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Twitter is a Shrinking City

February 11, 2016

There’s been so much written about Twitter since last week that it’s hard to wade through it all and write one more thing. I can’t resist, though, because I’ve always been fascinated by the particular aspect of Twitter that’s now under scrutiny—the supposed purity of its chronological feed—and by the Facebook-Twitter dichotomy that seems to hold the key to understanding the digital zeitgeist.

Before (and since) Twitter proposed its algorithmic feed, it was being ridiculed for its shortcomings as a business. The problem with Twitter, put another way, is that it’s bad at being a product. Even though it’s so often a wonderful thing, it’s a bad product, and unfortunately for Twitter and its investors this is the Age of the Product. Paul Ford explored this in a beautiful essay about Facebook’s $1B acquisition of Instagram in 2010, in which he observed the following:

It used to be that web people “published websites”—like the site you’re reading now. But today people who work on the web “manage products.” I’m not sure when that changed, but clearly a memo went around. At one time, in the nineties, everyone was a “webmaster,” then for a while they were “site editors” or “site managers” and now they’re “product managers.” A website—even one as simple as Twitter—is no longer a singular thing; it’s a multitude of things from all over the place.

Ford is right that we live in a product-based civilization. But what is a product, exactly? An oblique definition could be: what Facebook is good at that Twitter isn’t. A product is something that reels you in as a customer by fulfilling (or creating and then fulfilling) some need or desire of yours. The best products then further cement your attachment to them by giving you even more adjacent reasons to keep using them. Facebook, with its multitude of features that are finely-tuned based on the data users generate about what they want (as opposed to what they say they want), is the digital product par excellence. Twitter, as entertaining, hilarious, fun, and insightful as it can be, is not a great product because it doesn’t respond to us in this way, and its failure to effectively monetize or even engage much of its user base are why it’s possible to write an article called “How Facebook Squashed Twitter.”


But words like “monetize” and “engage” are the vocabulary of products, and at times it’s nice to not be monetized or engaged, and to be a person rather than a user. The liner notes of the Talking Heads’ live album Stop Making Sense contain a cryptic sentence that has stuck with me for years: “In the future, it will be a relief to find a place without culture.” In the future that is already here, it will be a relief to find a place without products. This must be part of Twitter’s appeal to date, an appeal that does not currently translate to more users or more dollars.

Perversely, the internet commentariat root against the Twitters of the world for their failure to be great businesses—not for fear that those platforms won’t be around someday, but out of a desire to be treated like Facebook treats us, insidiously capturing more of our lives and attention and figuring out how to generate revenue from that. Twitter by comparison, leaves us alone and lets us hang out, and if we keep returning it’s because of one another.


In the present debate, conventional wisdom thus favors the chronological feed and resists the algorithmic, for the basic reason that Twitter’s users (if not its non-users) want to choose for themselves what they see and who they follow. If Facebook’s feed offers a highly evolved algorithm to guide your experience, Twitter lets you be the algorithm. That works well but only when the “you” is up to the challenge of tending the garden, actively following and unfollowing other accounts based on what you like and don’t like and refining your feed into a more concentrated, high-quality stream. It’s kind of like life outside the internet.

The “be your own algorithm” approach requires discipline, empathy, and restraint. Passive usage leads to entropic dilution, while trolling and similar antisocial behaviors actually drive others from the network. Facebook, better at policing these, offers a more reliably positive experience, if less rich, intelligent, or free (insert your democracy metaphor here). Many will claim they don’t mind exposing themselves to disagreeable viewpoints or worse, but again, as Facebook knows, not nearly as many actually do, and it welcomes the incoming Twitter refugees with open arms as they flee the bad vibes and general entropy that their former home couldn’t curtail.

“Commons” and “public utility” are popular metaphors for Twitter precisely because of its failure as a product: It doesn’t extract enough out of its users, or regulate their experience with a heavy enough hand, to feel private. It’s too open. A better metaphor for Twitter is the shrinking city: once booming and vigorous but now in a cycle of population loss or at least non-growth that modern society doesn’t know how to handle. Like a rust belt city built for grander purposes, Twitter needs a way to shrink or flatline gracefully, but cities and companies both must contend with growth machines that so often devour what can’t keep growing through a painful process of creative destruction (and nothing can grow forever). A benevolent world might offer a beloved social media platform the opportunity to keep quietly existing for its dedicated populace, one would think. Or maybe Twitter is another ephemeral social arrangement, without even a city’s solid foundation or permanent inhabitants, that is destined to die its eventual heat death too.