You Can’t ‘Fix’ Twitter Without Breaking Twitter

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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey evidently signaled in a company event recently that he plans to do away with the "like" button. Dorsey has hinted at such a move before. "Right now we have a big Like button with a heart on it and we’re incentivizing people to want it to go up…" he said in a conversation with WIRED. "Is that the right thing? Versus contributing to the public conversation or a healthy conversation? How do we incentive healthy conversation?"

The suggestion was mocked across the Twittersphere, with users pointing out the small heart-sharped button to tell someone you liked their message was not exactly the driver of hate and division on the site. But it did prompt a new wave of suggestions to "fix" the site to end the uncivil dialogue and harassment, including getting rid of retweets. Such suggestions fit into the perennial insistence that something must be done to end the toxic culture, harassment, bullying, etc.

It would be better if we were honest with ourselves. There's nothing that can be done to "fix" Twitter that wouldn't simultaneously destroy the elements of the site that drew us to it in the first place.

There are three separate things the larger Twitter user base demands from the company:

  • the ability to send messages out to the entire world
  • the ability to interact with fellow users
  • the ability to send messages without the fear of toxic responses

The problem is it's basically impossible to guarantee all three at once. Call it the "Twitter impossibility theorem," to ape Kenneth Arrow. You can have an open Twitter, you can have an interactive Twitter, and you can have a troll-free Twitter, but it is basically impossible to have all three. One of the demands must be dropped.

You can have an open and interactive social media platform, with the ability to send messages to a vast audience and have them reply. That's basically what Twitter is today, as well as Reddit, Instagram, etc. But with that, you lose the ability to be free of harassment and hate. Most of those platforms provide effective means of blocking, reporting, or muting users once that harassment has begun, but short of nonexistent content filter technology or the end of human fallibility, there's always the chance of receiving hate. In Twitter's case, that chance inevitably increases as your influence and following increases.

You can have an open social media platform with no harassment. The closest example here would probably be using Twitter with all notifications turned off, blissfully unaware of how your tweets are being received. But that robs you of the ability to interact with others. The second you do check your mentions, the ability to receive unwanted hate from strangers returns.

Lastly, you can have an interactive social media platform with no harassment. This requires friend requests to allow users to specifically choose who they can receive messages from and who can see their messages. This is how most people use Facebook and Snapchat.

You can use Twitter that way too by protecting your account. But doing so takes away everything that drew people to the platform in the first place. You can't go viral. You can't meet new people. You can't build a following. You can't influence opinions, or advertise your newest album, or get support for your GoFundMe. Plenty of people have no problem with that, using Twitter only as a place to hear from friends and family. But I'm convinced that if Twitter ever became nothing more than another Facebook, users would flood to an alternative.

What users demand from Twitter is inherently unreasonable and impossible to deliver. They want a platform where they can send a tweet to billions of people, have billions of people able to respond, and face no threat of bullying or toxic responses. That will never, ever happen so long as some people are harassers, bigots, and bullies. Twitter will never fix the harassment problem because Twitter cannot fix the harassment problem because Twitter cannot fix humanity.

But they do currently offer the ability to mute harassers, to block harassers, to report harassers for rule-breaking, to protect your account, to close your direct messages to only followers, and to mute those who aren't followers, who you don't follow, or who are new accounts lacking profile pictures. Twitter also automatically hides replies they believe contains offensive content, and offers a "quality filter" that (imperfectly) blocks messages from "low-quality" accounts. Which is all to say, Twitter already does a fine job of providing the tools to minimize the amount of hate and harassment you see on the platform. Most people choose not to use them because, well, Twitter just isn't as fun that way.

Theoretically, you could have a hate-free Twitter, with nothing but polite conversation, heavily moderated, and with zero tolerance for trolls and hate speech. We know this because it actually existed once, called Parlio. It was dead within two years.

"The main takeaway is that the social media experience that people say they want is often different from the one that they actively pursue," Parlio former chief strategy officer Emily Parker wrote for Politico (in the similarly titled "Why We Can't Fix Twitter"). "We say we want civil discourse. But civility is not always entertaining. That’s why Twitter brawls tend to get more attention than polite arguments."

I don't envy Jack's position, having to constantly signal to cultural and tech elites that he's very concerned about ending the toxic culture on Twitter, while secretly knowing that it's unfixable at best and one of it's main draws at worst. It would be better to end the charade. Any platform open to everyone will inevitably fill up with bigots, assholes, liars, and douchebags. Because at the end of the day, that's who we are.