Twitter’s getting better at making money but it still has a big problem with user growth... among other things. CEO Jack Dorsey and his team have some ideas for making the social network a “healthier place” for “quality” discussion, and you’re probably not going to like them.
Nazis, misogynists, bots and trolls continue to wage effective campaigns of harassment on Twitter. And it seems Dorsey continues to believe the real problem is the “quality of debate”, which he can fix by making some minor changes to the handful of features that govern how the network functions.
On Monday, The Telegraph reported that the 41-year-old executive spoke at a Twitter event last week and told attendees that the “Like” button will be going away “soon”. Officially, Twitter said today it’s open to killing Likes, but contested the idea that it’s happening at any specific time, or even at all.
According to the report, Dorsey said he wasn’t a fan of the function that gives users the chance to endorse or amplify a post. “We’re experimenting and considering numerous possible changes, all with an eye toward ensuring we’re incentivising the right behaviours to drive healthy conversation,” he reportedly said.
In 2015, Twitter replaced the star-shaped "Favourite" button with a heart-shaped "Like" icon. It went from being a tool to bookmark tweets for future reference to a function for user gratification.
But the Like button has become a concern among mental health professionals who feel it drives people to crave the feeling of reward it gives, and to perform an online persona that will get more likes. Last year, Justin Rosenstein, the engineer who first implemented the Like button for Facebook, told The Guardian that he has some regrets about what he unleashed on the world.
Twitter may be underestimating how much that addictive reward system actually encourages people to continue using the platform. I’ll admit that I thought bumping the character limit from 140 to 280 would dramatically change the platform for the worse, and that’s worked out fine. But I still think losing the likes would dramatically harm Twitter’s engagement.
Without those likes, people will really start to look in the mirror and think about how much dumb shit they’re posting all the time.
But maybe Jack is OK with that. Maybe Twitter truly believes it can still be successful and become a place for more substantive discussion. Maybe people will gradually feel good about stepping out of the echo chamber and try to choose their words more carefully.
When contacted by Gizmodo, a Twitter spokesperson directed us to a tweet from its communications team that reads: “As we’ve been saying for a while, we are rethinking everything about the service to ensure we are incentivizing healthy conversation, that includes the like button. We are in the early stages of the work and have no plans to share right now.”
A member of the communications team, Brandon Borrman, later tweeted even further clarification, saying: “Short story on ‘like.’ We’ve been open that we’re considering it. Jack even mentioned it in front of the US Congress. There’s no timeline. It’s not happening ‘soon.’” Maybe Twitter noticed that #TwitterButtonsWeReallyNeed is picking up steam.
Sara Haider, director of product management, and Mike Kruzeniski, senior director of product design, also recently previewed some initiatives Twitter is working on when they spoke at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. They said they want to improve conversations by making Twitter easier to use and more inviting.
Among the changes that are being developed is a way to highlight conversation starters such as, “Did anyone understand the last episode of #Westworld?” This would be complemented by a new threading system that “increases the density of the replies to a tweet and has some controls over expanding and collapsing sub-branches of a tweet”.
It’s also trying out a system that would highlight thread replies from people you follow in green and your own replies in blue.
There’s no timeline for when any of these features will be tested publicly or if they’ll even make it into the wild at all. Dorsey has also said he wants to give people the ability to edit tweets and we haven’t seen any movement on that.
Missing from all this is a plan for a clearer terms of service, increased content moderation, and a commitment to enforcing its own rules. Just this weekend Twitter had to apologise for not taking a complaint about threats seriously. It appears the threats came from Cesar Sayoc, the man accused of sending pipe bombs to President Trump’s prominent political opponents.
Over the weekend, Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel wrote about how normal the unhinged posts from Sayoc have become and how unnerving it is that many of us wouldn’t even think to report them. It’s just as troubling to think that harassment and threats have become so normal to Twitter’s moderators that they can’t tell what deserves their attention.