Geiger's Culture Counter: Twitter doesn’t understand itself

Last week Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey revealed that their service would unshackle itself from the iconic 140-character message limit to 280 characters. As a longtime user of the social media site I know that this perceived benefit is terrible yet unsurprising because the company has a horrible record of handling abuse.

Like most people I was skeptical at the start. I didn’t understand the point of brief, meaningless postings for all to read. It wasn’t until I joined the site in my senior year of high school when Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors, announced that he was crowdsourcing a short story 140-characters at a time that I saw the potential. Strangers can come together and collaborate on art in newfound ways. Since Twitter is online and has a global reach, it relies on smaller social circles to give it purpose.

In 2014, however, daily use of the site went from pleasant to unbearable. A relatively tiny, yet vocal, subset of the gaming community—that I won’t even name out of spite—began harassing developers, journalists and fans of the medium for nonsensical reasons that aren’t worth explaining. Trolls and insult-slingers were always there, but it was the first time I personally witnessed the damage on a coordinated scale. I saw friends, colleagues and peers have their lives ruined and driven off the site by stalkers, hatemongers and hackers publishing personal data who identified as the self-described “alt-right.”

That’s right. We were the canaries in the coal mine of today’s nonstop nightmare and our cries went ignored.

I already dread the future where we go to war over a single tweet and giving those scumbags a louder megaphone won’t help anything. In fact, the new feature is already being misused as people press the enter key 280 times to create long periods of white nothingness. Yes, individual tweets can be reported but Twitter repeatedly ignores just complaints of the abused while listening to worthless whines of the abuser.

Character count isn’t the only thing Twitter’s executives are oblivious about. As Ted Cruz found out the hard way, every user’s likes are public. They can be viewed both in an individual’s profile and they now appear midstream in one’s timelines unsolicited. Why though? That information should only be known between the liker and the liked both for privacy reasons and because likes have no singularly defined definition. People use them for bookmarks along with showing thanks and acknowledging points in a debate instead of merely saying “I like this.” The multiple interpretations exist since Twitter originally used a neutral star symbol to denote likes but now uses a heart, which could be seen as “I love this.”

Because of this easily misconstrued mess I haven’t liked a single thing on Twitter and probably never will.

Along with downsizing death threats, Twitter also doesn’t get that limitations strengthen the form. Haikus, limericks, sonnets and other specific forms of poetry are timeless because they constantly push wordsmiths to conqueror their hurdles creatively. As William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White have taught us for decades: “Omit needless words, omit needless words, omit needless words.” I comprehend that there’s no longer a need to tie the service to texting restrictions but there are other solutions. Twitter has already taken sensible steps to mitigate constraints by shrinking how many characters handles, links and images take up. Is one larger tweet really that much  better than two tweets?

Unfortunately I have little to no choice to keep using Twitter. There is no better way for journalists to get breaking news, follow their beats, connect with fellow writers and inform the public. Every writing opportunity I’ve had is because of Twitter. It is a vital watercooler that has no suitable replacement. Sites like Mastodon are trying, and others will keep trying as long as there are venture capitalists, yet it’s hard to topple something so ingrained in people’s lives.

Twitter is a neutral tool that is not inherently good or bad. It is shaped and molded by the influence of its userbase like most devices. A wrench can build or harm. That versatility doesn’t excuse a tool’s creator from not anticipating every possible scenario of how it could go wrong and installing precautions. But it’s clear that Twitter wants to keep its head in the sand and not make the minimal effort required to improve itself.