• If you’re not on Twitter, you don’t really need to read this. Read this instead, about why Twitter matters even if you’re not on it, or just leave a comment at the bottom of this one telling me that you’re not on Twitter and therefore don’t care.
Matt Lewis, a writer for The Daily Caller and The Week, has written a thoughtful piece about how Twitter “was once a vision. Now it’s a prison”. A lot of people who’ve been on it for a while might recognise some of the stuff he says. How it became vital to his job, for finding stories and for building relationships – and how non-Twitter colleagues and friends mocked him for “tweeting about what sandwich I was going to have for lunch that day”, shortly before joining it themselves – is extremely familiar to me.
But, he says, the friendliness and the informal atmosphere changed. “The bottom fell out,” he says. “It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment it happened — but at some point, Twitter became a dark place… Somewhere along the line, our optimism faded.” It became like high school, full of bullies and idiots; it removed the filter between thoughts and words, so those angry letters we would write and never send, or the hurtful comments we’d think better of saying, all flood out in a rush of clicking keys.
Much of what he says is true. But it misses one thing. In fact, most of the people who write these “Twitter’s not what it used to be” pieces – and they do come along every so often, although Lewis’s is the best I’ve read so far – have one fundamental characteristic in common, which they rarely acknowledge. Twitter may have changed. But more obviously, their experience of it has.
Twitter is one thing for someone who has 50 followers but follows 500: it is, essentially, a news feed and a conversation with a small group of friends. It is a hugely different thing for someone with a million followers, for whom it is a combination of a medium-sized national radio station (dedicated entirely to them) and a giant message board (dedicated entirely to them). For the first person, most of their Twitter activity will be in their “timeline”, the tweets of all the people they follow; their “interactions” column, which displays all the tweets directed to them or mentioning them, will be comparatively quiet. For the second person, their timeline will be busy or quiet depending on how many people they follow, of course, but their “interactions” column will be a constant buzz, hundreds of people a minute trying to get their attention for one reason or another. Human nature being what it is, a small but vocal subset of those people trying to get attention will be doing so to shock or offend.
In between the ordinary users and the Stephen Frys, there are the middlish sort (at least on a logarithmic scale), the people like Matt Lewis, who has about 31,000 followers, or like me, with my 10,000 or so. But while we feel like we’re ordinary users of Twitter, we’re not. I’ve had a look at a few graphs, and while I can’t obviously vouch for any of them individually, they all agree that the large majority of Twitterers have fewer than 50 followers, and only a fraction of a percent have more than 10,000. Our experience of it will be very different to that of the overwhelming majority of users.
So, when someone says “Twitter has gone bad”, I take it with a pinch of salt, as I do when someone says “Kids today lack respect”. Kids always lacked respect, but since you stopped being a kid, suddenly it’s a problem. In general, it’s much more likely that you have changed than an entire demographic has. In Matt Lewis’s case, what changed is that he stopped having a little friendly group of a few hundred followers; I suspect that he feels he has become surrounded by anger and trolling and spite and viciousness not because those things became more prevalent on Twitter, but because when you take a larger sample of the population, you’re going to get a larger subset of gits. And, sadly, gits are the ones you notice.
His wider point – that Twitter lets you engage typing-fingers before your brain can intervene; that it forces you to be constantly outraged about things you don’t need to care about; that it makes us zip from topic to topic, with no time to consider each one – is, of course, still true; those things are simply the flip-side of what still makes Twitter good. But they’ve always been there. Twitter hasn’t changed that much, I don’t think. It’s just that “Twitter has changed” pieces are always written by people whose experience of it has.