I woke up today and immediately spent two hours talking about Twitter with the wonderful Aevee Bee. and the blowup about its rumored impending switch from the reverse-chronology feed to an algorithm-driven Hot Content model similar to Facebook. During that conversation, she said something that struck me as key to speaking a bit more clearly about how we all use social networking apps in different ways:
Let’s start with the problem
To briefly sum up the problem Twitter is tasked with addressing: As a platform, they’re seeing slow growth in their userbase, which is never a good sign for a major social channel to begin with unless they’ve literally signed everyone up (hi Facebook); it’s worse for Twitter, though, because they haven’t really been that great at monetizing their userbase, and if they want to Make More Money, they’ll either need to acquire more users or make more off their existing users, and they haven’t shown that they’re very good at doing either one yet.
My guess is that they’ve identified a few problems that make both things difficult:
First, the new user experience is kind of confusing and not very sticky; you can follow your pre-existing contacts and your favorite brands (or favorite bands), but The Twitter Experience doesn’t really take off until you’re plugged into at least one cohesive community. My first year on Twitter was incredibly pointless until I started following groups of people who were peers that talked to each other and it wasn’t until that happened that I was like oh holy shit NOW I GET IT.
Second, the reverse-chronology feed format is hard for new users because the value you get out of the platform as a user scales linearly with how much time you spend on it, which is burdensome. In other words, in order to get 80% of the value from a reverse-chronology feed, you need to read 80% of those tweets, and that’s assuming every single tweet has value (which, come on, let’s be honest here).
Contrast that to like, Facebook, where you see your news feed and you’re like “Hey, here are four things, that’s neat, okay I’m done for the next few hours,” and rarely do you get the feeling that you missed anything important, because a) 90% of what’s on there isn’t important, and b) the algorithm is good enough at identifying the stuff that you would feel obligated to see in order to remain a good friend to someone (life milestones, cat videos, whatever). I think most healthy, well-adjusted adults with cool stuff going on in their lives don’t really spend too much time on Facebook, but they still use it, and that’s probably ideal for both the users and Facebook itself.
So, we end up in a situation where the needs of the people who get a lot out of the platform in its current incarnation — myself and Aevee, both people who make things on the Internet and cultivate our personal audiences and that kind of thing — really like the thing it became, but that thing we really like is also not very conducive to attracting new users. This is not uncommon in tech, especially when most companies are funded on their ability to make something really cool, put it out there for free to see whether it sticks, and then change it into something that makes money once your userbase is invested in it and hope that it settles out okay.
Now, we could play backseat driver and try to solve Twitter’s problems for them, but that’s no fun. (Twitter, you can pay me to consult if you like!) Instead, let’s talk about what causes the drift between our use cases and the product team’s apparent vision, in the hopes that maybe someday either Twitter or some other network can make a home for the people who like certain things about it.
This might be a bit of wandering story, but I hope it helps make sense for thinking about what you, personally, get out of a social network — and how your use cases may differ from others. Let’s start with this:
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality: An analogy
So, right now, two of the hotter emerging tech fields we’ve all been following in games (though this stuff absolutely will end up breaking out into other fields eventually) are Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. Both of them rely on wearing a headset of some sort, but Virtual Reality is about giving you screens and sound that replace the space you’re in with another one (the inside of a battle robot cockpit, or a movie theater, or whatever) while Augmented Reality uses glasses and cameras to layer on virtual stuff over the meatspace you’re looking at — imagine, like, putting on your special glasses and looking up to see a video game character walking down the street so you can zap it with your phone.
When you look at the two of these fields, they seem pretty similar; they’re both about creating experiences that aren’t confined to a flat, static screen like a mobile phone or a PC display or a TV. But at their core, they’re built around two different paradigms for technological development.
Virtual Reality is about completely replacing the world you’re in; it’s immersive, and the potential an immersive experience offers is centered around giving you a new space to navigate, a new context in which you can play different roles. When Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation role-plays as a detective in the Holodeck, it’s an opportunity for him to step into someone else’s shoes and play out a story.
Augmented Reality, by contrast, is additive; it’s about building more opportunities for the Internet to intersect with physical meatspace. Smartphones, laptops, and Wi-Fi all busted technology outside the living room, office, and computer lab; AR glasses, along with the “Internet of Things” school of Internet-connected dishwashers and stuff, give you an additional information layer over what you’re already seeing, but they don’t do anything to necessarily change the you that’s seeing, nor the other people you’re seeing. If I can look at you and see your Facebook feed floating over your head, that doesn’t change anything about you or me; it just gives me some information from the Internet that can inform our interaction.
The rest of this essay isn’t really about VR or AR, but it is about the difference in those two approaches: The tech in VR gets way deeper into who we are and who we want to be than AR does. If I were to make an analogy, the immersive VR approach would be a self-reflective hallucinogen, probably mushrooms or acid, while AR is about adding more information and intensity to the now like some party drugs, molly or coke or what have you.
(If you think that the drug analogy is gratuitous, let me tell you: It’s no surprise to me that foundational VR tech started coming out of Silicon Valley shortly after hallucinogens were at their peak, nor is it a surprise that additive tech is king now, while hallucinogens are passe, acid is hard to find, and tech kids blow their paychecks on pills and concert tickets every weekend. But that’s another story.)
Cyberspace vs. Cyber-reality
So how does that VR/AR analogy — the difference between immersive tech and additive tech — relate to Twitter? Let’s walk through that now, though again, it’s going to be a bit of a winding story through my history of Internetting.
I first got online in the early ’90s; Prodigy, AOL 2.0, Usenet, dialup Internet, the whole shebang. I was the first one in my grade school class to get on the Internet, which made it a pretty lonely experience at first, until I discovered Usenet and chat rooms. Eventually, my good friend Ashley got on AOL as well, and we hung out in various fandom/role-playing chat rooms pretending to be way cooler than we were alongside other probably-teens who were no doubt doing the same thing.
The thing about interacting exclusively through text and pseudonyms (shoutouts to awful teen AOL handles) is that you have, essentially, complete control over who you are. There are no signifiers for identity — no avatars, no searchable indexed histories or lists of other accounts, none of that business. What’s more, since the medium of text requires a lot of abstraction to interpret, identity becomes a really creative exercise: Until you choose to show or share more, you really are just a string of words showing up on someone else’s screen for others to interpret and imagine as they wish.
Of course, this ended up being super powerful for kids like myself: Super-nerds who felt estranged from whatever it is their classmates were doing and saying and watching on MTV (I didn’t have cable, either). The Internet gave us space to be whatever the hell we wanted to be with no one to tell us otherwise.
All of this, up until we started explicitly connecting our meatspace identities with the Internet, was essentially a forum for immersive interactions. We couldn’t verify each others’ identities anyway, so why bother? Let’s be whoever we want to be. Sure, if you were an adult working at a research institution or something, maybe you wanted to use your real identity, but that was weird and dangerous for kids anyway so fuck it, I’m going to be Xena: Warrior Princess’s son for a week.
Fast forward 20 years and that space on the Internet has largely vanished. Pseudonymous, performative spaces are either dismissed as precious teen play (see Tumblr, and all the actually really cool identity exploration stuff going on there that Grown Adults kind of scoff at) or destructive teen play (see the loose federation of Internet misogynists); once you’re a Proper Adult, you use your Real Name on the Real Internet. I interact as Patrick Miller in most of my online spaces, and @pattheflip is just shorthand, not a different identity altogether.
So, when we look at all the different social apps and spaces we occupy on the Internet, we can kind of look at them and think about how the platform, and the users, enable interactions that fall closer to the Immersive side of the spectrum or the Additive side of the spectrum.
On the Additive side of things, we have Facebook as probably the defining product: You actually can’t use the service without using your real name. It’s real-life people interacting with other real-life people; there is little room for subtlety or nuance or interpretation, just Likes and Friends and a lot of pictures. What’s more, it’s no surprise that they own Instagram, as Instagram is largely about building an authentic connection to a Real Person by seeing the world through their (curated) eyes. Facebook is built around giving you an always-online medium to interact with other people in a way that becomes an anchor for your real-life connections. It’s Staying In Touch.
Far on the opposite range, you have Tumblr, where people are constantly inventing and reinventing themselves with a non-stop stream of reblogging and pictures and quips and all this stuff that I would probably love if I had encountered it when I was younger. Your identity on Tumblr is strictly defined by what you share; others extrapolate and imagine who you are based on the effortless ease that you curate memes and fashion and porn and whatever else.
Why weirdos love Twitter
The neat thing about Twitter is that it is one of the few spots that actually manages to exist right in the middle of the spectrum. On one hand, we have Kanye West on Twitter, and holy shit does it ever feel like Kanye is just being Kanye on Twitter, just like he’d be Kanye anywhere; in @kanyewest, and there is an appeal in feeling like we can be part of someone’s everyday life (whether it’s a celebrity, or just some person). On the other hand, we have entire Twitter sub-communities that are eggs or anime avatars with all-caps phrases like OH MY GOD DOGS as their real names; accounts for fictional characters and parody brands; accounts for bots that exist to point out how absurd all of it is; and @dril, whatever the hell that is.
I exist on Twitter as @pattheflip, and the reality is that my account is simultaneously a representation of meatspace Patrick Miller, and a place to exercise parts of me that don’t even have a way to exist in my everyday life. I never use my own photo as my avatar (it’s currently Irene’s illustration of a delicious animal style double-double), and I tweet a lot of weird stuff that doesn’t make sense to my family, or people who knew me from college, or the gym, or whatever.
Twitter manages to straddle the line between the two ends of the spectrum in a way that is, frankly, kind of beautiful. We get to see 50 Cent’s reaction to his grandma asking him to take out the trash; we get to see a fake brand account bait a bunch of gullible jerks into thinking that the Homosexual Agenda has infiltrated Pizza Hut (I don’t know if this has actually happened, but it totally could); we get to hang out with Kylo Ren, all on the same app.
Unfortunately, that’s kind of the problem. Facebook is a platform built around studying Real People Behavior; advertisers are probably less interested in what Emo Kylo Ren’s purchasing behavior looks like. The stuff in the platform that enables the immersion-style interactions — a free-for-all feed that allows content to sink or swim based only on the behavior of the crowd, a very open policy for who can sign up for an account and pretty lax expectations on what you do with it, all of this — isn’t really stuff that the tech industry has done a great job turning into a financially successful product, at least not at Twitter’s scale. If anything, online role-playing games are probably better at this than Twitter is by virtue of the nature of the medium itself.
So the things we love about Twitter — its open, anarchic nature — seem pretty tightly tied to the things that make it harder to monetize existing users and attract new ones. Twitter could crack down on accounts that are heavily abstracted by their owners to make their user dataset more valuable, and that would kill the weird completely. Twitter could build out a lot of stuff to help new users sort through the feed, but that would make it even harder to find the weird, which over time would probably cause the user base to drift further from each other. They’re in an unenviable position where the direction they want to take the platform is not one that many of their most vocal core users want.
I don’t think many of us who have invested a lot of time into building our followings will leave entirely, but I think we are starting to diversify our presences — I’ve started streaming a lot more on Twitch and cultivating YouTube and writing here on Medium and Tumblr, for example. And we’ll probably save the conversations we used to have with friends on Twitter for other channels entirely, in LINE or Snapchat or Slack or whatever. People used to describe Twitter as a non-stop cocktail party — that is, an online channel that made it easy to meet new people and socialize and network without being weird about it like LinkedIn — but now it’s becoming a sponsored party with an open bar that you go to for a little bit before meeting up with your friends for a more intimate gathering.
To be clear, I don’t think the magic here is in doubling down on immersive interactions, so much as encouraging both to exist in the same space. But by and large, the tech industry is creating products that try and integrate themselves into a person’s everyday real life and identity, just like any other consumer good. People like me — weirdos who found agency and joy in being able to be whoever we wanted to be — are significantly more niche than it seemed in the earlier days of the Internet. Or maybe there’s a little bit of that in all of us, but it’s just been much harder to develop, create, and sell.
In the end, I suppose I’d like to believe that we’ll eventually get back to the immersive side of things, not just through VR but through a whole bunch of other social applications that de-emphasize our Real Identity in favor of letting us be whatever the fuck we want.