The problem with Twitter

February 03, 2019

Twitter is the only social media I currently use. While my tweets are few and far between, I still open the application on my phone multiple times a day. I'm not a fan of any of the popular social platforms, but Twitter stood out for me because of its focus on real-time. I am more and more unhappy with it for two main reasons.

The first one is that I'm not comfortable with algorithms curating (i.e. filtering) my content, a fortiori when their hidden goal is to maximize my exposure to ads. Not without irony, Twitter recently decided that their timeline would no longer render tweets in chronological order. The message for us, users, is that the future will belong to curated content where ads would be easier to place. Luckily, there's still an option hidden under layers of menus to restore chronology, but to add insult to injury, enabling it is temporary, as it automatically reverts back to algorithmic curation after a few minutes.

The second and more important reason is because of something I have noticed times and times again: on Twitter, moderate opinions don't matter. A bike rider reasonably in favor of more bike paths, quickly becomes opposed to the very existence of cars in their city. Someone legitimately advocating for better female representation in politics, considers men collectively as an enemy in a matter of weeks.

This phenomenon begs the question: is growth on social media fueled by extremism, or does popularity push people to radicalize their views? Probably both. The dynamic seems to be that of a vicious cycle; low barriers of entry create a highly competitive market for attention, where to capture more followers, one must be controversial. Vindicated with retweets and invigorated by likes, the extreme point of view of yesterday becomes the norm of today, and an excuse for more tomorrow.

It seems like polarization is becoming an accepted consequence of any debate with a large scale audience. We, humans, cannot resist the temptation of reductionism to distill simpler messages that can travel faster. Never before in History were so many people connected in near-realtime. Never before in History was the cost of distributing a thought to such a large audience so low. But unfortunately, never before in History were so many entrenched opinions formed with so little substance and context.