According to Wall Street, we haven’t been clicking and tweeting nearly enough. Twitter’s 300 million unpaid laborers are underperforming, or so we’ve heard this spring.
Twitter, by some financial measures, is struggling. In early April, the company’s stock price briefly surged after a rumor emerged that it had hired Goldman Sachs to help field takeover offers. A few weeks later, Twitter announced lower than expected earnings growth, investors freaked, and the stock price wilted.
CEO Dick Costolo blamed the revenue miss on Twitter’s new ad-pricing scheme, which emphasizes direct-response marketing. The company has been pushing direct-response ads—ones that ask viewers to sign up for a credit card, download an app, or otherwise immediately convert their roaming eyeballs into purchasing fingers—with limited success. Even as he conceded first-quarter defeat, Costolo struck an optimistic tone, emphasizing Twitter’s innovation ethic.
“These are Version 1 products,” he told a group of analysts, according to the New York Times. “We’re going to iterate on them frequently.”
Wall Street watchers are a difficult set, their impatience matching their avarice, especially when it comes to tech. Only outlandish earnings and aggressive takeover bids, like Verizon’s play this week for AOL, get their approval. No matter that Twitter’s revenue actually grew 74 percent in the last quarter or that it added 14 million more users. Barron’s reported that Twitter had “imploded” and proclaimed, “It’s a dot.com bust all over again.” Some pundits wondered if Costolo should resign. Everyone repeated the truism that Twitter will never be Facebook.
Much of Twitter’s turbulence can be chalked up to the inherent illogic of the market. But while pundits have been busy these last few weeks casting Twitter as Facebook’s poorer-in-ad-revenue cousin, few have paused to consider what it’s like to actually use Twitter. Few have noted how poor the experience of being on Twitter has become, how impoverished its culture seems, how fully it resembles less a tool for social interaction and public debate than for self-branding and public mockery. Once, the limited sandbox of 140 characters seemed like a welcome check on prolixity, as we moved from the diaristic free verse of email to the public haiku of Twitter. Now, it feels like an arbitrary constraint.
Twitter has added a heap of new features over the past five years, but almost all favor advertisers—or encourage users to act more like them. The once linear timeline is now partially sorted. There, tweets accumulate—tweets from people you don’t follow, promoted tweets whose content might be based on tweets you yourself sent a few minutes earlier—in what amounts to digital capitalism’s own peculiar echolalia. New notifications and detailed metrics, particularly on the mobile app, mirror the analytics that Twitter first made available to business users. Click over to analytics.twitter.com, and you, too, can start to optimize your personality to boost engagement according to social media industry best practices.
The myth of direct-response advertising is that some kind of symbiotic “interaction” takes place when customers click on a link and submit to the action requested; the gap between “awareness” and “engagement” has been closed, we’re told. That same myth is what shapes Twitter’s self-image, and what keeps up the illusion of sociality even when many users are shouting, if not at one another, then into the void.
There’s very little on Twitter that would count as interaction, even according to the terms that the Internet has redefined. While Twitter is a great place to make announcements or harvest links, it’s a horrible place to have conversations. “Striking up a conversation has never been easier,” says Twitter’s About page. Perhaps, but maintaining them—against the site’s welter of noise and ever-refreshing feeds—is far more difficult. Twitter now threads conversations, but these become increasingly unwieldy as more respondents are added, forcing participants to click around wildly to see who is saying what and to waste precious characters by loading up tweets with the @-handles of everyone in the conversation.
And then there are the trolls, harassers, spammers, and other disruptors who, despite Twitter’s reassurances that it is taking action to curb abuse, seem to rule the platform with impunity, running conversations-in-the-making right into the ground. Last year, Slate’s David Auerbach considered whether incidents like Gamergate were somehow spurred and even enabled by Twitter’s design. Auerbach saw a fundamental difference by moving a Gamergate conversation from Twitter to messaging service Internet Relay Chat, or IRC:
IRC, which has been around for 25 years, offers everything for conversation that Twitter doesn’t: topic-based chat rooms that you can drop in and out of, a real-time roster of participants, and a single complete stream of conversation. The focus is on the community rather than individuals, and so support is given to consensus rather than the sea of antagonistic individuality that’s on Twitter.
The sense of ever-simmering antagonism that Auerbach describes should be familiar to anyone who’s spent time on Twitter. Tales of sudden, tribalistic outrage, abuse, harassment, and the like are all too familiar. The space seems increasingly polarized, overrun by advertising, branding, self-promotion, and PR (and those who speak in such tones) on the one hand, and angry, Gamergate-esque hordes on the other. It’s not uncommon to see people saying—including on Twitter, strange as it may seem—that tweeting just isn’t worth it. That there’s too much risk—of reputational damage, of having a comment misunderstood, of having to deal with some obnoxious respondent coming out of the ether. For women, these dangers are magnified.
“Never tweet” has become a kind of ironic mantra among some journalists on Twitter, who cling to it as their de facto newswire even as they swear off of it, and on again, by turns. Sure, the phrase is a little snide and world-weary, a way of signaling one’s cynical insiderism. But it also reflects, I think, our fundamental exhaustion with Twitter, a sense that the environment has developed from a promising beginning into another disappointing extension of the advertising and surveillance industries. (Some 44 percent of Twitter accounts never tweet. They may be onto something.)
Twitter’s culture—and by that I mean the trends, breaking news, and viral phenomena that sustain its latent communal feeling—seems to arrive pre-chewed. Every joke, meme, or scandal resembles a poor facsimile of one that came before. Occasionally a traumatic event—the Boston Marathon bombing, police violence in Baltimore—rips through, and some Twitter users cite the platform as a key means by which they organized community action. But Twitter’s design forecloses more possibilities than it opens, pushing would-be witnesses to become voyeurs and turning information gluttons into crowdsourced ambulance chasers. The rest of the time, many of us are just hoping to be favorited and retweeted by enough people, or the right people, so that our utterances seem worthwhile. If Twitter is a public square of any kind, it’s a squalid one.
Unlike Auerbach, I’ve only dabbled in IRC, but I’ve spent more than twenty years talking to people online. Like many Americans my age, I’ve used AIM, IRC, Gchat (now part of Google Talk), and a handful of games, message boards, and other chat platforms. The spaces I like the most tend to have a few things in common: There is a contact list and a white box in which to type. There is also a sense of safety, reinforced by a mix of privacy and security. As I mark eight years of using Gchat, and as millions of people flood into private, encrypted messaging services like Snapchat and WhatsApp, I wonder whether the era of big, public social networks is our future, or merely an aberration. We might find it more freeing to choose the latter.