Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Make twitter great again?

I used twitter the most while working in developer relations, mainly sharing articles about web development that I thought deserved more attention. My feed consisted of engineers, developer advocates, and web standards folks I respected, all of whom had something interesting to say. Twitter was my interest graph, in contrast with Facebook, which was just a poor facsimile of real life relationships.

As my career and interests shifted, so did the people I followed on twitter. I started following VR engineers, machine learning researchers, philosophers and psychologists. But more tweeps meant more tweets. Soon I had a twitter list for people that I had reluctantly unfollowed. They had interesting things to say, but said them too often.

Following someone on twitter is like having a direct line into their brain. If they write about a subject you are passionate about, fantastic. If they have broadly aligning interests, chances are they will turn you on to something neat, or if you're lucky, life changing. Unfortunately, most of the time, twitter brains are distracted, anxious, angry, or unhappy. Spastic tweet storms and political ramblings deserve only one thing, a hearty unfollow.

Twitter's bad design decisions only compound the problem. In "Retweets Are Trash", Alexis Madrigal writes, "When Twitter introduced a retweet button, in 2009, suddenly one click could send a post careening through the network. The automatic retweet took Twitter’s natural tendency for amplification and cranked it up." Apparently it's not hard to globally disable retweets using a crude hack. Anecdotally, it seems to have made my feed a bit calmer.

A quick update on my white supremacist spam problem. Time seems to have sorted it out, and the remaining squawks have been muffled by twitter's quality filter. I also tried using Mastodon. It was a calming experience at first, but when I followed a few people and dug around a little bit, I was dismayed to see most design choices mirroring twitter's. I caught up on RSS feeds, which I really like. But the RSS ecosystem continues to die. Of nearly five hundred RSS feeds in my OPML file, more than half are broken links. Occasionally the links are fixed, causing my reader to choke on a year's worth of articles from a blog whose existence I've long forgotten about.

I can't quite decide whether or not to use twitter again. I keep thinking that I once got a lot out of my original use of the platform. If I do return, I'll be making use of the @reply quality filter, fully disable retweets, and unfollow more aggressively. Whether this makes twitter great again remains to be seen.