Fourteen years ago, on a somewhat cold evening, I stepped out of a party being hosted by Ruby Red Labs in an office it shared with Adaptive Path in San Francisco’s SOMA district. I craved nicotine. Noah Glass, the forgotten co-founder of Twitter, told me about Twitter (or Twttr as it was called at the time.)
I signed up, in the process, perhaps becoming the first user that wasn’t a Twitter employee (which was part of Odeo, a podcast platform that eventually sunset.) I ended up sending a tweet — that I was looking for food. I wrote a blog post — bad spelling and all. And then hit publish and went to sleep, hungry of course. It was all so innocent, fun, and quirky. These were days when we were actually social.
Eventually, Twitter would go from being a text messaging centric experience to becoming a web-based product, and it wasn’t long before it was on its way. And just like everything social on the web, Twitter went from being an open and fun place to a marketing platform on steroids.
It is not uncommon. Twitter, like other social media platforms – Myspace, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn –started as a network of people who know each other offline and had common interests. In the case of Twitter, those interests were web and technology. Over the years, the media personalities (and their employers) became part of the conversation. And then came the celebrities. Like its (social media) peers, Twitter’s audience became diverse, and the interests converge to a few commonalities— politics, markets, religion, celebrity, and sports. This clustering around big topics is what leads to platforms accumulating big audiences and eventually leads to disenchantment with the services.
I am talking about Twitter, but the same is true of other networks, including Facebook and Instagram. You can see a level of intimacy in Clubhouse, the new audio-only social environment. It, too, will follow the same trajectory. Eventually, everything regresses to being a marketing/self-promotion platform. The only way to stand out is by being special or being famous or being the loudest.
Since that fateful evening fourteen years ago, Twitter had become the public square of the Internet. But in recent months, it resembles the colosseum of the old, where rabid mobs are howling and the gladiators fighting, have been replaced by troll armies and those who command them, fighting each other.
We should have seen this coming. If the early days of Twitter were about tweets (a sound associated with cute birds) and fail whales, the recent years have seen words like “tweetstorms” become part of the Twitter vernacular. We went from using the language of compassion to aggression in our association with Twitter.
If Facebook was a place where we shared stories of our events and experiences, Twitter was where we shared our quirks and occasional randomness. And then came links to articles and news, and then news itself. And it was only a step from news to opinion. And boy, with so much time on our hands and nowhere to go, we have opinions — on everything. And we all want to share those opinions with everyone on the planet.
Humans are now being programmed to crave constant attention. And the algorithms are programmed to intensify engagement —- and as a result, they only reinforce opinions that are on the extremes — for those extremes elicit responses, which feed the algorithms and they, in turn, amplify the extreme views.
Sometime this week, one of my former editors, Jason Pontin, tweeted that perhaps it was time for Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates to buy Twitter and shut it down. I think he missed the point. In fourteen years, since that fateful evening, all I can say is the medium is optimized for the loudest and strangest to get the most attention. The virulent is what gets virality. It is not just Twitter. It is also us.
WHAT TO READ THIS WEEKEND
- How social isolation affects the brain? A lot of smart people are researching a topic that is more and more relevant in our present pandemic reality and the rise of “work from home” culture. (Bonus read: The Economist on The way we live now.)
- The pandemic and unrelenting capitalism. A look at the reality that doesn’t come from the privileged corner offices of Silicon Valley and Wall Street.
- The Rise and Fall of Adobe Flash. Just read it for the memories.
- Tinder, Sailor, Hooker, Pimp: The U.S. Navy’s sex trafficking scandal in Bahrain I should include this story just for the headline alone, but the whole thing is jaw-dropping.
- Inside the world of black market bourbon.
- Instagram is ruining everything. Well, at least all those highly Instagrammed places. I had been researching this story for almost two years, but Lisa Chase nailed it.
- The 19th century’s influencers: And you thought this was a new phenomenon.
This was part of my weekend newsletter published on July 19.2020. if you would like to subscribe, please sign-up for the newsletter using the form below.