Although I first used Twitter around 2008, I didn’t start using it regularly until a few years into the dark ages of Donald John Trump, looking for some light. In general, using social media without a set or clique or cohort or whatever word you want isn’t that easy. A lot of the informal rules and norms aren’t written down, can vary by subculture, and unless you have people to help you understand them, it’s pretty bewildering.
Social media has rough edges that don’t seem to be getting smoothed out. This post looks at one of them: bad mixtures.
Social media (and, to a lesser extent, the web in general) has a blender effect. Instead of a nice balanced meal of an entree, some sides, a hunk of bread, a glass of water, and maybe some dessert, Twitter dumps them all into a blender and end up with a nutraloaf-style mixture.
All the various accounts are coming at you with a bunch of different contexts and tones. Their avatars are the same regardless of what they are saying. You see the cute puppy dog, the business headshot, the cartoon, or whatever the hell my avatar is supposed to be (?), telling you some tale of humor or outrage. It’s very body-snatcher-esque, a constant branding clashing with the highs and lows of content.
There are some modest ways to tweak the blender. Twitter Lists let you toss particular accounts together by some common quality. It works well for accounts that stick to one type of content. But every individual’s account has its own blender effects, so while Lists might help on the average day, they inevitably fail from time to time, when you find the feeds inadvertently conspire to produce another info-sip of yuck. And if you have enough coverage of different accounts, it’s likely at least one subset will be having a bad-news day.
Some of this mixing works to Twitter’s favor. The diamonds in the rough reinforce you to keep scrolling away in hopes of finding the next one: a random reinforcement schedule. But it’s awfully jarring in between. You don’t get a balanced diet without significant efforts to curate your experience. On any given day, the compounding of various accounts posting bad news can doom your scroll. Or you can be in a serious mood and suddenly see a bunch of fluffies to distract you.
Compared to the newspapers, where editors dealt with multiple sections and worked to balance the content and ads, cutting to fit or padding to fill, Twitter is a Pacific Gyre of awful bits, where we hope to glimpse the rare dolphin or whale.
But here’s the thing: the model has an answer. Social media runs on user contribution. The users do most of the work already, adding, amplifying, and filtering content. They can do more. Add category and tone or mood options to tweets. Let people who retweet or like a tweet add their own curation on top of it, in case the “Cool” thing they retweet is really “Lame” to their mind. Is it sad funny pretty ugly hot stupid wild depressing far-fetched down-to-earth food-for-thought or whatever (pronounced what-ever)?
And then let users choose to see the good news together, the bad news together. Give us the choice. Let us separate the Sports from the Politics (until we hit a story about a sporty politician or what have you). Hashtags are a good way to search, but they don’t put the tweets into buckets and most tweets have no hashtags.
The idea is that social media, that Twitter, does not have to be a mixture of whatever these accounts we follow happen to surface, rather than something with an extra layer of filtering atop that. Let users do what they do best and help each other out.
Perhaps as machine learning matures, automatic classifiers that fit users needs will become available, but until then, shouldn’t Twitter users have moderation and filtering tools that are at least as effective as Slashdot’s were 20 years ago?