It's Easy to Be a Jerk on Twitter. And Twitter Wants to Fix That

This past week, at the Wired HQ at CES, I spoke with Kayvon Beykpour, the head of product at Twitter. We discussed some of the company’s new product launches , and then went deep into questions about the incentives created by the structure of the platform. And, also, whether Twitter should give every user a “troll score.” The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.Nicholas Thompson: You’re here at CES announcing a lot of changes involving conversations on Twitter. They’ve become the central focus. Why are you emphasizing it more now, and what have you just announced?Kayvon Beykpour: The lifeblood of Twitter is conversations. The core atom of how people stay informed about what’s happening in the world through Twitter is through a conversation someone else starts through a tweet and the resulting discussion around that tweet. So the priority for us is really rooted in ensuring that we’re inspiring people to start conversations, inspiring them to participate in conversations, giving people the tools to have healthy discourse on the platform.

What we talked about a little earlier today with respect to conversations is really an evolution of work that we started doing in the middle of 2019, which is, we want to give people more control over the conversations that they start. So this was an example: in October, we launched globally a feature that allows you to hide replies if you want to.

NT: So if I was [Iranian foreign minister Javad] Zarif last night, and after I tweeted “Hey, we’re not going to escalate,” Trump had tweeted back, “Actually, we’re going to nuke you,” Zarif could have muted the tweet?

KB: No, because those were quote tweets. Quote tweets are I think an important mechanic that’s distinct because me yelling in your movie theater is different than you hosting your own conversation. I think that distinction is really critical actually. Because the philosophical sort of approach we took here is, when you start a conversation, as the author of the tweet, you should have a little bit more control around the replies within that tweet, which is different than me deciding to start my own conversation.

NT: So if I want to trash someone, I need to do it in a quote tweet, not a reply.

KB: I mean, you can do both, I suppose. But the mechanics of replying to someone is different, right? You're injecting yourself into their conversation to their followers, showing up in their mentions. So I think the dynamics are different there and that’s what we were interested in, sort of creating some more control around that.

NT: Let’s talk about the new conversation threading. The simplest way to explain it, is that it takes Twitter conversations from incomprehensible to comprehensible.

KB: Conversations can be quite unwieldy to follow, especially if you're trying to read a conversation that has multiple people participating and thousands of replies. It can be really hard to read and see who's responding to who. Sometimes you'll see a tweet really deep in the conversation actually is from the original author, but that's not really clearly understood. Or maybe a tweet is from someone who the author originally didn’t mention, which would be important context, but it's kind of lost in the sea with how conversations look and feel. So what we've been trying to do is really reimagine the way we display a conversation to make all that easier to read. How do we make the participants, the actors in those conversations more discernible—sort of the authoritative voices, the person who started the conversation, the person who's mentioned in it, someone you follow within that conversation, more recognizable? And all of that is packaged in this public beta app that we call Little T that we've been experimenting with the public. And we're taking the best of those annotations that we learned via research and experimentation and launching them into the Twitter app over the weeks and months to come.