Twitter Wants More Users—Maybe It Should Stop Alienating Them First

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

How can Twitter improve its sluggish growth? The company’s stock plummeted after interim chief executive Jack Dorsey said he was “not satisfied” with current user growth figures following the release of Twitter’s Q2 earnings report on Tuesday.

Twitter’s stock actually rose by 5 percent upon release of the earnings report, which included above-average revenue growth of 60 percent. However, the bump proved to be short-lived. Twitter’s shares dropped by almost 10 percent after Dorsey gave a gloomy public conference call in which he emphasised that it would “take some time” before Twitter could achieve the results that it wanted.

Chief financial officer Anthony Noto also warned that it would take a “considerable period of time” before Twitter saw “sustained, meaningful growth” in monthly active users.

One mistake that Twitter ought to avoid is the mistaken but widespread belief that users are put off from joining online communities because they feel intimidated by the rough-and-tumble of free speech. This is a myth spread by progressive commentators intent on stamping out content that offends them. The idea was tested to destruction by interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, who argued that “open policies [stifle] free expression” because “people avoid participating due to fear.”

Reddit users weren’t keen on that argument and engaged in a series of now-famous revolts against Pao’s leadership. During this wave of user migrations and site blackouts, Reddit’s traffic score fell by seven points. Far from attracting new users, Pao’s emphasis on safety and family-friendliness drove users away.

It’s a lesson that Pao’s successor, Steve Huffman, seems to have learned. While he has not reversed Pao’s changes, he has adopted a much more conciliatory tone towards anti-censorship Redditors. His recent comments include libertarian dictums such as  “you don’t win an argument by silencing the opposition and “I don’t think we should  silence people just because we disagree with them.” 

Not the most revolutionary of statements, perhaps, but it’s a distinct shift of emphasis from Pao, who perturbed Reddit users with statements such as “it’s not our site’s goal to be a completely free-speech platform.” One only has to compare the number of upvotes on Pao and Huffman’s Reddit posts to see which communication strategy led to greater user confidence.

While it may win plaudits from journalists and authoritarian activists, the example of Reddit shows that top-down content control is dangerously unpopular with users. If Twitter wants to achieve user growth, it will have to take this into account. No business model that depends on user-generated content can survive ideological censorship crusades, which destroy the fragile trust between users and the company.

Twitter’s 140-character limitation precludes the possibility for worthwhile, in-depth discussion. You’re much more likely to find that in the comments under a Reddit post, where no such character limits apply. Twitter is a place for slogans, for soundbites, and for venting emotion. There’s a reason why so many radical movements, from the Arab Spring to #BlackLivesMatter, have found a home on the platform.

This is a virtue, not a drawback. While the outbursts can be raw and sometimes frightening, they have also made Twitter the go-to platform for social movements. Maybe only one out of a thousand angry tweets will have any value, but you never know which one could create genuine change.

That’s why some of Twitter’s more recent content policies, even its ban on death threats, just don’t make sense. How many death threats were made against Middle Eastern dictators by Arab Spring protesters? I’m guessing quite a lot. A Twitter search for “George Zimmerman” and “kill” also reveals a vast array of death threats from #BlackLivesMatter protesters. If Twitter enforced its policy on death threats consistently, it would have to ban every major revolutionary and social movement that appears on the platform.

This is probably why they don’t enforce it consistently. Before he retired from blogging, Andrew Sullivan highlighted the problem of uneven censorship on Twitter, where unfashionable conservatives receive bans and suspensions for relatively minor offences, while left-wing activists call down mobs on the private addresses of their opponents with seemingly no consequence.

Twitter wants to have its cake and eat it: On the one hand, it wants to remain the destination of choice for social movements, but at the same time, it wants to avoid a reputation for online nastiness. As it tries to walk this tightrope, unavoidable double standards continue to surface.

To improve user growth, Twitter should stop pretending to be an arena of polite, friendly discussion and acknowledge its true nature. It isn’t the academy of Athens but the graffiti walls of Rome, where ordinary citizens express whatever is on their mind—sometimes in a very uncivilized manner. Once Twitter openly accepts this, it can build new features and attract new users on the basis of its genuine selling points.

For example, Twitter may want to allow users to set an optional expiry date for their tweets. Users could determine whether they want their tweets to expire in a week, a day, or an hour. It would address the worry of some users that their tweets might come back to haunt them (à la Justine Sacco) and make them even more comfortable expressing themselves on the platform.

Twitter will attract users, not by kowtowing to the trendy idea of “safe spaces,” but by playing to its strengths—and its number one strength is the promise of ephemeral, authentic conversations between people, sometimes at scale. That is what Twitter was conceived as. That is what users are attracted by. And that is what Twitter must remain—and build on—if it wants to grow.

Follow Allum Bokhari @LibertarianBlue on Twitter. 


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