Twitter Retrospective

Back in 2009 I started a new job as the Internet Marketing Coordinator for a midsized healthcare e-commerce company. The primary reason that I was hired was due to my coding skills; their e-commerce system was ancient even in those days and even basic things required significant coding. I had the academic background but also the working knowledge since I had long hosted my own internet forum; which entailed lots of troubleshooting PHP and mySQL.

One of the tasks I was assigned was setting up analytics and growing the businesses’ social media presence. That was my formal introduction to Twitter.

I had assumed that Twitter was a vapid social media site where people gossiped about nonsense and overshared personal information. That assumption was not necessarily false…but I soon learned that Twitter was far more than that. It was a fantastic place to connect with people around shared interests. Actually it was a fantastic venue to connect with all of the relevant people around a shared interest.

For the purpose of internet marketing I was able to make genuine connections with experts and influencers in our target market. Going in, I had thought of marketing as this sleazy thing but – at least on the Twitter side – it ended up actually being a wholesome experience of relationship building. It was a unique community where companies, customers, experts, and government officials (as relevant to our specific corner of healthcare) were all engaging together. This was quite different from general internet advertising, which was all about conversions. Twitter felt like it was about more than simply convincing customers to come to the site and place an order; it was about brand recognition, establishing ongoing relationships, and building word-of-mouth recommendations. Facebook was good at engaging existing customers but Twitter was where we had the most success in bringing in new customers. It was going quite well but then…

A little over a year later the great recession finally caught up with the e-commerce company where I was working and I was laid off. So I guess our little corner of the healthcare market was recession delayed, not recession resilient.

I set up the Twitter account at the non-profit where I worked next but the CEO only saw it as loudspeaker to make announcements from and building up relationships wasn’t an area of focus. Personally, I set up a few themed Twitter accounts to promote specific campaigns such as Operation Rainfall or Save Our Series. I also have a personal Twitter account under my real name but it never really saw much use. But that the extent of my involvement on Twitter for a few years.

Then, around the 2016 election, I decided that I needed to take a break from Facebook and politics so I completely logged out for about six months. No newsfeeds. No Facebook. Instead I started up a new hobby – painting tabletop gaming miniatures. That’s when I started this blog and when I started my ‘official’ Kaihaku Twitter account.

It might strange, today, to read that I got on Twitter to take break from politics. Well, the algorithm was a little different back then. I was able to engage in effective and rewarding ways with people who were also interested in painting miniatures and talking about roleplaying. There was immediate connection and reciprocity. Exactly what I had experienced when I managed that first Twitter account for the e-commerce business. Twitter was a place where it was easy, with just a couple of hashtags, to connect meaningfully with painters (of all skill levels), sculptors, companies, authors, players, game masters, etc, etc.

The breadth of relationships is what made Twitter really distinct from Facebook or the internet forums that I came up in. This wasn’t just dedicated to one game, there wasn’t just one company/brand, and most of the authors were there too. For example, you could talk Dragonlance and Margaret Weis might hop into the thread.

Here’s a recent example of some random person tweeting their Loth Soth miniature from Hero Forge and Margaret Weis sharing with her more than seventeen thousand followers. This wasn’t a promotion that Margaret Weis agreed to do for Hero Forge, this happened organically. No other platform really fosters this kind of interaction between companies, customers, journalists, authors…and, well, pretty much everyone. Twitter really is the world’s town square. This is what Mastodon, with it’s federated model, doesn’t get. The special thing about Twitter is that everyone is there in the same public space. Splitting off into separate servers just replicates the walled gardens that internet forums, discord servers, and reddit already provide.

Twitter was a fantastic place to learn to paint miniatures. So many people gave me feedback and advice. At first, I was intimidated by the Warhammer 40k painters due to the grimdark setting and their incredible artistic skills (they take miniature painting seriously). But I was shocked to find that they were, aside from a few bad eggs, among the warmest and most welcoming to newcomers. Still some of the friendliest hobbyspaces I’ve seen and I wasn’t even one of them – I was painting for tabletop roleplaying, not wargaming.

One of my favorite miniature painters is Michael Mordor. He’s just some guy from Scotland who joined Twitter a few months before me in 2016 and who enjoys painting tabletop miniatures. On Twitter he found an international audience. He ran a contest for new painters that I entered a few times (never won) with the reward being a miniature from the Reaper Bones line. When Reaper, the company that produces the miniatures, found out they started promoting and sponsoring Michael’s contest by providing the prize miniatures. This kind of organic engagement was what I valued the most about Twitter.

I really don’t think Patreon or Kickstarter would have been the success that they’ve been without Twitter fostering this kind of organic and positive engagement. Twitter is how I found out about the Trash Mob Minis that I’ve been using for the kids. There are so many artists and content creators who found their niche and audience through organic engagement over shared interests on Twitter.

So that all sounds great. What went wrong?

Over time, the Twitter algorithm was adjusted to focus more and more on ‘high engagement’ tweets. This flooded Twitter feeds with arguments, negative emotions, celebrity gossip, and politics. Tweets from ‘influencers’ with high follower counts. Apparently users were not ‘engaged’ enough with the tweets focused merely on their interests. In fact, at some point, Twitter even decided that the whole following thing was a misstep and started flooding user feeds with the random tweets the algorithm thought would better ‘engage’ us. It was no longer possible to just sit off in corner of Twitter and focus on shared interests. Twitter had decided that that was not engaging enough.

I’m oversimplifying a bit but basically…

  • Initially Twitter mostly showed users tweets in chronological order from the people they decided to follow.
  • Then Twitter decided to filter the tweets from the people users decided to follow and prioritize showing ‘engaging’ tweets.
  • Finally, Twitter decided to downplay that whole following thing and give more focus to tweets the algorithm thought you’d engage with from anyone.

What was the result of this shift? Well, for one, most people stopped engaging with my niche tweets about painting miniatures and playing tabletop roleplaying games. The people who followed me couldn’t see my tweets unless they looked up my profile because the algorithm decided my tweets were not ‘engaging’ enough. I’ve never tried mixing politics or drama in with my hobbies but, by 2021, I was seeing plenty of tweets from people who did and almost no tweets from people who did not. The exception was ‘influencers’, Twitter accounts with lots of followers seemed to have no problem getting featured by the algorithm. The tweaks to the Twitter algorithm effectively drowned organic engagement.

In 2017, my Twitter Notifications were full of people following me, liking my tweets, responding to my tweets, and retweeting me.

By 2021, my Twitter Notifications were full of trash ‘did you miss this’ and ‘this might interest you’ from people I didn’t even follow. There was almost no genuine engagement.

In 2022, Twitter suddenly seemed to realize that something was going terribly wrong and sent out a pretty in-depth survey on engagement. My response was a scathing critique of their algorithm and their ham-fisted approach to engagement.

Then, to my surprise, Twitter began to roll things back. Twitter gave me control over my feed and I was able to set it back to chronological. Then I was able to filter out the trash ‘did you miss this’ tweets and actually see what the people I followed were saying again.

Unfortunately these were all changes that I had to make and they were not the default. The vast majority of people who follow me either didn’t know or didn’t care to make these adjustments. Which means that while I can organically engage with the people I follow again, it’s mostly one way because the algorithm isn’t showing my tweets to them. And, here’s the thing, there’s no point for me to be on Twitter just to talk to myself. Talking to myself is what the blog is for.

Twitter decided to go all in on the ‘most engaging’ content and ended up destroying community while causing people to burn-out on social media. Facebook had their own – perhaps more harmful – take on this but with a similar objective; to maximize extracting value from people’s social lives. It’s not enough to extract some value, in order to make the line go up every quarter corporations are driven to extract the maximum possible value even if that causes widespread harm and ultimately undermines their long-term business model. Consider Boeing.

And that brings us to the last month. Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, took control of Twitter on October 27th, 2022 and proceeded to exceed all of our wildest expectations of mismanagement. He seems singlehandedly committed to abolishing the myth of billionaire competence.

In practice, Elon is just doing what the ultra-wealthy, or their venture capitalist hounds, have been doing for decades; come in assuming they know everything about business, buy a business they don’t actually understand (but they think they understand because they understood a different business), immediately fire the people who do understand the business, proceed to run the business into the ground, then break the business up and sell it. Finally, clap themselves on the back for a job well done.

The difference here is that Elon has been doing it in an extremely public way and without any kind of PR obfuscation. It’s very clear that he doesn’t understand how Twitter actually works – both functionally and as a business – and that he doesn’t care to learn. It also seems that he might not understand how people work except for those who venerate him.

I don’t know what the future holds for Twitter. Maybe it will crash due to Elon firing or chasing away the vast majority of the engineers who maintained it. Maybe it will fall apart from lack of finances due to scaring all the advertisers away or a wave of regulatory oversight as Twitter starts to host illegal content. Maybe, somehow, it will all come together and Elon’s vision of Twitter 2.0 will be reality. Maybe Twitter will be broken up and sold to other corporations. Who knows.

But it’s clear that whatever Twitter was, it is now at an inflection point. It’s future will not be like it’s past. Hence a retrospective.

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