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The Verge 2018 tech report card: Twitter

The Verge 2018 tech report card: Twitter

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Twitter may be the most stagnant of the big social networks. The service, which has largely stopped adding users, is more of a static communication and information utility, and 2018 underscored that Twitter leadership wants to keep it that way, even when it proves a double-edged sword.

Keeping Twitter at the forefront of news and culture means, as a platform, it hardly ever undergoes any drastic changes. As a result, the company has left its trickiest problems unsolved while giving people who have yet to an open account little reason to ever do so.

Twitter is now profitable

As a public company, Twitter’s lack of user growth — the company seems to have plateaued at around 330 million users — has narrowed its ambitions to performing its basic function and not much else. Live streaming with Periscope came and went, and Twitter’s play for a share of the TV market hasn’t really panned out. But it’s certainly far from failing, and this past year proved Twitter is capable of turning itself into a sustainable, long-term business. Its stock price has stabilized at around $30 a share, slightly under what it was five years ago when it first went public. The company, now profitable, is making more money off its existing users thanks to smarter implementations of video ads and promotions. In its last financial quarter, Twitter reported that the people who do use Twitter are opening the app every day at an increasing rate. And as part of a widespread bot crackdown to combat election interference and particularly resilient crypto scams, Twitter actually lost users over the past six months. But in doing so, it’s excised more of the junk that had begun clogging up timelines and replies.  

Still, those big-picture snapshots of Twitter are secondary to the narrative surrounding the company this past year. The Twitter story continues to be dominated by the looming presence of Trump, an outrage-loving user base constantly sniping at one another, and the platform’s struggle against hate speech and the perception of bias against conservatives.

Nearly two years into his administration, Twitter remains Trump’s most vital communication platform. Despite continued complaints from the president himself and countless conservative commentators over perceived liberal bias, Twitter is the right’s access to an increasingly online mainstream America — and it’s clear they’ll never give it up. And although calls for Twitter to ban Trump continue to pop up every time he crosses another line in online etiquette, the company has made clear that it considers the president’s tweets a special use of the service that provides crucial information to the voting populace. In one notable victory for his critics, however, a court ruled back in May that it was unconditional for the president to block people on the platform.

2018 introduced the Twitter concept of “the ratio”

Perhaps more than any other non-Trump related Twitter trend this year, one that felt most prominent was the collective realization that our old tweets exist only to harm us. The platform has always been a proverbial minefield if you happened to tweet edgy jokes a decade ago, or if you in general have bad opinions and like sharing them with the world. In 2018, the concept of “the ratio” — when the number of replies on a tweet far outweigh the likes and retweets — became common knowledge and a valuable metric for determining when someone had really messed up visibly and in embarrassing fashion.

Yet a more sinister side to our perpetual outrage on Twitter also firmly established itself these past 12 months, amid the more light-hearted shaming. It’s been roughly four years after Gamergate established the playbook, which essentially involves right-leaning communities wielding feigned offense to achieve online victories against the social justice movement. Today those tactics are used to greater effect on people much more high-profile than game developers and journalists. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was the most notable target this year, fired from the third film in the franchise by Disney after alt-right trolls used years-old jokes on Twitter to insinuate he was secretly a pedophile.

Illustrations by Alex Castro / The Verge

Many people tend to agree, even in the moment, that these behaviors are foul, and the companies folding to them under pressure are too weak-willed and image-conscious to take a proper stand. But that hasn’t stopped the strategy from working. So the end result is that 2018 became the year many Twitter users began purging their tweet histories. Search “How to delete your Twitter history” right now on Google and you’ll find guide after guide explaining the process and why it might be the safest precaution to take in the current era of online life (including one I wrote myself.)

The larger issue here is that there’s little Twitter can do to stop this. It can’t police how pretend angry or real angry its users are, and it can only do so much to stop brigading, harassment campaigns, and other ways that people are punished on the platform for what they say or who they are. Twitter’s tools around abuse have continued to improve over the years, but there’s no silver bullet that will suddenly make everyone act nicer to one another. The culture war is embedded deep in Twitter’s DNA because it’s also become a core pillar of how we now engage online.

Where this kind of online toxicity has gotten particularly tricky for Twitter as a company, especially in 2018, is when it deals with bans, verification, and perceived bias against conservatives. This past year involved wide-ranging conversations about the best ways to deal with controversial online figures, as far-right organizations and even outright extremist groups have become more emboldened to speak out and use mainstream platforms to evangelize, recruit, and spread hate.

For Twitter, which has long prided itself as a platform for free expression, how it’s handled some thorny cases has landed it in hot water. The company waltzed into an easily-avoided controversy over the summer when it failed to combat the narrative that it “shadow bans” conservatives when, in reality, its anti-abuse measures simply hide harassing tweets or tweets from accounts known to be abusive. Since then, Trump and other conservatives have latched onto the idea that Twitter is stifling conservative speech, leading CEO Jack Dorsey to bend over backward to convince disingenuously upset members on the right that they are in fact welcome on the platform.

Yet the biggest debacle this year by far was Alex Jones, the Infowars conspiracy theorist whose antics, once reserved for the fringe corners of the internet, have blown up on a national scale thanks to a Trump endorsement and an increasingly truth-adverse citizenry. When Jones was getting de-platformed by almost every other social network and online service, Twitter remained steadfastly committed to keeping him on the platform. All the while, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tied himself itself into knots to justify why Jones was allowed to knowingly spread false information on the platform. Eventually, Twitter relented and banned Jones and Infowars permanently, but the whole episode made the company’s internal decision-making and speech policies look shoddy, inconsistent, and aimless.

Twitter’s speech policy enforcements are shoddy, inconsistent, and aimless

Twitter has been more active when the lines were more cleanly drawn. The company banned far-right group the Proud Boys and its founder Gavin McInnes back in August, before either Facebook or YouTube had taken action against the group accused of participating in violent street protests around the country. It also banned alt-right commentator Laura Loomer last month, after a string of hate speech violations, leading Loomer to handcuff herself to Twitter’s New York City headquarters in a brief and unsuccessful stunt to reopen her account.

But the company still has a lot of work to do to improve the consistency of its rule-enforcement and to make its platform less toxic. The verification badge, once reserved for someone with a nebulously defined amount of status, remains in desperate need of an overhaul, after Twitter paused the public application process after it gave out badges to prominent white nationalists like Richard Spencer and was later forced to rescind them.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey Testifies To House Hearing On Company’s Transparency and Accountability
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But as Dorsey’s appearance in Congress back in September made clear, the company is basically just figuring it out as it goes along. It doesn’t have all the answers, and Dorsey himself is often the first to say so on his public Twitter account. In a way, that’s reassuring, because we all know these are difficult problems without easy answers. Critics love to tweet at Dorsey with quips insinuating he must secretly sympathize with racists and bigots, because he won’t just “ban all the nazis.” But the issues are more complex, and Twitter is clearly trying to better police its platform, refine its position on speech, and create a more positive environment.

It may be an impossible balance, but in subtle ways that have a bigger impact on our daily use of the service, Twitter is improving. In September, the company gave users a way to turn off its algorithmic timeline, a big win for those who miss the reverse-chronological timeline of an older, simpler Twitter. And the explore tab continues to get better over time. It’s now a well-curated and informative pulse check on the daily news and culture of the world, and it’s clearly one of the big reasons why users are spending more time on Twitter every day.

Twitter may never be able to completely solve its biggest issues. But each year it gets better at mitigating those issues and coming up with solutions, and it continues to prove it’s as integral to the national discourse as it’s ever been. If 2018 has one takeaway for the company, it’s that Twitter leadership knows what it needs to do and has no delusions about what it wants the platform to be. Twitter doesn’t need to grow anymore, but it does need to tirelessly push to make the product a more enriching part of our lives, instead of a liability we consider giving up for good.  

Final Grade: C

C 2018 Grade

The Verge 2018 report card: Twitter

Gold Stars

  • Remains a vital information tool
  • You can now turn off the algorithmic timeline
  • Banned more bots and bigots

Needs Improvement

  • No one knows how to get more users to sign up
  • Shaky stance on speech often leaves it paralyzed