Can twitter get us to be nice?
Bloomberg Businessweek|October 18 - 25, 2021
Social networks are all designed to make people angry and keep them coming back for more. Now, one of the worst offenders is trying to be less of a hellscape
Kurt Wagner

Twitter is great for lots of things. It’s one of the best places on the internet to get news. It’s full of funny and interesting commentary by comedians, celebrities, and journalists. It’s also a great place to watch people ruthlessly mock one another and very good for picking a fight with a stranger. No other technology is referred to as a cesspool more often. The app is great at being a cesspool.

But Twitter Inc. is trying to change that. It has spent the past year experimenting with subtle product tweaks designed to encourage healthier online behavior. It now alerts people who are about to retweet misinformation on topics such as elections and Covid-19, and it recently began asking people to actually read articles before retweeting. In some cases, if users try to tweet something mean or offensive, automated pop-ups now ask them to think twice before doing so.

These changes may sound modest, but they’re radical as far as tech companies go. The big social networks—Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—have historically relied on rules to keep users in line, and even those haven’t always been clear or consistently enforced. But Twitter is unusual in that it’s been exploring changes that would discourage users from deliberate provocation or belligerence—behaviors that the service (like its peers) tacitly encouraged by turning the number of followers and likes into a sort of game. Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Jack Dorsey has said that the prominence of these metrics, in retrospect, was a mistake. Likes, he said at a 2019 conference, don’t “actually push what we believe now to be the most important thing, which is healthy contribution back to the network and conversation to the network.” As Twitter’s head of product, Kayvon Beykpour, puts it, the company wants “to build health more natively into the product.”

Twitter, in other words, is trying to do what may sound impossible: make its users nice—or at least nicer. The challenge may seem hilarious for a social network best known for the bellicosity of Donald Trump, whom it finally banned in early 2021. Twitter is the home of the “ratio” and the birthplace of the “dunk.” To get ratioed is to have thousands of strangers shout at you for saying something about Bitcoin, climate change, Covid-19, or any number of other polarizing topics. To be dunked on is when somebody takes your tweet and adds his own commentary, often with a witty or clever insult appended—though not all dunks are witty. Among the most popular is the classic “F--- you.”

Dunk if you must, but Twitter’s efforts here seem at least a little bit promising, especially in light of new revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen about that company’s reluctance to do anything about its impact on mental health and the spread of misinformation. If Twitter can somehow make people more civil, it would have implications for Facebook and other companies. “We don’t know whether these are just tweaks that mainly produce some good PR for Twitter” or if they might be “fundamentally shifting things in the right direction,” says Susan Benesch, faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard. “Only Twitter can really find that out.”

In its early years, likes and follower counts were Twitter’s main draw. They gave newcomers a sense of validation—and the prospect of amassing a giant audience drew in celebrities and world leaders. In 2009 actor Ashton Kutcher was dubbed the King of Twitter by the Queen of Daytime Television, Oprah Winfrey, when he beat CNN in a race to become the first account with 1 million followers. He celebrated the feat by popping a bottle of Champagne in a livestream video.

In retrospect, the stunt probably helped normalize unhealthy behavior, but back at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, executives were just happy to be growing quickly. “Had we known our little project was going to become a big deal—which was a stretch at the time—then yeah, I wish we had sat down and said, ‘What would we like people ideally to do?’ ” recalls co-founder Biz Stone. Like Dorsey, Stone knew that displaying metrics such as a user’s follower count meant people would try to make those numbers go up. It just didn’t seem like an issue at the time. “We were like, ‘This is fun,’ ” Stone says.

The attraction for Kutcher and other famous people back in 2009 is the same thing that draws in users today: reach. Not only can you amass an audience, but there is a mechanism, the retweet, to get your message beyond your fans. Retweets, when a Twitter user broadcasts someone else’s message to her followers, also happen to be ideal for spreading misinformation and encouraging harassment. Dunks are just retweets with a dollop of mockery on top.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEKView All

A Crash Course in Omicronomics

Sussing out the impact of the new coronavirus variant on growth and inflation

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 06, 2021

The New Fighter At the CFPB

Rohit Chopra wants to know more about tech companies’ plans for financial products

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 06, 2021

Next on Your Plate: Bug Burgers

The faux-meat industry is starting to explore fruit fly patties and mealworm nuggets

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 06, 2021

Ready Aim Omicron!

Drugmakers always knew variants would arise. The latest will test their preparedness

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 06, 2021

Crossing Borders With Crypto

A Mexico-based startup says it can send remittances from the U.S. cheaper and faster

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 06, 2021

Treasure Hunters Of the Stalled Supply Chain

For salvage companies, an unclaimed shipping container is a potentially profitable mystery box

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 06, 2021

In the EV Age, Hyundai Still Has High Hopes for Hydrogen Cars

The South Korean automaker sees fuel-cell technology as key to decarbonizing global transportation

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 06, 2021

The Next Accounting Fiasco

Twenty years after Enron’s failure, investors are still vulnerable to corporate numbers games

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 06, 2021

When Same-Day Delivery Is Too Slow

Gopuffis trying to outrace its competitors in the “dark convenience store” business

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 06, 2021

The Most Broken Business in America

Biden’s Build Back Better plan may make day care more affordable for parents—if the providers don’t go belly up first

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
November 22 - 29, 2021
RELATED STORIES

FROM SQUARE TO BLOCK: ANOTHER TECH COMPANY CHANGES ITS NAME

There’s a new Silicon Valley corporate name change on the block.

1 min read
Techlife News
Techlife News #527

UK COMPETITION WATCHDOG ORDERS FACEBOOK TO SELL OFF GIPHY

The United Kingdom’s antitrust watchdog has blocked Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy and ordered the social network to sell off the GIF-sharing platform, saying the deal hurts social media users and advertisers by stifling competition for animated images.

2 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #527

NEW TWITTER CEO STEPS FROM BEHIND THE SCENES TO HIGH PROFILE

Newly named Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal has emerged from behind the scenes to take over one of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile and politically volatile jobs.

2 mins read
AppleMagazine
December 03, 2021

Facebook Shuts Down Its Facial-Recognition System

Facebook doesn’t point to a single incident that prompted the decision, but it comes as facial-recognition systems (and the social network in general) have come under fire.

2 mins read
PC Magazine
December 2021

JIM CRAMER'S DECREE: NO MORE LOW-HANGING FRUIT

The CNBC host says he’s bullish on entrepreneurs—because their creativity trumps any challenge.

5 mins read
Entrepreneur
December 2021

TWITTER ROLLS OUT REDESIGNED MISINFORMATION WARNING LABELS

Twitter users will soon see new warning labels on false and misleading tweets, redesigned to make them more effective and less confusing.

1 min read
AppleMagazine
November 19, 2021

FACEBOOK WHISTLEBLOWER FEARS THE METAVERSE

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen warned that the “metaverse,” the all-encompassing virtual reality world at the heart of the social media giant’s growth strategy, will be addictive and rob people of yet more personal information while giving the embattled company another monopoly online.

4 mins read
AppleMagazine
November 12, 2021

Facebook to Shut Down Face-Recognition System, Delete Data

Facebook said it will shut down its face-recognition system and delete the faceprints of more than 1 billion people amid growing concerns about the technology and its misuse by governments, police and others.

5 mins read
AppleMagazine
November 05, 2021

‘THE BIG DELETE:' INSIDE FACEBOOK'S CRACKDOWN IN GERMANY

Days before Germany’s federal elections, Facebook took what it called an unprecedented step: the removal of a series of accounts that worked together to spread COVID-19 misinformation and encourage violent responses to COVID restrictions.

4 mins read
AppleMagazine
October 01, 2021

WHAT THE METAVERSE IS AND HOW IT WILL WORK

The term “metaverse” seems to be everywhere. Facebook is hiring thousands of engineers in Europe to work on it, while video game companies are outlining their long-term visions for what some consider the next big thing online.

5 mins read
Techlife News
October 30, 2021