The (Not So) Secret Reason Twitter Keeps Screwing Up

Twitter recently expanded its character limit from 140 characters to 280 characters for some users, and to judge by some reactions, this was the worst thing to ever happen to them. Which, given the terrifying variety of awful things which happen around the world every day, suggests that Twitter users lead impossibly pampered lives. But that’s the internet. It’s just complaints and obscenities all the way down, so deal with it.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first time the “worst thing to ever happen to Twitter users” has happened to Twitter users. Similar outrages occur two or three times a year, and they usually follow a predictable pattern: Twitter introduces a new feature to its platform, along with some vague justification for the change. Twitter’s biggest users freak the fuck out about it, predicting dire consequences. The dire consequences do not come to pass. Everyone gets used to the new feature, no one ever admits to liking it, and they soon find something new to complain about.

Stories about internet people being whiny and entitled are nothing new, but what’s really interesting here is the consistent disconnect between Twitter’s users and the company itself. They never make a change their users like. Every other company in the world manages to satisfy its customers some of the time. So why can’t Twitter? To find out, let’s look at some of the most significant fiascoes.

4

The 280-Character Tweet Fiasco

Twitter’s whole deal is that it offers users an infinitely scrolling timeline of short messages. The shortness is an artifact of a design that was originally based around the character limit of text messages, but it soon became the definitive feature of the platform, and even its main strength. It forced people to be concise. Reading 140 characters is a pretty small commitment, which makes users more willing to listen to or follow new people. I’m not reading any articles written by someone calling themselves “turdhandler420,” but sure, I’ve got time for 140 of their finest, tightest characters.

It was a limitation which seemed to actually work. People were happy with it, and anyone who wanted to tweet longer thoughts still could, either by posting a link to something written offsite, putting up a screenshot of a paragraph, or simply threading together a series of tweets. People still hated that, but that’s fine. Again, internet gotta internet.

But then, with essentially no one asking for it, Twitter experimented with expanding tweets to 280 characters, and people immediately hated it. This might seem like a small thing if you’re not a Twitter user, and I myself am hardly getting diaper rash over it. We’ll almost certainly get used to it. But it sure doesn’t feel like an improvement at the moment. I find myself not finishing tweets now — which, yes, is a condemnation of my own bird-like attention span as much as anything else, but it’s also not a good sign. Twitter’s tinkering with their secret sauce here for no apparent reason.

3

The Broken Timeline Fiasco

Twitter presents itself in a reverse chronological order, with the newest tweets showing up at the top of your feed. This can be a little weird when you first start using it, but it soon becomes second nature, and whether you read forward or backwards, all the tweets are in a nice, predictable order. Time’s arrow flies true, and causality-crashing loops are kept to a minimum.

And then, in response to absolutely no one, Twitter changed this. There is now a feature which interrupts the timeline to show you whatever the algorithms deem to be the most important tweets you might have missed since you last wasted time on Twitter. There are a few issues with this. First, Twitter, I wouldn’t say I’ve been “missing” these things, as these are just tweets and not loved ones returning from the Great War. Second, maybe like a quarter of these things are in any way more remarkable than what’s already in my feed. Third, mixing old tweets with new ones is a little awkward. A big part of Twitter is replying to tweets, but that’s really best done within the first few minutes after one goes up. Replying to a tweet 20 hours after it goes live is kind of lame, and here’s dorky old Twitter gently encouraging us to accidentally do that.

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So why’d you do that, Twitter? Did anyone ask you to do that? Or did essentially everyone ask you to do the exact opposite? Are you … are you not reading all our tweets? That hurts, Twitter.

2

The Blue Line Fiasco

Twitter’s always been a little bit ropey when it comes to handling conversations. For a long time, you’d see tweets out of context, or one side of a five-sided conversation between eight people you only sort of knew. It kind of worked, if you knew the interface. Your timeline would only ever show tweets from people you followed, and if you ever wanted context for a tweet, you could just tap on it and see all the tweets in the conversation which preceded it. Still, it wasn’t straightforward, and you can see why Twitter tried to improve it.

Twitter did that by adding blue lines to thread related tweets together, and when the feature was first introduced, users, as dictated by ancient custom, hated it. I’m still not genuinely sure why; it seemed to bring more relevant information to the foreground, and made it easier to pick up on a conversation in progress. I guess some people thought it added clutter, or they just hated the color blue. After several days of fury … everything more or less stayed the same. It looks like they changed the color of the lines . So that’s something. Good yelling, everyone.

1

The Anti-Harassment Fiasco

Twitter has a harassment problem. Many users, in particular women and minorities, are regularly bombarded with threats and slurs, and lacking any effective way to deal with it on Twitter itself, many have responded by staying off the platform entirely. And although Twitter claims the issue is getting better, it took them ten years to get to that point, if that point is even true. Historically, their various responses to the harassment issue have been remarkably half-assed.

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Initially, the only real tool to deal with harassers was to block them. This sounds like it should be feasible, but it has to be done one at a time, which is close to useless when it comes to blocking brigades of harassers, or anyone willing to create multiple accounts. More advanced blocking tools, which enable users to filter out notifications from new users, took years to arrive. And Twitter’s reporting tool remains notoriously unhelpful. Reporting a clearly harassing tweet or account often results in nothing happening at all, the reports rejected with no explanation given.

It’s this issue, more than anything else, which Twitter users have been begging the company to fix for several years now. That Twitter only evidently began taking it seriously in 2017 is baffling, and to the people who have endured years of abuse, probably a little insulting.

One of the key threads running through all these missteps seems to be Twitter’s lack of understanding of what its users actually want or use the platform for. They keep adding features which no one is asking for, or ignoring features people desperately need, or tolerating Nazis a little more than is strictly necessary. Can it be so blind about the needs and appeal of its own product? They must have analytics telling them all this, and even if they didn’t, they only need to find someone with an pregnant Mario avatar and 20,000 followers to fill them in on what they’re missing.

Well, there is a reason behind almost all of these missteps, which is kind of an open secret to anyone who follows Twitter as a business, but is never stated plainly to the users.

What’s Really Going On Here

Twitter needs to grow. Not “it’d be nice” or “it should try,” but “needs” to. First, Twitter isn’t profitable. Never has been. The financial details of large internet companies involve a lot of hand-waving and magical thinking, but as I understand it, many don’t focus on profitability until they reach a certain size. Charging users money just turns them away, so a common business strategy is to just give your shit away for free until you have so many users that you accidentally become profitable selling their personal information to credit agencies or wig manufacturers or whatever. Whatever size that is, Twitter ain’t there yet, and consequently has to keep trying to grow.

Or it might be an issue of pressure from ownership. Maybe Twitter could be profitable now by selling premium accounts or becoming even remotely competent at advertising. But Twitter has been getting a bunch of money from investors essentially on the assumption that it would grow into something around the size of Facebook. And it’s not the size of Facebook. It’s really far from that size, actually, and its stock price has dropped accordingly. But still not that much, and those investors don’t want to give up on the promise of Facebook-sized stacks of cash. “Grow!” the men in French-cuffed shirts shout, and so Twitter must grow. This isn’t speculation — growth is the first and most important item they mention in every shareholder letter and quarterly report.

And Twitter is growing. Just slowly. The problem is that Twitter’s core experience just doesn’t seem to appeal to huge swathes of the population the way Facebook or anilingus does. It’s great for jokes, keeping up with the news, jokes about the news, and Game Of Thrones spoilers, and is consequently more or less a mandatory tool for any media type in the world. But the Twitter experience requires a bit of a buy-in; it’s completely useless without your own account, and you kind of have to stick with it for a bit and get your list of followers and timeline set up to really make it fun. That’s evidently a big barrier for many people.

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So how is Twitter getting around that? How is it trying to grow? Blind flailing, apparently. Tinkering around the edges of their product in the desperate hope that makes it more appealing to new users. Who cares about mildly annoying your existing users (who still aren’t paying for anything) if it results in a product more appealing to new users? A new homepage, which actual users never see? Why not? Fire some blue lines in the timeline, see what happens. More Moments tabs. Seven of them! And all the anti-harassment measures Twitter’s been conspicuously dragging their feet on? Almost all of those would result in an environment which makes it easier for famous, well-known people to wall themselves off from newer, smaller accounts. That’s predictable, and probably necessary, but the possibility of interacting with a famous person is one of Twitter’s selling points to new users. Shutting that down will slow growth, so you can guess why they’ve been so reluctant to do that.

Which means that until Twitter gives up on the possibility of being a gigantic success and just settles for being a regular success, a couple times a year, we’re going to see this little ritual of users bawling about blue lines or too many characters. Or it will run out of money and fold, and investors will have spent billions of dollars on the world’s most expensive joke website. Which is actually pretty funny. Yeah, they should definitely do that instead.

Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and your best friend. As the author of the amazing novels Freeze/Thaw and Severance, he thinks you should definitely go buy both of those now. Join him on Facebook or Twitter.

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