Twitter is breaking down. In a weekend exodus, four top executives have left the company. This follows a crashing stock price and weeks of bad press followings the social media platform’s ill-advised decision to pick a fight with conservative media.
Its current crisis was preceded by years of stagnant user growth, a failure to effectively monetize, and repeated free speech-related controversies.
Where did it all go wrong for Twitter? In the short term, Twitter’s institutional investors have, according to Milo Yiannopoulos, been deeply concerned about how the recent controversy over his de-verification.
2/ I now know from multiple sources that institutional investors were watching my case closely to see what Twitter did about their mistake.
— Milo Yiannopoulos ✘ (@Nero) January 25, 2016
3/ When a company is in trouble, investors watch very closely to see whether management fixes or doubles down on slip-ups.
— Milo Yiannopoulos ✘ (@Nero) January 25, 2016
All would be well if the company’s users were increasing, instead of flatlining or decreasing. But that won’t happen any time soon. The platform has a problem, one that’s alienating existing users and keeping new ones away, and it won’t be solved by gimmicks like “moments” and 10,000-character tweets.
The problem is that Twitter no longer believes in the values which attracted users in the first place. Beyond sharing news and links, the platform’s primary appeal was that it was a place to share fleeting, momentary thoughts. The 140-character format encourages bluntness and honesty, not nuanced discussion. It was a place for the unfiltered thoughts of humanity.
Yet, by caving in to political and media pressure to stop “trolling” on its platform, Twitter has made people scared to be honest on its platform. Where once their rules were simple, Twitter now maintains an ever-expanding list of reasons to ban and punish its users. Users have to consider more and more factors before tweeting, all of which takes away from the platform’s primary appeal as a place to instantly share what’s on your mind.
The opaqueness of Twitter’s enforcement makes the platform’s rules even more treacherous to navigate. Users often have no idea why they’ve been punished, which makes the chilling effect all the more potent. Step by step, users retreat towards safe, inoffensive, uninteresting patterns of tweeting – and those who don’t are banned. The exciting users are thrown off, and those who remain have fewer and fewer incentives to be exciting. If there were a recipe for killing a platform’s appeal, this would be it.
Twitter should have paid attention to the results of censorship on sites like 4chan and Reddit. They caused mass user exoduses to competitors like 8chan and Voat. They took on tens of thousands of users in a matter of days after their larger cousins decided to move away from their initial ideals of free expression.
Neither Voat nor 8chan succeeded in breaking their competitors’ market penetration, a key obstacle for any website seeking to overcome established players in social media. But from Twitter’s perspective, that shouldn’t matter. The exoduses demonstrated that attacks on free speech mean your user numbers will decrease, not increase. It should have been plain as daylight.
Twitter, I suspect, is affected by a common menace in Silicon Valley: the internal cohort of social justice warriors that appears to plague every big tech company and community. They’re the reason coding communities are now being stifled by language codes, and why the language of college students (“safe spaces,” “microaggressions,” “intersectionality”) is growing increasingly common in tech.
Dick Costolo hinted that these people existed at Twitter when he told a New York Times journalist that employees often came to him with examples of Tweets of alleged “harassment” that was in fact little more than political disagreement.
“I’ll get emails from people that say, “I agree, and here’s a great example of someone being harassed on the platform” – and it’s not at all harassment, it’s political discourse. And, in fact, fairly rational political discourse”
It’s unsurprising that SJWs are upset about political dissidents on Twitter, which is perhaps the world’s foremost site of online political activity. The site has played a major role in the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and black lives matter. It has played host to the rise of online feminists, gamergaters, and cultural libertarians. It’s influential, and that’s why SJWs want to control it.
And therein lies the threat for Twitter. Because if they get their way – and a host of new rules on “online abuse” suggest they do get their way at least occasionally – then Twitter’s primary appeal will finally be gone. Once the scene of revolutions, it will become a sanitised platform, good for little more than a diminishing, increasingly bored base of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift fans.
If Twitter wants to attract users back, it has to be exciting again. The opaque, expansive set of rules that it maintains only dampens the enthusiasm of its users, making them less likely to Tweet, less excited about the platform, and less likely to encourage their friends to do so too.
That’s Twitter’s path to success: more speech, rowdier speech, not less. Like a number of other companies, it needs to remember that it’s a platform, not a publisher. An enabler, not a censor. That, not SJWs, is what will win the company back the favour of its users.