Whitney Zimmerman


What does it mean for Twitter to be great (again)?

As is often the case on twitter, this reply misses the point while making an equally valid one

What is Twitter?

Twitter plays many important roles within society. As the first tweet above alludes to, Twitter operates as a medium. A tweet is a vehicle through which information is expressed and recorded. One of Twitter’s goals is to be the best destination for the recording and consumption of news. It emerged as a place with low barriers to production and ease of consumption. The expansion of tweets to 280 characters and integration of tweet storms into threads may make Twitter a more comprehensive and credible form of media, augmenting its potential for quality recording of ideas.

Twitter is not, however, the sum of its tweets; it is defined by the interactions of its participants. Twitter is a digital public square, in that it acts as an environment for discourse. It is a place where people (and bots) convene in order to exchange and debate ideas. The characteristics, boundaries, expectations, and incentives related to interaction within any such public square determine the quality and form of discourse that occurs within it.

The lengthening of tweets to 280 characters may improve clarity of thought (if writers remain concise), but does nothing to address those characteristics of the Twitter environment that degrade or discourage the constructive exchange of ideas:

  • Prevalence of non-credible actors/bots
  • Inconsistent/ineffective policing of abuse and abusive speech
  • Poor credibility signals (blue check, follower count)
  • Problematic interaction dynamics (due to Imissing facial expressions)
  • Low barriers to group think
  • High barriers to perspective shifting (ability to see from others’ perspectives/within others' echo chambers)
  • Connectivity friction (why do I have to google “FirstName LastName Twitter” while writing tweets to tag authors?)
  • Weak feedback loops for correcting erroneous information (no edit button, no alert of reading misleading/untrue tweets)

These two views of Twitter — as a medium for expressing and consuming information, and as an environment for the debate of ideas — are reflected in the two tweets in the screenshot above. Both are valid, but the exchange failed.

What is Twitter (more meta)?

Most of our intelligence is not in our brain, it is externalized as our civilization
It’s not just that our bodies, senses, and environment determine how much intelligence our brains can develop — crucially, our biological brains are just a small part of our whole intelligence. Cognitive prosthetics surround us, plugging into our brain and extending its problem-solving capabilities. Your smartphone. Your laptop. Google search. The cognitive tools your were gifted in school. Books. Other people. Mathematical notation. Programing. The most fundamental of all cognitive prosthetics is of course language itself — essentially an operating system for cognition, without which we couldn’t think very far. These things are not merely knowledge to be fed to the brain and used by it, they are literally external cognitive processes, non-biological ways to run threads of thought and problem-solving algorithms — across time, space, and importantly, across individuality. These cognitive prosthetics, not our brains, are where most of our cognitive abilities reside.

The above quotation comes from the following recently published piece by François Chollet.

François Chollet’s passage made me think immediately of Twitter.

Twitter is an external cognitive environment, enabled by the internet and the digital ecosystem. An important question to ask is whether or not Twitter, in its current form, acts as a net constructive or destructive cognitive environment for civilization. Is the combination of the discourse Twitter cultivates, the discourse it is supplants (opportunity cost), and the discourse it prompts or discourages outside its boundaries a net positive or negative for human intelligence? In other words, does it act as an effective cognitive prosthetic?

If Twitter product managers are not asking themselves this question, then I hope they start to soon.

What does Twitter want to be?

There is another very important passage from François Chollet’s piece worth mentioning here.

Success — expressed intelligence — is sufficient ability meeting a great problem at the right time…
Some people achieve more because they were better team players, or had more grit and work ethic, or greater imagination. Some just happened to have lived in the right context, to have the right conversation at the right time. Intelligence is fundamentally situational.

That Twitter has accomplished amazing things in connecting entrepreneurs (Ryan Graves knows what’s up), prompting 🤔 (miss you Marc Andreessen), and stirring revolutions (complete with wikipedia page) may be broadly attributable to a new form of media and dialogue channeling or transforming the best qualities of an old environment. As the world has changed around (and as a result of) Twitter, I wonder whether its leadership is proactively working to tune itself to cultivate the best aspects of us, in order to ensure there are more opportunities to live in the right context, and to have the right conversation at the right time. Low hanging fruit like 280 character tweets and threading are great, but the hard work of tuning a social network to work better matters more than ever today.

Twitter may be a great public record (again). But the most important test of social media may not be whether it records well. Perhaps it is whether what happens within it is worth recording at all.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on media or social network dynamics, and experts matter. If you found this thought-provoking, go follow people like Elizabeth Petcu @ElizabethPetcu, Nicholas Christakis @NAChristakis, and Carl Miller @carljackmiller.

Note (December 18, 2017):

The day after publishing two tweets came to my attention, demonstrating both sides of the “tune the network” dynamic.

The first is a story about Twitter tuning its tweets to encourage more sharing of video. This is likely important for Twitter’s bottom line, but on a first order level. Improvements that I️ want to see have second order (or further) benefits.

The second is this tweet thread, which @carljackmiller retweeted. This kind of work is good and important, and should get more attention.

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