Make Twitter Fun Again
With Jack Dorsey's exit, the platform has an opportunity to remake itself
In 2018, New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman -- the target of sexist vitriol on Twitter -- wrote an op-ed for the paper explaining why she needed to pull back from the platform. "Twitter is now an anger video game for many users. It is the only platform on which people feel free to say things they’d never say to someone’s face," she wrote. "For me, it had become an enormous and pointless drain on my time and mental energy." Her experience is altogether too common, and nevertheless, she started tweeting again, as it is a professional necessity for the vast majority of journalists.
Jack Dorsey's recent decision to step down as Twitter's chief executive offers the opportunity to improve users' experience on the platform. His replacement, Parag Agrawal, has his work cut out for him. Before I suggest some changes that Twitter could make, here is some context on Twitter's role in the tech and media ecosystem:
Despite being lumped together with Facebook and Google in Capitol Hill hearings, Twitter is nowhere near as large as the two tech behemoths -- having a market capitalization of $34 billion as opposed to those companies with capitalizations well over $1 trillion. In addition, it has changed less than Meta and Google -- its last major change was to lengthen tweets from 140 characters to 280 characters in 2017.
Twitter has a much more limited user base than its peers. Twitter reported 211 million active daily users in 2021, compared to Facebook's 1.93 billion. According to the Pew Research Center, around twenty percent of Americans use Twitter. But most of them don't tweet much. The top 10 percent of users account for 80 percent of tweets, while the bottom 90 percent account for the remaining 20 percent. The median Twitter user produces two tweets per month, while the top 10 percent of Twitter users produce 138 tweets per month.
With such a small active user base, why is Twitter so influential? As someone who spends too much time on Twitter, I can explain. Journalists and people in politics alike look at Twitter to see what is important and breaking in the news. Therefore, for better or for worse, it shapes media coverage disproportionate to its user base. I have a few suggestions to make the platform less toxic -- and maybe even less of a time suck on our attention.
Subscriptions: Twitter should offer a variety of options for subscriptions. On December 4, Twitter introduced a premium subscription service for $2.99/month, called Twitter Blue. These subscriptions offer the option to undo tweets, and introduce new formats such as bookmark folders and a reader view. It's too soon to evaluate how this will change the platform. More expensive options would be a good additional step, with features such as email newsletters aggregating top stories.
Why would moving away from a free model improve Twitter? The company would be less reliant on ad dollars and data targeting. With a dedicated stream of revenue, it would have the freedom to innovate. Media that is free, like the Facebook platform, has to collect user data to remain free for its users -- as the saying goes, you are the product.
Rethink Trending Topics: Right now, Twitter offers users a list of trending topics. On the face of it, this isn't a crazy idea -- there should be a way for a casual user to quickly see the most important stories of the day. However, this feature is close to useless as it is populated with conspiracy theories or useless news. For instance, #ClintonBodyCount trended after the death of Jeffrey Epstein:
Far-right YouTube influencer Tim Pool also trended recently (along with “WE DID”):
Right now, Trending Topics is too vulnerable to manipulation. Twitter's algorithm for trending topics is opaque, but it appears to reward the most extreme views since they garner the most retweets. This feature needs to be rethought and replaced, potentially with a more manually curated section.
Algorithmic Transparency: In a congressional hearing in March, outgoing CEO Dorsey said that Twitter would offer a choice in algorithms, which could potentially change how its users see their tweets organized. He suggested open-source algorithms, which would allow outside researchers to study how they work. Right now, social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube operate with proprietary algorithms that outside researchers can't study, and users have no choice in how they see their information presented. To date, Twitter hasn't rolled out these changes.
A more robust premium model, rethinking trending topics, and algorithmic transparency could improve the platform to make it less toxic and less of a tax on our attention. With changes in product design, Twitter could live up to its potential and become a fun, interesting, social, and irreverent news aggregator, with a broader user base.