Why Twitter Has Never Been Great

Millions of users to talk into a void—too bad nobody's listening

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter, attends the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 6, 2016 in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s no secret that Twitter is on the decline. Their stock price has fallen to half its IPO level, users are leaving in droves, and companies continue to pass on buying the declining social media platform.

Some believe that anything less than $20 billion is undervaluing the company, while others say that spending anything more than $10 billion is a fool’s errand. I find it baffling that Twitter—whose only source of revenue is in advertising—can be valued at such a ridiculous figure. Consider this: If Twitter were to fold tomorrow, would any industry find themselves in a dire position? Advertisers go wherever people are, so even for them, the demise of Twitter would be but a momentary inconvenience.

While all of this investment and valuation talk is interesting, I’d like to talk about the platform itself. I’d like to posit that Twitter was never really that great anyway. I find the platform to be like so many of its users: a big load of hot air. It’s a tool for millions of people to talk into a void—too bad nobody’s listening.

These, however, surface criticisms. There are deeper and more important reasons that Twitter is not only less than it’s cracked up to be, but actually bad for society at large.

Let’s start with the fact that posts are only 140 characters. Initially, the hype set from Silicon Valley considered this a breakthrough achievement, a new order and even coined the term “microblogging.” What this really means is that most anything said on the platform is stripped entirely of context and meaning. It isn’t a great discussion forum as many would claim, because if you want to talk about anything in depth, you’re going to have to do it 140 characters at a time while another person is doing the exact same thing. Rather than going back and forth, more often than not you just have two parties continuously typing. That’s not a discussion, it’s two competing monologues. 

Twitter also gives us speech policing, the worst kind of bandwagonism, and the assumption of evil intent from everyone. Consider the case of PR executive Justine Sacco, who, as she was getting on a plane to South Africa back in 2013, tweeted “Going to Africa, hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!” Leaving aside whether one believes the joke was in poor taste or not, the aftermath was terrifying. Sacco had only 170 followers, but by the time her plane landed she had tens of thousands of angry, abusive and hateful tweets directed her way and she even lost her job. Even her employer decided to start issuing public statements about how unacceptable Sacco’s behavior was, rather than doing the decent thing by talking to her privately first.

Twitter makes it far too easy to abuse others—and whether that’s directly on someone else’s feed or through a private message, there is no cost to the abuser for any of this. The barrier for entry is non-existent. People don’t have to use their real names and more often than not, they aren’t punished for their transgressions. 

Once upon a time if something someone wrote or said really angered you, you’d have to write a letter or an email to their editor or boss. It would likely take a lot of letters before that person was reprimanded, because their boss knew them and would take their side, if reasonable to do so. Now, all you have to do is send angry and hateful tweets, and if there are enough, an employer will freak out and kick their employee to the curb.

The thing about real life, where you’re actually face-to-face with people, is that when someone says something that could possibly be deemed racist, sexist, or for whatever reason upsetting, you have the responsibility to tell them so. Such interactions will generally end in an apology and hopefully a change of behavior, or a parting of ways.

We understand that in real life encounters one can’t just go nuclear and punch someone in the face, because not only is it a completely overblown and disproportionate response, but it gives the offending party no chance to respond. Unfortunately this sort of response is exactly what Twitter facilitates. When the angry mob begins to pile on, any chance at clarification or reason is swallowed up by the fast-moving feed of hatred.

The anonymity of Twitter is perhaps its greatest flaw. We generally see less ugliness when people are required to use their real names. The nature of the Internet now means that if you get up to mischief under your own name, an employer or potential employer is likely going to find out, and you’ll regret the choices you made. With anonymous profiles, people are free to wallow in their anti-social desires of abusing others. And Twitter has done a poor job of helping users who are being harassed or threatened.

On the plus side, many are now getting their news from Twitter, because it is coming in real-time with no filter. There is a downside to this as well, however, because that lack of filter means very little fact checking is going on. There are no news outlets to retract the story, because they didn’t break it in the first place. The Twitter feed just keeps on rolling, and no one has to take any responsibility if facts get twisted or ignored entirely.

With such a litany of consequences for using the platform, it’s little wonder that so many users are leaving it. Who wants to put up with anonymous trolls, with mobs that take what you say out of context, or with the fact that the stakes for one little mistake, or misfired joke are so high? Your career and life can be sunk in an instant because a bunch of people decide what you wrote was wrong. That’s enough to give anyone pause about using Twitter. 

Peter Ross deconstructs the psychology and philosophy of the business world, careers and every day life. You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive.

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