New Perspective Red Letters Technology Words

Twitter Lists

Twitter’s bad deci­sions are an impor­tant part of its iden­ti­ty, but a few key changes can make your expe­ri­ence bet­ter.

On a recent Tues­day, I opened a just-begun livestream on Face­book from NASA’s offi­cial page with a pan­el of experts dis­cussing Europa’s plumes (or some­thing like that) and end­ed up stick­ing around for most of its hour-long dura­tion because of the ridicu­lous real­time com­ments from some of its ~4000 view­ers. While some par­tic­i­pants were gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in the oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage the host’s author­i­ty with rel­e­vant and invest­ed ques­tions (which were inter­mit­tent­ly field­ed,) the vocal major­i­ty were aggres­sive, igno­rant, and provoca­tive shouts. From my obser­va­tion, the most notice­ably man­ic and per­sis­tent of these came from user Shane Lang­man. “Nasa can tele­phone the moon in 1969 but can’t get a phone sig­nal in death Val­ley in 2018,” he not­ed 16 min­utes in. “We cant leave the earth or we’d have left it by now.” And there was Bob­by Smith, who felt com­pelled to express his author­i­ty on NASA’s inau­then­tic­i­ty: “[I’ve] been research­ing since 2012 no real pics of any­thing all cgi.”

Assum­ing the addi­tion­al all-caps, sans-avatar rant­i­ng I remem­ber read­ing live was delet­ed after the fact by the cul­prits and/or the page’s admin­is­tra­tor, it’s worth not­ing that the remain­ing archive is full of sin­cere­ly pos­i­tive feed­back: “It would be awe­some to dis­cov­er life in europe!!”




After a few min­utes of gawk­ing at the mess, I noticed that the broad­cast was being simul­ta­ne­ous­ly streamed on Periscope (or is it Twit­ter Video? or Twit­ter Live?) so I opened both feeds side-by-side to com­pare their audience’s behav­ior. The Periscope’s view­ers aver­aged about 1000 strong, and their com­ments were notice­ably more order­ly and deci­pher­able. There was still trolling and self-pro­mo­tion, but it wasn’t allowed to dis­rupt the rest of the com­mit­ted dis­course, per­haps because of each post’s char­ac­ter lim­it or rationed screen time. Look­ing between them, the con­trast in the user cul­ture and the func­tion of the two ser­vices dur­ing the same, simul­ta­ne­ous stream was at dis­cour­ag­ing odds with their respec­tive pop­u­lar­i­ty.


Nei­ther are real­ly very good ways to watch live video — Periscope, notably, was nev­er designed for pro­fes­sion­al stu­dio broad­casts — but the relent­less mali­cious non­sense from the Face­book view­ers pushed all attempts at real engage­ment away so quick­ly that I could see no point in mak­ing them at all. To be blunt: every con­ceiv­able cor­ner of Face­book is an unus­able cesspool (even in the shad­ow of NASA earnest­ness,) and its worth con­sid­er­ing that some­thing about the design of Twit­ter prop­er­ties gen­er­al­ly dis­cour­ages such over­whelm­ing­ly stu­pid noise. That’s not to say that harass­ment, hate speech, misog­y­ny, and rad­i­cal racism have not been reli­gious­ly neglect­ed or mis­han­dled as has been well-report­ed through­out the network’s his­to­ry — per­haps even more than any oth­er — but I (a cis white man, mind you,) have seen much more of these on Face­book in the wild than I have on Twit­ter dur­ing my long­time use of the two, despite spend­ing expo­nen­tial­ly more atten­tion on the lat­ter.


In my sparse Face­book brows­ing, I have wit­nessed child­hood friends, pro­fes­sion­al acquain­tances, and fam­i­ly mem­bers both dis­tant and imme­di­ate pub­licly shame, harass, belit­tle, and spite­ful­ly argue with each oth­er for the sake of absolute­ly zero mean­ing­ful res­o­lu­tion, con­clu­sion, or intel­lec­tu­al pro­gres­sion. In my decade of dai­ly Twit­ter use, I have seen tens of pedophiles and rapists pub­licly out­ed, sui­cides avert­ed, gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship cir­cum­vent­ed, sto­ries bro­ken, artists made, and mar­gin­al­ized voic­es out­spo­ken. I have also Tweet­ed things in the past (most­ly vari­a­tions of “I want to die”) that would now get my account tem­porar­i­ly sus­pend­ed, as per the company’s lat­est attempts to min­i­mize its platform’s tox­i­c­i­ty — an encour­ag­ing sug­ges­tion that Twit­ter is final­ly catch­ing up and learn­ing to avoid its cul­tur­al blun­ders, which have been the sin­gle great­est excep­tion to its most valu­able core iden­ti­ty: its mis­takes.

Two weeks ago, Twit­ter proud­ly released the first redesign of its native Win­dows 10 app since its debut in 2015 — lead­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of upcom­ing “light­weight” Pro­gres­sive Web Apps and — true to form — imme­di­ate­ly reclaimed the title of clum­si­est, least-use­ful Twit­ter client avail­able. PWAs rep­re­sent the industry’s read­i­est effort to bridge the gap between web and mobile apps,” for which expand­ed com­pat­i­bil­i­ty must sure­ly be the best case to make. Accord­ing to Google — supreme ene­my of the open web and all taste­ful design — PWAs are offline-first, instant-load­ing, and immer­sive - none of which are rea­son­able pri­or­i­ties in build­ing a Twit­ter client for Win­dows, an oper­at­ing sys­tem run­ning pri­mar­i­ly on very pow­er­ful hard­ware. This sort of idio­cy can be rea­son­ably expect­ed of Twit­ter, but bewil­der­ing­ly, the Great Minds of tech jour­nal­ism seem to be unan­i­mous­ly pleased by this deci­sion, which invites one to sus­pect that they’ve all switched secret­ly to the exclu­sive, illus­tri­ous HP Elite X3 — the only smart­phone on sale run­ning Win­dows 10, because Twitter’s exe­cu­tion of these mis­aligned goals is mind­bog­gling­ly foul to look at and unnec­es­sar­i­ly frus­trat­ing to use. After doing my best to put up with it for a few days, I found myself unable to con­ceieve of a sin­gle advan­tage this new appli­ca­tion has over lit­er­al­ly any alter­na­tive.


3 out of the 5 bul­let­ed “high­ly-request­ed fea­tures” list­ed in their announce­ment are just… catch­ing the app up with the web client as it’s been for years: the 280-char­ac­ter lim­it, Explore tab, and Book­marks. “Adding” these web-estab­lished oper­a­tions to an even-more-web-based appli­ca­tion sure­ly didn’t present much of a work­load, but per­haps remov­ing func­tion­al­i­ty jus­ti­fied the invest­ment. The F and T keys no longer oper­ate as short­cuts for lik­ing and retweet­ing, which is such a mis­guid­ed over­sight that I can’t help but won­der if this app was actu­al­ly intend­ed to be uti­lized by any­one at all (besides HP Elite users.)


Am I miss­ing some­thing? Can you hear me? Are there any flesh-and-blood Twit­ters users left?

Then again, the ungain­li­ness of Twitter’s new off­spring could be attrib­uted to the per­pet­u­al tragedy of its mother’s per­il. The company’s luck has been on the down-and-out for eons in tech time: from its most recent plain text pass­word blun­der, to its con­stant inabil­i­ty to han­dle abuse, its end­less­ly tumul­tuous man­age­ment turnovers, and its grow­ing dis­in­ter­est and dis­fa­vor among the pub­lic and poten­tial investors alike — our cul­tur­al rela­tion­ship with Twit­ter and its iden­ti­ty as a social net­work remains dra­mat­i­cal­ly tense well past its tenth year, which is good news for its con­tin­ued sur­vival. One could cer­tain­ly argue that the Tump pres­i­den­cy alone spared Twit­ter from a painful decline into irrel­e­vance (or at least post­poned it,) but I think we should acknowl­edge by now that tur­moil is an inte­gral com­po­nent of the brand as an out­lier in the con­nect­ed com­mu­ni­ty palette.


For myself as a long-depen­dent occu­pant, its incon­sis­ten­cies and con­tra­dic­tions are endear­ing and nec­es­sary — a com­pe­tent, prof­itable, and sen­si­cal Twit­ter may as well be Face­book. If you’ve been Tweet­ing as long as I have, you’ll like­ly remem­ber that the company’s own offer­ings had occu­pied the bot­tom-most posi­tion in the hier­ar­chy of prefer­able avail­able clients through­out time and across all man­ner of oper­at­ing sys­tems until it final­ly nailed its Android and iOS soft­ware and usurped long­time third-par­ty sta­ples like Tweet­Bot and Twit­terif­ic just a few years ago. Gad­get blog­ging and What’s in my Dock? videos may very well be long-dead relics of a dif­fer­ent era in tech media, but it’s dis­heart­en­ing to find through research that the steadi­ly-declin­ing qual­i­ty of our user expe­ri­ence has been allowed to con­tin­ue with­out much protest. Jus­ti­fi­ably or not, Twit­ter has per­sist­ed in adding stuff nobody likes as they’ve grad­u­al­ly neutered all the great third-par­ty devel­op­ment.


Tweet­Deck for Win­dows was per­haps the most pow­er­ful main­stream enduser social appli­ca­tion that will ever exist. Before Twit­ter absorbed the tool in 2011, its diverse account inte­gra­tion allowed a user to send a sin­gle post across Face­book, LinkedIn, MySpace, Google+, and mul­ti­ple Twit­ter accounts simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, and they could con­fig­ure the client to do so with just the Enter key! In ret­ro­spect, it was naive to assume that such potent spam capa­bil­i­ties would con­tin­ue to be entrust­ed to the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion with­out chal­lenge, but the mod­u­lar­i­ty and cus­tomiz­abil­i­ty of Tweet­Deck prime as a stand­alone appli­ca­tion made it use­ful as hell and quite the pow­er trip. Now, it exists only as a tamed, up-to-brand-guide­lines web appli­ca­tion, yet remains the defin­i­tive way to use Twit­ter on a PC if one desires an ad-free, sin­gle-win­dow expe­ri­ence if only because of its con­gru­ence with anoth­er, even more for­got­ten fea­ture of the ser­vice: lists.

This is how I’ve seen desk­top Twit­ter since I last­ed looked at my time­line in 2010. Since then, I’ve fol­lowed about 5000 more accounts, so I’d imag­ine it’s a damned mess. I have a pri­vate list of my friends, which I try to read in its entire­ty, and a list of near­ly 500 jour­nal­ists, pub­li­ca­tions, and musi­cians whom I’ve found par­tic­u­lar­ly fresh and orig­i­nal. Thanks to these, Tweets are pre­sent­ed in order, unin­ter­rupt­ed by ads. (They func­tion the same on iOS.) The network’s lin­ear chronol­o­gy is an absolute use con­di­tion for me, so I’m thank­ful I com­plete­ly missed the begin­ning of their pro­gres­sion toward algo­rith­mic rel­e­vance thanks to my lists, and as I’ve since hap­pened upon dis­tress from mutu­als and non-mutu­als over missed or stale Tweets, I have tak­en the time to relay my gospel: lists are lin­ear. And since pro­mot­ed and spon­sored Tweets began over­whelm­ing and per­turb­ing time­lines, I’ve seen the dis­plea­sure and repeat­ed: lists are lin­ear and ad-free!


I real­ize how irri­tat­ing it is when one plays the why doesn’t any­one lis­ten to me?! card, so I’ve cre­at­ed a Twit­ter Moment to doc­u­ment the con­fus­ing silence I’ve got­ten in response to these sug­ges­tions (though I couldn’t find any cas­es from the past, so I may be mis­re­mem­ber­ing the extent of my char­i­ty,) and pledg­ing to refrain from revis­it­ing this pet advice of mine when writ­ing about Twit­ter or oth­er social net­works in the future.