Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey has been experimenting with changes to his platform to make the experience more friendly for regular users. Investors regularly complain about its slow growth and market saturation, and Dorsey is fiddling with Facebook-ish changes to make Twitter more appealing to the masses. The problem is that Twitter’s nature is so inherently biased against regular people that there may be no workaround.
Now, Twitter is a fantastic social-media platform for brands to get their message out — “brands” here meaning both corporations, and celebrities who rarely, if ever, touch their own official social media communications. It’s free marketing to a self-selected audience, same as their Facebook and Instagram accounts. More importantly, Twitter is a vital channel for prominent, yet not A-list, people who are actively sought out by their fans — writers, journalists, TV personalities, and activists. Even their more inane ramblings will get thousands of views (what Twitter calls “impressions”) and plenty of likes and retweets, leading eventually to increased clickthroughs to their articles or Youtube videos.
But the key for all of these blue checkmarks (Twitter’s VIP badge) is that they were famous first outside of Twitter. It’s almost impossible to gain a following on that particular platform if you didn’t already have a following. You just don’t hear of “Twitter celebrities” nearly as much as Youtube celebrities or Instagram celebrities, other than the occasional @dril or @dog_rates. So for most people, it doesn’t matter how clever your tweets are — why even bother if you have just 20 followers with no hope of getting more?
Further limiting Twitter’s appeal to regular plebians: it’s not really the best way for IRL friends and family to stay in contact. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat already have that covered. How many people’s moms are on Twitter, anyway? She probably made an account once three years ago, tweeted @ a QVC host, got no reply, and hasn’t logged on since. So if you’re just some random person, you won’t have much two-way communication at all. Not if your friends use other platforms for that instead.
“Well, maybe Twitter’s a good way for regular schmoes to communicate with their favorite VIPs, writers and celebrities,” you may think. Sadly, that’s a thought that leads inevitably to embarrassment and fail.
You see, the vast majority of blue-checkmarks who actually handle their own Twitter accounts — authors, artists, atheletes and personalities famous enough to be known, but who are not exactly in Taylor Swift territory — hate, and I mean hate, seeing pingbacks from the hoi polloi. For instance, I recently approvingly quoted a link from an activist, saying I liked their story. The nasty response I immediately got, and I quote verbatim: “what was the point of this tweet”. They then blocked me.
Everyone prominent person I follow is like this. I pretty much never see any political writer, left right or center, respond approvingly to any one of their fans. I do, however see (for instance) conservative pundit Kevin Williamson routinely raging at his trolls, sometimes simply tweeting “Begone peons!” if too many people are tweeting at him. If liberal pundit Jamelle Bouie of Slate is tweeting back at some plebe, he isn’t going to be saying anything nice. And I have yet to see Salon writer Amanda Marcotte engage with any rando whatsoever — she presumably just blocks any commoner foolish enough to tweet at her, whether they are praising her work or not.
Don’t get me wrong — all of these writers get plenty of trolls. But the problem is, the trolling apparently leads to a bunker mentality where EVERYONE tweeting at them who isn’t a blue-checkmark themselves, must be a troll. Or at least, some irritating nobody getting in the way of their Twitter conversation with a fellow blue-checkmark. So best-case scenario, they ignore or mute you — again, even if you are showering them with praise. Worst-case scenario, they decide to punch down and publicly slam you in the hopes that their other Twitter followers will pile on.
In a nutshell: do NOT engage with anyone you do not personally already know on Twitter beyond hearting their tweets. Even that, I would second-guess. They WILL lash out.
(update: two NY Mag writers discuss why they quit Twitter. They really do get shellshocked from the nonstop trolling, especially the female writer, which goes a long way to explain why fans tweeting at blue-checkmarks get ignored, blocked, or slapped down.)
Twitter’s problem is probably allowing random jerks like you and me to tweet at more famous people whatsoever. The illusion of egalitarianism on that particular platform means we actually think New York Magazine writer so-and-so or Buzzfeed editor so-and-so actually gives a damn about our 140-character comment about their latest article.
Now, Twitter does give its VIPs tools to deal with members of the proletariat who don’t know their places. For instance, the blue checkmark itself is a caution that you should think twice before tweeting at them. Also, VIPs have an option to literally filter out any tweets or mentions from anyone who does not themselves have a blue checkmark, so they do not have to suffer the presence of the unwashed on their Tweetdeck.
Ultimately, though, this just reinforces the point. For the average private citizen who presumably makes up 99% of Twitter’s user base, the only purpose of the service is a read-only streaming news or content platform. Which means, for me, Twitter isn’t “social media” at all, any more than the Drudge Report is, or Spotify is.
I do enjoy reading the thoughts of some aforementioned writers, often seeing their ideas hours or even days before they germinate into an actual column. And seeing big news stories trend on Twitter is interesting. But that’s really all Twitter has to offer or will ever offer me, no matter what bells and whistles Jack Dorsey may come up with. My tweets are seen by far less than 100 people and I have no real way of changing that. And I can’t comment or reply to any of my favorite writers without getting blocked or attacked. I can’t even quote them approvingly without getting blocked!
Sure, I can increase my tweet views by humping a trending hashtag. But being the 4,000th asshole tweeting “Thoughts and prayers for the victims #MassShooting” or “So sick of these mass shootings #MassShooting” contributes nothing. Even a clever or funny tweet will probably get lost in the noise — especially since Twitter automatically favors tweets from VIPs on a given hashtag.
What I really want is a social media platform that is truly social — and lets me meet and engage with people. (Not necessarily VIPs. Anyone.) Current platforms exist only for conversing with people you already know, or else finding romantic dates. That’s it. There exist no way for me to find new people online to chat with. If Dorsey wants to truly reform Twitter to make it more than a read-only platform for me, and if such a thing is possible, then maybe he could investigate new ways I could engage with other regular people just as unfamous as myself.