The worthy tweet

My friend and colleague Will Baude writes that Twitter need not be a black hole or a planetary scale hate machine. We, or at least we academics and public-policy types, can save Twitter by adopting three simple rules:

  1. Aspire to inform, not to convince.
  2. Promote the kinds of things you’d like to see more of.
  3. Don’t promote the kinds of things you’d like to see less of.

Here’s the problem with Will’s proposal: it is entirely at variance with Twitter’s goal, which is to make money by generating content that vast numbers of people will read.

Will is one of thousands of Twitter’s unpaid laborers. Because Twitter pays Will nothing, it can’t dock his wages for producing content that few people read. But Twitter can downgrade his content in favor of the things people want to see: sarcasm, derision, humor, and images and videos rather than links to academic papers on SSRN.

Twitter figured this out years ago, when it stopped displaying tweets on your feed in the order that they arrive, and started tinkering with algorithms that promote tweets that are most likely to be read, liked, and retweeted (as well as ads and paid promotions), including tweets from people who you do not even follow. Twitter’s description of the algorithm is cagey, to say the least. But we don’t need much imagination to understand what it is trying to do.

Will’s view is a bit like that of a conscientious casino operator who worries that slot machines addict people unfairly by relying too much on noise and colors. The operator turns off the sound and replaces the colorful images of fruits and dollars with a black-and-white sign that says “win” or “lose.” He should hardly be surprised if customers disappear the next day—even though the (very bad) odds remain unchanged. The whole point of the color and excitement is to lure the customers and open their wallets. The odds are beside the point.

Twitter cannot make profits unless people use it addictively. Not only will it never create a system that a conscientious academic might design. It also cannot tolerate the content that a conscientious academic wants to produce. If you don’t believe me, look at your analytics. You can still tweet, but hardly anyone will see your tweets. What’s the point of that?