#19: Why I'm Hopeful About Twitter
Here are three frames through which to look at it
What is the human condition? It’s having your head stuck up your own ass. In a collective sense, that’s been on view over the last few days, with everyone on Twitter discussing Twitter. There’s a kind of mild hysteria, and doom seems as inevitable as the ending of Cannibal Holocaust, the first great film about the social media age.
I’ve been known to say that if Twitter was to shut down today, the world would be a better place. Equally, it would also be a worse place. Like all of us, Twitter contains multitudes.
I’m hopeful about this moment of transition. I believe that it is possible to enhance the good in Twitter, diminish the bad, and make money by doing so.
This is a big deal, because what happens on Twitter affects society. And in this post, I want to talk about what the nature of this change could be. I am not going to get all micro and speak about how we need to build this feature or eliminate that bug. Instead, I invite you to take a step back to first principles and look at Twitter through the following frames.
Frame 1: Human Nature
We are the only species that can actively fight its own hardwiring. That self-awareness can be a curse — we know that life is meaningless and we’ll all die. But it can also be a blessing — we can use our rationality to mitigate our programming.
Modern technology accelerates this process. And Twitter has dialed up both the better angels of our nature and the worst demons.
First, the angels.
Twitter amplifies our desire for knowledge. If I construct my feed well, then every day I can listen to the best minds in the world thinking aloud. If you told me when I was growing up in the 1980s that this was possible, I’d have dismissed it as science fiction.
Twitter also feeds our urge for connection. So often on The Seen and the Unseen, while chatting with guests of my vintage, I marvel about how we are no longer restricted to communities of cicumstance, but can form communities of choice. I’ve met almost all my dear friends online.
But then, there are the demons. Twitter also pushes our worst buttons.
Twitter amplifies tribalism and the status-seeking urge. It incentivises us to join ideological tribes, and to raise our status within them. We do this by attacking people on the other side — and on our own side for not being pure enough. We stop engaging with arguments and give in to the temptations of mockery. We behave in ways we never would in the real world.
This increases polarisation. It empowers the worst among us, and the worst within us.
Over the last decade, Twitter has damaged our discourse, damaged our politics, damaged the world.
Apart from this, social media encourages performative behavior, via Facebook’s ‘like’ button and Twitters ‘retweet’ functionality, as Jonathan Haidt has pointed out. This has led to an increase in anxiety and mental-health issues as well.
There are two things to note here.
One: None of this was intended. The people who ran these sites were trying to maximise engagement. The bad shit — the polarisation, the anxiety — was an unintended consequence.
Two: Now that we know how technology can amplify both our good and bad urges, we should actively try to push the right buttons and not the wrong ones. We can be intentional about this aspect of technology.
Does this sound manipulative? Well, here’s the thing: no matter what you do, any platform you are on will turn some knobs. Why not be deliberate about it?
This would not be a social service, by the way. Dialing up the good and dialing down the bad will actually help Twitter make more money! Let me explain why — and for that, I take you to the second frame.
Frame 2: What We Do With Our Time
Are our big tech platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Google etc — virtual monopolies? In a narrow sense, they may seem that way. But take a step back and you will find that they are not.
They are all competing with ways to fill our time. Twitter competes not just with other social networks, it also competes with reading physical books, hanging with friends, watching Netflix (and chilling), going running, and driving around in your Tesla. (In one sense, Elon Musk has bought a competitor to his own company!)
Another theme I talk about often in my podcast is how the texture of our days has changed in the last few decades. There is so much more to do now.
And yet, we spend more time surfing rather than absorbing. Social media platforms have used the tools of addiction and turned us into doom-scrolling, dopamine-chasing treadmill monkeys. Or tribal moistbots locked in a performative loop.
This kind of shallow engagement is the default, and goes hand-in-hand with Twitter pushing our worst buttons.
But Twitter also makes deep engagement possible — with ideas, with people, with our own selves. There is far less of this, though.
Here’s what I have learnt as a creator: deep engagement is valuable, and valued. You can make money off it. Shallow engagement is not.
You won’t make money off the monkeys and the moistbots. No one is going to pay for shallow engagement.
So the road to greater profit comes via pushing the buttons that make us better people who engage deeply, and not the ones that make us worse people who engage in a shallow way. I’ll elaborate on this later in this essay — but first, the third frame.
Frame 3: How We Create and What We Create
What is my main incentive as a creator on Twitter? It is to be shallow and performative, as that gets me the most likes and retweets and engagement — and dopamine! As I wrote in this old essay, form shapes content, and content shapes character. If I only created on Twitter, I would be both a worse creator and a worse person.
Luckily, I have other outlets — and I’ve been fortunate enough to realise over the last couple of years that readers and listeners value depth. It is a dangerous, self-reinforcing myth that we have short attentions spans, and must race to the bottom. Ted Giao wrote here about how longer forms of content are becoming the most profitable, and I’ve found exactly that over the last couple of years.
I make five-hour episodes of my podcast — the last one is a viral hit at seven-and-a-half hours — not out of perverse self-flaggelation, but because listeners love that immersion, that depth, the realisation that by sinking into a conversation, you can find yourself. (Do read my essay on this.)
And they’re happy to pay for it. I’ve found my 1000 true fans, and I’m an independent and profitable creator today. I would have thought that unlikely three years ago.
On Twitter, though, I cannot choose how I engage. I may crave deep engagement, but I get shallow trolls engaging in bad faith. (Pratap Bhanu Mehta spoke eloquently here about the decontextualising effect of social media. I wonder how this essay will be misinterpreted and attacked, not via other essays but via snarky tweets and glib one-liners.)
The deep is drowned by the shallow.
But Twitter can empower creators by reducing the shallows and increasing the deep. One way of doing so is by allowing other forms of creation. Move past 280 characters. Allow video, audio, newsletters, whatever new forms emerge. Charge customers for it — and pay creators.
That brings us to the money.
How Should Twitter Think About Money?
Thinking about the problem through the three frames above, I’d suggest the following direction.
One, disincentivise shallow content, and push for deeper engagement. Twitter should cut off the monkeys and moistbots within all of us. Whether as users or creators, we’ll all value this more.
Two, charge users. I have paid subscriptions right now to YouTube, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hotstar, Zoom, Squadcast, Google Drive and so on. I will pay if it is worth my time.
And here’s the important thing that users should remember: in an advertising model, you are the product. In a subscription model, the content is the product and you are the boss. You want to be the boss.
Also, I believe that advertising in its current form will be dead in a couple of decades. It will be an artefact of a time when creators couldn’t reach consumers directly.
(Read this post of mine on the creator economy for an elaboration.)
Three, pay creators. This is a no-brainer, of course. And it is part of a virtuous cycle where you incentivise creators to make stuff that their fans value and want to pay for. Kickstarting this is going to be hard — and it requires Twitter to be more than Twitter.
Four, be more than Twitter. Twitter fills the texture of our days in one way — use it to fill it in other ways. Why shouldn’t the Twitter app be my default podcast app? Why should I have to go to YouTube or Twitch to create or binge-watch videos? Why do I need Discord to talk to my community of fans? Why can’t Twitter make Patreon redundant? And so on.
Now, trying to be all things to all people is a terrible idea if you’re a startup. You should do one thing, and do it well. However, Twitter already has a massive user base. Give them more. Let Twitter be their virtual home — and let it be rewarding.
Some Unstructured Asides
When I’m thinking aloud about Twitter, so much comes to my mind that I could fill a book with it. This is not the book I want to write. So here are a few stray asides.
Aside One: Disincentivise negativity. The current problem with Twitter is that it incentivises snark, the lowest form of shallow, tribalistic discourse. I would actively select against it. The quote-tweet is the classic example.
We would never quote-tweet someone in real life. Imagine you are talking to me at a party. You say something I disagree with. That automatically makes you evil and no longer human. I call four people in the vicinity, point at you, and say “This fool said XYZ. What a moron!” And they all laugh and call their friends to point at you and repeat my mockery.
That’s the quote-tweet. And it’s been weaponised at scale.
My first impulse is to do away with it. But that also reduces its positive uses. As a creator, I love it when listeners share my podcast episodes by telling their friends about it, and adding their thoughts. I pay it back to content I like. So what are we to do?
One radical step could be to let the person being quote-tweeted report the QTs she doesn’t like for negativity. If a user gets hit by enough of those, that function gets disabled for them. Ditto for screenshots. Allow them all, but allow reporting for negativity.
I’m a free speech absolutist, and at first glance this seems nuts, right? But this doesn’t stop you from expressing your disapproval of, say, this essay. Write your own counter-essay and link to that. No one’s stopping you. But the quote-tweet is a proprietary tool of a private company whose algorithms have been manipulating you in socially harmful directions for a decade, and have made you shallower. We can fight that. We can make this platform a kinder, better place.
Two: What do I make of Elon Musk? At this moment in time, Twitter is a platform that has caused great damage to society — and it’s also a poorly run company that doesn’t provide enough value to its users.
When you’re in such bad shape, a high-variance option is perfect.
For the kind of sweeping changes Twitter needs, you need a radical thinker who can think out of the box. A maverick billionaire with skin in the game is a better bet than a mere change in management -- even a visionary CEO would find it hard to deal with the inertia and status-quo bias of a large company.
Even if Musk is on the right track, and tries to move the company from a bad equilibrium to a good one, there is a chance that the transition will be fatal for the company. Given where we are, that is a risk worth taking. The upside is huge — society could be transformed, and the world could be a better place. The downside is fine by me — no more Twitter means no more toxic snark, no more screaming at each other, one less weapon for our narrative battles.
Also, I cannot understand the collective derangement around Musk — it’s almost become ideological dogma in some circles that he’s evil, and people are judging him on his performance at Twitter when he’s barely started. I’ve heard otherwise sensible people compare him to Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Trump, Modi and slave owners in the last few days. Hello? This is the guy behind Tesla and SpaceX! That doesn’t mean he’ll succeed here, but if anyone can make a moonshot work…
Okay, so I do have tons of other thoughts, but those are micro things. I’ve shared my big picture. I am optimistic. If you are not, and feel that Twitter may shut down, and will miss me so bad, don’t worry, subscribe to me here!
Images by Simahina. My thanks to RSJ, Sudhir, Naren and Shruti for their comments on a draft of this.