This is a story about why I’m quitting Twitter. The reasons are predictable if you’re on Twitter today, and not worth going into. I feel the same way about social media that most people do. However, on my way out, I want to offer my perspective on how we got here, as someone who used to work professionally in the analytics space.
I was one of the pioneers in practical social media marketing analysis. I developed methods for approximating PageRank local portions of a graph when the full graph is unknowable, and spent a lot of time debunking the accuracy of sentiment analysis in favor of sampling and human evaluation. Ultimately, I learned the best way to look at networks was through the lens of virality. I developed models to help brands predict the impressions of social posts depending on how they crafted their content. My chief accomplishment was showing marketing teams how they could reach vast amounts of people cheaply if it’s a viral message.
Virality is a free quantitative form of marketing feedback on the effectiveness of your post. When I started in 2007, social media was considered separate from marketing, but within the space of a few years, it completely upended the field. It was a thrill watching this new media format grow to dominate the public conscious in real time, and the viral nature of it was mostly why.
However, something I didn’t anticipate was that it isn’t merely marketing that stands to gain from a strong viral message. Anyone interested in controlling the news cycle has a stake in virality, and players in this space became quite shrewd. They quickly discovered that the fastest way to going viral was by being edgier than the other guy. That in itself was not a new tactic. Edgy content has been effective for generations of television. However, what was new was that anyone could do it. Therefore, the naturally edgiest voices were the ones to gain prominence. The rise of fake news, the alt-right, and other extreme social factions coincide with the rise of viral platforms for that reason. By its nature, the endgame of virality is extremism.
In the last several years, I’ve joked that tech worked to connect people without stopping to consider what would happen once these people actually connected. On the surface, this emerges as bombardment of political and social issues. However, Twitter’s challenges (and Facebook, for that matter) are underpinned by the notion of the viral nature of sharing. As long as there are actors on the platform with the goal of reaching as many people as possible, information will be designed with that purpose, and human nature requires that design to evoke strong reactions. It’s rather ironic, then, that the reason I want to quit Twitter is that it delivered on its promise of connecting the world in a global community.
I believe this can be solved with better content curation tools, but I’m not optimistic that it will be. The tools that users have to manage their information intake have not matured as quickly as virality tools. This is mostly because social media’s financial incentives are in advertising and analytics, which are at odds with user curation. Twitter has proactively shut down innovation in user tools over the years through aggressively managing its API terms. What’s more, third party opportunities to innovate are significantly hamstrung by their limited ways to monetize. What this means, then, is there is no way to manage content on social media. A user can manage who they follow and mute words, which is a poor substitute. Until viral incentives change, Twitter won’t change.
I haven’t worked in social since 2013, and while I had the best intentions, I’m not proud of where it all went. It hasn’t been all bad, though. I got to fight for my ethics when companies wanted to use social media profile data as a CRM data source. I can feel somewhat proud that, as events played out over the years, those that listened to me were already on the right side of GDPR, Cambridge Analytica, and other such stories. My hope is to see misinformation and the negative aspects of virality brought under control in my lifetime by people better positioned to study it than I.
For the sake of the world, I hope Twitter figures things out, but I’m not optimistic. It will likely take radical legislation or huge user abandonment to get them to change. Virality is a drug, and Twitter’s making too much money being the dealer.