TWITTER IS FEELING THE PAIN, and it’s not a conclusion based on mere conjecture. Three years ago everyone seemed to be migrating in its direction – the BIG THING. For a time it was the creative public space that its founders designed it to be and people found a voice for their opinions and ideas.
Yesterday we learned that the company has fallen from a worth of $40 billion (US) to $10 billion (US), in just three years. Twitter wasn’t just a good platform for communicating; it attracted investors, too. But that’s changing, as both money and opinions seem to be moving off in other directions.
In dedicated fashion Twitter is trying to reverse the slide, with its main response being shifting tweets from linear to an algorithmic feed. That means moving entries from a sequential and timeline flow to one in which the new algorithm will attempt to figure out what you’re interested in and put them on your screen, oftentimes out of sequential order, like Facebook does. It’s a change that could come as early next week, but it runs the risk of alienating users even faster if it doesn’t take. We wish them well in such a competitive environment.
But there is another reality that forms the company’s greatest present threat, and if they refuse to effectively deal with it the slide will continue. Specifically it’s about their management of abuse, the kind that dehumanizes people, especially women, and seeks to make everything personal and degrading. In frequent conversation with Twitter users in these past few weeks, this grievance more than any other – exponentially more – has been what is getting folks to consider leaving the app altogether, as many we know have already done.
It has taken time for the company to come to grips with the fact that there’s no point in defending free speech if people are already leaving the public space because of the hatred – a kind of democracy without people.
It’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t all Twitter’s fault. We, the users, the contributors, gave the haters a wide berth and they ran with it, poisoning the well in the process. Tom Goodwin, senior vice president of Havas Media and someone who knows the industry well, called us out on our lack of diligence this past week when he wrote:
“If content is king, we need a revolt and someone needs to kill him. We are currently drowning in excess information and have decided to let it drown us. We don’t have time to appreciate that we’re swamped with crap we don’t want. When we decided that the internet needed to be funded with our eyeballs and not money, when we gave every person a camera, told them they were gifted, when we made publishing easier, when we invited everyone to participate, when every brand thought it had a story to tell, we created the greatest depository of absolute crap the world has ever known, the internet in 2016.”
These words are hard to receive specifically because within them is a strong measure of truth. Twitter provided us the opportunity to inform one another, but in our belief in tolerance we let people in the door that actually demeaned other human beings in ways that are not only tragic, but immoral. And then we grew disillusioned with the company because of the toxic environment that was being created. Yet Twitter was supposed to be about us and our ability to interact effectively and responsibly online. It was our tool, our potential, our way ahead for refining ourselves – individually and collectively. It is citizens themselves who can save Twitter since it was ultimately our medium to begin with. We permitted its degrading; we can cooperate in its renaissance.
In it all there is a lesson on human nature: hatred and dehumanization aren’t merely the opposite of love and respect, but are the natural byproducts of a lack of diligence in the public space, just as in politics. It is better to be mindful of our thoughts and opinions than to tolerate online words that sacrifice our self-respect and that of others.
I’m pulling for Twitter to recalibrate itself because it still can enable the best in us. But until it treats online abuse seriously and we, its users, learn to effectively guard our own actions and words, the continued decline is inevitable.