I love Twitter, so it’s a real shame that it’s owned by the Twitter corporation. In many ways Twitter is already a human artifact worthy of history books, but as a software product in 2019, it stinks. The company’s crowning achievements in the past decade include replacing a star icon with a heart, doubling the length of tweets, and solving harassment with blog posts. Twitter’s upside is world-shaking and poetic — and that’s why its delinquent stewardship is so frustrating.
This week brought another bizarre interview with Jack Dorsey, and a fresh round of promises by the Twitter CEO to maybe someday do something useful with his company’s product. Well, I’m not buying it — fucking up constantly is in Twitter’s DNA — but I do have three recommendations just in case the company wakes up from its user experience nightmare.
Your #KaraJack tl;dr:— Felix Salmon (@felixsalmon) February 12, 2019
Jack: We need to stop X.
Kara: What specifically are you doing to stop X?
Jack: We haven’t done enough to stop X. We’re thinking hard about how to do that.
Kara: Have you done *anything* to stop X?
Jack: We haven’t done enough.
Batch Tweet deletion
Let me oversimplify Twitter’s entire business: Twitter is happy when there are more tweets, and is sad when there are fewer tweets. So we can at least understand why Twitter and every other company that makes money from hosting your content doesn’t spend too much time thinking about how to help you make less of it. But they ought to.
They ought to because letting people control the stuff they own is both the right thing to do and the only reasonable way for a business to behave. It’s absurd that you have to rely on third parties to delete all of your tweets — content that you own and should be able to more easily manage. Imagine if someone started a bank that only let customers withdraw money one dollar at a time. You can’t, because nobody would be dumb enough to operate a product that way, unless they faced no meaningful competition.
To be fair, this problem is everywhere. Instagram introduced an archive feature in 2017 to let you prune your past, but you have to click multiple buttons to archive your posts, one at a time. Is it rational for platform companies to create friction for users who want to delete stuff? Sure. Is it a shitty thing to do? You bet.
Twitter and its peers have what I’ll call a maximalist perspective on permanence. The idea that you upload something and it just stays there forever is baked so deeply into these services that entire competitors have emerged whose value proposition hinges on a different concept of time. (Hi, Snapchat.) People still only slowly seem to be realizing this is probably a bad idea — usually when they get owned online for something they said 10 years ago and forgot to delete.
Again, it doesn’t have to be this way. Twitter could easily let you choose how long a tweet should live, and then let it die. Most things we say online have a shelf life of about 24 hours and it’s just weird to preserve every spasm of human expression in amber for all time. Future generations may wish they had a complete picture of what we said and did online, but we don’t owe them a complete historical record if it means self-surveillance in the present.
Swipe to block
Twitter is happy when there are more tweets, so it follows that it is happy when there are more people connecting and tweeting at each other. But for many of us, other people are hell. It should be easier to block them.
It may not be possible to moderate communities of incomprehensible size. And it may be true, as the Jack Dorseys and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world would have us believe, that moderation at enormous scale is only possible with the assistance of sophisticated artificial intelligence. But in the meantime, they can make it a lot easier for us to deal with people who are bad online, and they haven’t spent enough time or attention on ways to control who gets to speak to us online.
I hope we get to a place where some super smart AI nukes racist trolls before they can strike. But in the meantime, Twitter, can you make a better button? Here’s the idea: let people swipe left on a tweet in the app to block the person who tweeted it. One swipe and they’re gone.
Thanks for reading, Twitter. I’m sure I’ll think of some more useful buttons the next time I open the app, but I’m sure this is enough to keep you busy for the next three to five years.