Can Twitter Be Salvaged?

Twitter’s very popular, but the way it reduces communication to a series of hastily crafted, artificially truncated blurbs produces dystopian quantities of toxic and fallacious discourse. Quality Twitter is a website which attempts to provide a better experience. It presents Twitter threads with a Medium-style reading experience. (A Twitter thread is a series of tweets which are all written by the same author and have been linked together by that author.) Individual, non-thread tweets as well as all comments are excluded. Threads are displayed as if they were “long read” style articles. Popular topics or hashtags are featured on the homepage like a news site, so the user can browse through multiple “articles” on the topic he’s interested in.

The theory behind this is that Tweet threads tend to be the highest quality content on Twitter, with single tweets and comments generally containing most of the knee-jerk trash. (A casual scan of recent Twitter threads found this to be true, though a lot of threads are still garbage, and many feel disjointed when you read them because they weren’t composed as a single piece of prose.)

Quality Mastodon might work too, if Mastodon supports threads, but Twitter has more content.

This idea is similar to, but they differ in a few ways:

1. TRA requires opt-in, they only “unroll” a thread if someone requests it. Opt-in is irrelevant to my idea; as far as I know, presenting any Tweet thread in this format is compliant with the Twitter ToS. The focus of Quality Twitter is to expose the best content for popular topics or hashtags, so Quality Twitter would instead monitor those hashtags and add new threads as they emerge.

2. TRA has a poor discovery, browsing and reading experience. You can only discover threads by searching for hashtags. They don’t give you any hints as to which hashtags might be interesting to search for. The thread browsing and reading experience is mediocre. URLs are not SEO friendly. Overall, the site doesn’t feel like a destination. This is all pretty easy stuff to fix so it probably just isn’t the focus of the small team behind TRA.

Would Quality Twitter work as a business? Maybe, but I’m not sure it’s a slam dunk. The content would be better than Twitter, but worse than Medium. The only means of revenue generation I can think of are ads and subscriptions, and traditional publications struggle to make ends meet online through these methods. The presentation of the content might be more satisfying than Twitter itself, but it would definitely be less addictive. Still, there might be a lot of people who would like to read the more thoughtful content posted to Twitter and avoid the rest, and the idea isn’t capital intensive (the engineering is pretty simple and not much else to the product). Dependency on Twitter is an obvious liability but could perhaps be mitigated by introducing other sources of content (any textual social media would be a candidate for inclusion).

This points to a deeper problem: in the world we live in today, billions of dollars are being poured into software which hijacks our lizard brains in order to maximize profits for its owner, even when this isn’t in the best interest of the user. Examples include most popular social media as well as play-to-win/lootbox video games, which compulsive addicts spend tens of thousands of dollars on. These products are the Frosted Flakes of software, you don’t eat it because it’s healthy, you eat it because your brain is hooked on sugar. Most people who use this software don’t know any better or are using it for the same reasons we all get addicted to something: we crave a distraction to dull the pain of existence. Have we ever found a way to counteract the lure of tobacco, alcohol, drugs or gambling?

My initial answer to this question was no, all we’ve come up with is regulating these things to limit the damage they cause in excess. But I realized we actually do have another trick up our collective sleeve, which is to substitute something that’s equally addictive, but less harmful. This is a big part of vaping is so popular, it’s equally addictive to smoking, but probably less deadly, so the switch makes sense to both the lizard limbic system and the rational prefrontal cortex. Sure enough, a lot of people are making this switch. I have to think more about this.