Future Tense

How to Fix Twitter

One simple solution would make the social network less toxic.

twitter improvements.
Instead of changing things people like, maybe Twitter should change things people don’t like.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Last month some Twitter users got freaked out by reports that Twitter might become more like Facebook. A Twitter executive had hinted at some sort of departure from the straightforward rule governing each user’s timeline (that every tweet from everyone you follow is arrayed in chronological order), presumably in favor of something more Facebook-esque (that a mysterious algorithm decides which items you see).  

Then Twitter announced that it has already started “experimenting” with a timeline algorithm. This isn’t the algorithm that had been most feared—one that conceals tweets you’d otherwise see—but rather one that shows you selected tweets from people you don’t follow.  Still, the handwriting is on the wall. Twitter, under pressure from investors to accelerate its growth, is looking for ways to change things.

Fine, Twitter, change things. But how about this: Instead of changing things people like about you (e.g. that users are in complete control of what they see), maybe you should change things people don’t like about you. I have an idea about how to do that—how to make Twitter more valuable to users and, in the process, generate enough revenue so that slavish Facebook emulation won’t be necessary. Plus, I think the change I have in mind might make the world a better place.  

OK, so what are some things people don’t like about Twitter? Well, don’t you hate it when the thought you want to express is too nuanced for 140 characters?

Don’t worry—I understand the value of the 140-character limit in making it easy to scan your timeline, and the change I have in mind would preserve that efficiency. Still: Isn’t the limit incredibly constraining at times? Do you, like me, sometimes refrain from tweeting about a sensitive topic altogether rather than write something too short for nuance?

Or do you ever get challenged to defend something you’ve tweeted and feel you just can’t—at least, not on Twitter? For example: A couple of weeks ago, after I offhandedly observed on Twitter that something written by famous atheist Sam Harris was “muddled,” Harris challenged me to elaborate.

But Twitter is a horrible place to elaborate! Of course, you can always turn your elaboration into a series of tweets. But doing one of these Twitter essays is laborious and, anyway, has downsides.

For one thing, these serial tweets will annoy some of your followers, who don’t want their timeline cluttered up with epic discourses laid out fraction-of-insight by fraction-of-insight. For another thing, much of the nuance you try to convey via serial essay fragments will be lost. Some people will just read a fragment and move on, and some may retweet a fragment in isolation, defeating the whole purpose.  

So my response to Harris on Twitter was … silence. Rather than continue the conversation via serial tweets, I sat down and wrote out an actual multiparagraph reply. But then I had no place to put it!

Which leads to my idea for changing Twitter. It’s actually two ideas:

1) Allow people to put an icon at the end of the tweet that invites readers to click if they want a little elaboration. If they click, a little box will drop down that contains a few lines of text—maybe up to, say, 350 characters’ worth. And readers would have to click to see the box—it shouldn’t be visible by default, like inline photos; the scanning efficiency afforded by the 140-character limit should be sacrosanct.

2) Allow people to put another “elaboration” icon at the end of this elaboration box. If readers click on that, a new browser window will open up and they’ll see a page featuring no space limitation at all. It can house a few sentences of elaboration, a 3,000-word essay—whatever.  

This secondary elaboration would appear in space provided by Twitter. This means two things, one that users will like and one that Twitter will like:

A) It would be easy to create the page without leaving Twitter. So if you don’t currently have a platform—a place where you can post whole essays—you’d suddenly have one.  

That’s the part users will like. Here’s the part Twitter will like:

B) This would create a ton of space for advertising. For that matter, even that 350-character elaboration box would have room for a small ad. And Twitter’s computers, knowing both the content that’s being read and the browsing habits of the reader, would be able to populate this space with relatively high value ads. (Discussions of consumer technology alone might generate enough ad revenue to keep Twitter in the black.)  

I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine that this strategy could make Twitter the biggest publishing platform in the world. For all the advantages Facebook now has over Twitter, Twitter has one big edge: It’s where the writers hang out (particularly when they’re in professional mode, not sharing-pictures-of-offspring mode), and where a lot of aspiring writers hang out. And both kinds of people could use a space where they can write, at length, whatever they want whenever they want without trying to craft a piece they might be able to laboriously sell to some website that pays almost nothing anyway.

This option (which would be especially cherished if Twitter provided good tools for embedding photos, graphics, video, etc.) would allow writers to strike while the iron is hot—to quickly carry any debate or conversation to whatever level of expression is appropriate, from a few sentences to a treatise. And they could do this without cluttering up their followers’ timelines with serial tweets.

Some of this content would have little appeal, but some would have lots. And Twitter could magnify the appeal by steering readers of a given piece to related pieces that have proved popular among comparable readers. Like Slate or the Atlantic or the Huffington Post, it would divide the space adjacent to articles between paid ads and ads for its own content.   

Broadly speaking, the logic seems obvious. Twitter drives huge amounts of traffic to real estate all over the Web, and every time it does that, it increases the value of the real estate. So, if you’re Twitter, why not get into the real-estate business? Then the traffic you drive will raise the value of your own assets—assets you can create out of thin air at almost no cost by virtue of the fact that you’re Twitter. Websites all over the Internet are trying to figure out how to get people to generate monetizable content for free, and Twitter has millions of users who would gladly do that if only Twitter would let them!

As a bonus, this might make the Twitterverse a more benign place. Have you ever wondered why so many more fights break out on Twitter than on Facebook? There are lots of reasons, including the asymmetry of Twitter relationships; you can follow people without getting their permission, so you wind up commenting on things written by people who are not, even in Facebook’s attenuated sense of the word, your “friends”—and may be roughly the opposite.

But I think another reason for Twitter’s high bitterness quotient is just that it’s hard to stay within the 140-character limit and fit in a “to be sure” sentence—the kind of qualifier that can prevent incendiary misunderstanding. I’m not saying providing a little room for elaboration would usher in world peace, but it would probably cool things down a bit, and in any event we won’t know until we’ve tried. (There are venues for Twitter elaboration now available, via such third-party apps as Twitlonger—but so far as I can tell almost nobody uses them, presumably because they’re not an integral part of Twitter and so are unwieldy.)

As for my reply to Sam Harris: I finally decided to just post it on a website originally set up for a book I’d written. Whatever you think of my argument, I hope you’ll agree that it’s clearer and more nuanced than it would have been if delivered tweet by tweet. Plus, nobody will retweet tiny bits of it in ways that invite misunderstanding. And I won’t annoy my followers by clogging up their timelines. Granted, I’ll annoy Sam Harris—but at least that won’t be because he misunderstands me. And that’s progress.   

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.