We’ve been trying to figure out the moment Twitter turned, retracing tweets to see whether there was something specific that soured the platform.
Something is wrong on Twitter. And people are noticing.
Or, at least, the kind of people we hang around with on Twitter are noticing. And it’s maybe not a very important demographic, this very weird and specific kind of user: audience-obsessed, curious, newsy. Twitter’s earnings last quarter, after all, were an improvement on the period before, and it added 14 million new users for a total of 255 million. The thing is: Its users are less active than they once were. Twitter says these changes reflect a more streamlined experience, but we have a different theory: Twitter is entering its twilight.
The publishing platform that carried us into the mobile Internet age is receding. Its influence on publishing will remain, but the platform’s place in Internet culture is changing in a way that feels irreversible and echoes the tradition of AIM and pre-2005 blogging. A lot of this argument comes down to what we feel. Communities can’t be fully measured by how many people are in them. So as we suss out cultural changes, relying on first-hand experience is a first step.
Twitter used to be a sort of surrogate newsroom/barroom where you could organize around ideas with people whose opinions you wanted to assess. Maybe you wouldn’t agree with everybody, but that was part of the fun. But at some point Twitter narratives started to look the same. The crowd became predictable, and not in a good way. Too much of Twitter was cruel and petty and fake. Everything we know from experience about social publishing platforms—about any publishing platforms—is that they change. And it can be hard to track the interplay between design changes and behavioral ones. In other words, did Twitter change Twitter, or did we?
But maybe there’s a better question to ask first: Which Twitter did we lose?
Looking back, 2013 Twitter was basically a hangover to 2012 Twitter, when we could imagine leaving the platform some day but not anytime soon. Or maybe we’re chasing the ghost of 2011 Twitter. It was a hectic feed then, a staticky mess of affiliate notifications, manual retweets, and Foursquare checkins. Remember 2010 Twitter? The year it seemed everyone had finally caved and signed up. The Arab Spring made people optimistic about the platform as a transformative force. Roger Ebert and Rob Delaney ruled. 2009 Twitter is a blur and the disjointedness of 2008 Twitter is hard to remember at this point. Before that, people weren’t even having conversations on the platform. Not really.
It’s funny that we delineate Twitter eras by the year, or that we even can, because the platform is so fixated on the “right now.” Describing Twitter by year can feel like counting raindrops in the ocean.
Besides, the Twitter worth talking about transcends all those other Twitters. When it was good—when it is good—Twitter created an environment characterized by respect and jokes so funny you wanted to show the person sitting next to you in real life. Not agreeing could be productive, and could happen without devolving into histrionics. The positive feedback loop of faves and interactions didn’t hurt, either.
As such, the idea that Twitter’s 140-character format precludes it from being a place for depth has always been a red herring. But there are legitimate questions about how the format can scale. Sometimes it helps to picture Twitter as a network of overlapping concentric circles—made bigger by retweets, modified tweets, interactions, faving, hate-faving, subtweeting, snarking, trolling, etc., etc., until they get so big and the network gets so crowded that you can’t see the circles themselves anymore.
For a long time, we would’ve told people that if they weren’t having a good time on Twitter, they weren’t following the right people. This was code for you haven’t found the right network yet. And there are still great accounts on the platform, even great networks, but many of them are becoming more fragmented than ever—even as Twitter has changed functionalities in ways that seem designed to prompt interactions and conversations. Maybe this was inevitable. Fragmentation is a fundamental part of how people interact with information online; it’s how we socialize offline, too.
People are still using Twitter, but they’re not hanging out there.
Maybe the issue is that Twitter hasn’t been growing in the right way to sustain highly engaged users.
From the beginning, there were a few useful precepts that those of us who have obsessed over the platform had to believe. First, you had to believe that someone else out there was paying attention, or better, that a significant portion—not just 1 or 2 percent—of your followers might see your tweet. Second, you had to believe that skilled and compelling tweeting would increase your follower count. Third, you had to believe there was a useful audience you couldn’t see, beyond your timeline—a group you might want to follow one day.
Those fictions have proven foolish, one-by-one. The service is filled with spam accounts: The median tweeter has just one measly follower, so how many of your followers are real people? The growth of Twitter, year-over-year, has plunged since 2011. And the tensions of Twitter’s inherent (and explicit) attention market seem to push and pull it in odd, fractal ways: to keep your Twitter timeline slow is to stop following others, to stop following others is to stop exploring the service (and to reduce the number of folks who can find you), to stop exploring the service is to get bored.
Twitter users may just get too good at tweeting, too. When a new user joins Twitter, it takes time for them to figure out what they’re doing. You get to see all the visible seams in their work—the misunderstood conventions and misapplied hashtags—and the service becomes fresher in their naivete. Here’s a new friend to hang out with! The new user, too, gets to interact with new people and establish his or her voice. It’s an exciting thing to watch, but as growth slows, the excitement does, too.
This isn’t just about the platform going mainstream. Many users disliked that the service auto-expanded images or harassed third-party client developers, saying that both discouraged the power users who came to Twitter for a writing platform. But the company has also arguably rewarded early adopters. Twitter’s new profiles prominently showing the month and year you joined the service.
And Twitter remains a meaningful meet-up spot for some conversations. The predictable churn of the outrage cycle can make it hard to remember that the platform still amplifies otherwise underrepresented voices about essential topics. You can attend a protest on Twitter that you can’t attend in real life. Some of the conversations it hosts aren’t happening anywhere else.
Viewed through this lens, the publishing platform might be seen as a microcosm for the power-shift in media from traditional gatekeepers to the rest of us. And this transfer of power is, at times, messy. (Consider the disputes over what different Twitter users consider to be “public” information.) Ultimately, this is a debate over who controls the narrative.
Actually, a lot of Twitter fights are ultimately about this very question.
So who is Twitter for, anyway?
“Twitter is the new comment section,” our friend Margarita Noriega—you may know her as @Margafret—said. “It’s changed, and unfortunately, it’s gotten a lot worse. It’s too filled with spam and hate speech and unverified content… At some point the Ezra Kleins of the world are leaving Twitter. They’re going to be the first people to leave.”
In fact, the Kleins of the world have somewhat already left. A year ago, Kleinlamented that Twitter’s signal-to-noise to ratio was too low. Check his feed today and he’s almost disengaged from the service entirely: Rarely replying or retweeting, he broadcasts Vox stories and nothing more.
The irony about the Klein example is that he’s become the go-to example of media privilege, yet he got his start in journalism as a blogger at a time when established journalists used the word “blogger” as a pejorative.
It has since become common for journalists to get their start on Twitter, in the same way that it no longer seems strange—at least among media types—to have met friends on the platform. But once media types of a certain stripe professionalize their accounts, they become like Klein’s: all scheduled tweets and broadcast links. They care about the writers they’d care about anyway—who often already have their own platform—and reply to them. Otherwise, they seem to ignore the stream.
It’s users like Klein who contribute to the sense that Twitter’s period of openness—this window when people looking to do something other than self-promotion might join—may be ending.
Some women have backed off the service altogether. It’s hard to avoid the ’splain-happy men who feel entitled to rock an otherwise friendly Twitter canoe. For a platform that was once so special, it would be sad and a little condescending to conclude that Twitter is simply something we’ve outgrown. After all, the platform has always been shaped by the people who congregate there. So if it’s no longer any fun, surely we’re at least partly to blame. And why worry about this dynamic anyway? All this attention on a platform that’snot that widely used may feel outsized, but that’s because its influence on publishing is gigantic: Twitter is the platform that led us into the mobile Internet age. It broke our habit of visiting individual news homepages first thing in the morning, and established behaviors built around real-time news consumption and production. It normalized mobile publishing power. It changed our expectations about how we congregate around shared events. Twitter has done for social publishing what AOL did for email. But nobody has AOL accounts anymore.
If Twitter is fading, what’s next?
Probably many things. The Internet is characterized by the narrowness of its streams. Already we’ve fanned out to platforms like Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, etc., etc. Some of the would-be tweets we never send are instead text messaged or chatted to our friends.
Whether you call it “the filter bubble” or “nichification,” the little corners we occupy online always feel bigger than they are because of the company we keep. And journalists tend to rely on the assumption that if I must be here, everyone else must be here, too. Subscriptions have always been about the promise of a community of readers, not just a collection of content.
Journalists who have spent an inordinate amount of time on Twitter will tell you that it used to feel like everyone was there, an assumption that’s as ridiculous but as hard to shake as the idea that New York City is the center of the world.
Twitter felt big even when it was dwarfed by social giants like Facebook. More importantly, it felt vibrant. But the truth is that it has always been small. Only now it’s not the treehouse club it once was. Instead, Twitter feels closed off, choked, in a way that makes us want to explore somewhere else for a while.