Except it’s not.Just days before the event, Twitter’s Trending Topics sidebar—intended to surface the most interesting conversations on the platform—had become flooded with conspiracy theories about the death of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. A month earlier, the president of the United States had used the platform to share the idea that four members of Congress, all women of color, should “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.” For too long, the platform has been a breeding ground for the kind of anti-immigration rhetoric that likely contributes to hate crimes and to the American epidemic of mass shootings. If Twitter is a party, then it’s a party where the punch is spiked with PCP and the carbon monoxide alarm won’t stop blaring, because all the guests are slowly succumbing to toxic fumes.
Arielle Pardes covers personal technology, social media, and culture for WIRED.Twitter is trying to clean up this mess. In the past year, the company has ramped up its efforts to neutralize bad actors on the platform and flag abusive tweets with machine learning. It has revised its rules and invested heavily in an initiative called “healthy conversations.” In other words, it has rushed around the room trying to pick up abandoned Solo cups and encourage people to please, please use coasters!None of this feels quite like enough. At the event, there was an odd disconnect between Twitter’s product team, which can’t wait for you to play all of its new and exciting party games, and the reality that the party hasn’t been much fun for a while.
Are You Having Fun Yet?
Since its founding, Twitter's MO has been growth: more tweets, more users, more numbers its shareholders will drool over. And that's put Twitter in a bit of a pickle. The things that drive the most engagement—controversy and chaos, not kindness and civility—are the things that have come to define Twitter. It is the platform of rage, of virality, of @realDonaldTrump. It is not the platform of, say, relaxing after a hard day at work .
On Tuesday, though, Twitter's employees described this differently. The platform’s mission, they say, is “to serve the public conversation.”Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s disarmingly likable head of product, says there are two ways the company is thinking about this. First, it has to improve the quality of those conversations. Second, it has to create an environment where people feel safe and empowered to take part in them. Beykpour and his team seem to think of themselves as hosts of this fabulous online party, helping make introductions between people they think might get along and keep the conversation flowing.To that end, Twitter does have some good ideas. One of them is a feature that lets people follow “interests." Soon, you’ll be able to choose a few things you’re passionate about—sports, television, elaborate Korean skin-care routines—and the conversations around these topics will materialize in dedicated feeds on your timeline. Rob Bishop, from the product team, says the company will build and maintain this list of interests based on “enduring” conversations—so, you’ll be able to subscribe to things like “basketball” or “BTS,” but not “30-50 feral hogs .” (That’s what hashtags are for, my friends.) Twitter thinks this will help users engage in the discussions that matter most to them, while connecting with like-minded people on the platform.It’s also experimenting in subsets of its international audience before rolling things out to all of its users. In Canada, for example, it debuted a feature called “author moderation,” which lets users remove replies to their own tweets. (Twitter employees are also dogfooding the tool and have found it promising.) On twttr, the semi-public prototyping app it launched earlier this year, it’s tried adding search functionality in DMs, offering “subscriptions” to specific conversations, and removing the engagement metrics on likes and retweets. The twttr app is invite-only, which gives the team more control over what they put in the petri dish. Sara Haider, who works on building conversational experiments in twttr, says that 80 percent of users prefer the more focused experience to capital-T Twitter.
Should I delete my tweets ?If those ideas find their way onto the main platform, we might see a version of Twitter that's a little less about viral rage and a little more about talking to people you like. But, pardon the interruption, what about the Nazis? It's great to facilitate better conversations about The Handmaid's Tale, but those don't displace the seemingly unkillable Elon Musk Ethereum scams, the coordinated attempts to manipulate elections, or the ongoing use of Twitter to stoke political instability and infighting.One of the most jarring moments of this week's event was the transition from the Twitter folks who handle product to those who work on policy, site integrity, or safety issues. Del Harvey, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, described constantly moving targets and a Frankenstein-ish set of rules for what is and isn't allowed.Harvey has been at Twitter for 11 years, so she’s seen it all. But she says it’s only in the past year that the company has begun to think differently about how it enforces its policies, which don't seem to be working. Recently, she pointed out, her team condensed the platform's terms of service down to 700 words that “ensure we are clear with what our rules are, why they exist, the harms they protect against, where we draw the lines, and the consequences [for violating them].”
The idea, Harvey adds, is to better set the tone, like a good party host. “How can we change the environment that people are interacting in to try to encourage good behavior?”It's a nice idea: Set the rules, make some introductions, and everyone will have a good time. At this point, though, it's not clear that Twitter can clean the place up without thinking much bigger—like turning on the lights, cutting the music, and telling everyone to get out. Party's over.
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