the whole world talking at once, or at least the chattiest part of the world. How do you even know where to start?

Do what video games do with car racing games: you start out with all the “assists” turned on. It’s like having training wheels as you work your way up to the full experience. New users would start out with the assists on and should then be prompted to turn them off once they get used to the noise.

Since they’ll already be familiar with the controls the prospect of being a power user will only ever be a few clicks away.

These changes would give some more control and peace of mind to most users.

The rougher issues that Twitter faces with harassment need stronger, more imaginative fixes. The most dedicated trolls are almost impossible to stop given the current system architecture. When all else fails they can always scratch up a new account and get back to their most destructive of ways. If we could starve them of some of the attention they so desperately crave we might be able to make the experience miserable enough for them that they just give up.

That, after all, is their chief tactic: making Twitter a miserable experience.

For those who are intent on doing real damage more aggressive anti-harassment tactics will have to be developed. We might find ourselves having to put down some cash in order to get ourselves a troll-free Twitter. Maybe it should cost something to open up a Twitter account. Even just a nominal fee which provided a disincentive to sock-puppeting over the long term. That or some serious network engineering that managed to keep trolls confined to their own dark corners.

If Twitter wants to guarantee their long-term survival they should be looking at Slack, the super-hot project communications tool. Slack is another way of creating that third-space that the Internet so desperately needs: a watering hole for a small group who can use one login to jump between a number of conversations with different groups of people.

What I wouldn’t give to be able to have that kind of semi-private space accessible with Twitter as the identity, or to be able to invite a few friends into such a space to have a conversation outside of the main Timeline for a while. Disposable chat rooms where we didn’t have to leave the tool we’re already plugged into.

Whether or not Twitter has the kind of imagination to beat even those meager dreams is what’s going to determine if we’re going to be having any kind of conversation at all on the service come December 2019. The Twitter of 2014 sure doesn’t seem to have what it takes.

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