Making the blue check mark mean “This person can afford $20/month” instead of “This person is who they say they are” is only the latest way Twitter has downgraded its signal/noise ratio over the years.

Word is that Twitter’s new owner is planning to charge $20/month for a blue check mark.

Which of course, means the blue checkmark will now be useless. Well, useless to the users of the site, anyway. It won’t tell you which of several accounts is really the person you’re looking for, just who has $20/month to spend on it. (Not that it was perfect, but at least it was a signal.)

It’s sort of like when SSL certificates went from being expensive and needing verification — so they were a sign that you were on the right website — to cheap and later free. Except an SSL/TLS cert still tells you something: your connection is protected from eavesdropping. The checkmark doesn’t tell you anything valuable.

But Twitter’s been messing with the signal/noise ratio for ages.

Downgrade the Signal

Ads themselves (or promoted tweets, or whatever you call them) are already adding noise. Then they started showing you other people’s “likes,” removing some meaning from the action and adding noise to the stream. These days they even show you tweets from people that people you follow are following.

On Mastodon I’ll sometimes get distracted from something I wanted to do or look for, but I can almost always get back to it. I’ll pop onto Twitter for 5 minutes to look for something and I’m there twice as long because I can’t find it in all the attention-grabbing “features.” The other day I decided to unfollow all the corporations and organizations and only keep the actual people on the list, and I still had trouble finding things.

I suppose from Twitter’s perspective it worked, because I was there for 10 minutes instead of 5…but it makes me less interested in coming back later.

Every bit of noise you add to a signal cuts down on how much value the listener gets out of it. Eventually the ratio is no longer worth it, and all that attention you managed to extract from them by ratcheting up the noise drops to zero.

It’s been four years since I described the 2018 Social Media Experience. Let’s see what’s changed in that time!

#Twitter is still like a train crashing into a burning dumpster. The old owner wouldn’t let firefighters in because they did such a brisk business selling marshmallows, and the new one thinks it needs more gas because the flames aren’t hot enough and it would be unethical to keep the fire down to even marshmallow-toasting levels.

#Facebook…TBH I haven’t been there in a while, but I get the impression it’s still like a large family gathering, only now conversation is mostly drowned out by your racist uncle/in-law’s soapboxing and the TV commercials for things related to his screed instead of just being interrupted by them, unless you can hide out in a different room, where you’ll still get interrupted by commercials for things related to your own conversation.

#Tumblr is the weird coffee shop you used to hang out in but you’ve outgrown. It was bought out by a national chain and homogenized into the ground, but they offloaded it to a smaller chain and now each location is allowed to have its own personality again.

#Mastodon is like a building with a lot of small parties going on: Not as many people in each room, but you can actually hear each other talk, and people will sometimes hang out in the hall or move to another room, connecting conversations together. But finding a good room can be tough.

#Pixelfed is like Mastodon, except everyone’s brought photos and made the room into a gallery.

#Instagram is like checking out your friends’ vacation photos, but every other photo is an advertisement, and half of your friends’ pics are full of product placement.

TikTok…from what I gather, it’s like being in a crowd with people you don’t know, and someone keeps pushing other people at you that they think you might want to talk to.

Of course, all of them have people who will Judge You because You’re Doing It Wrong.

One of the things I like about Mastodon and Pixelfed and the rest of the Fediverse vs commercial social networks is that they don’t TRY TO GET MY ATTENTION every time I open the page or app and offer ALL THESE THINGS I SHOULD BE LOOKING AT that might be relevant to what it thinks my interests are, to make sure I stay online and don’t stay away again for sooooo long! (Even if it’s only been a few days.)

Seriously:

  • I opened Instagram for the first time in at least a month and I was bombarded with more ads and recommendations than photos from people I was actually following.
  • I opened an alt profile in Twitter yesterday to post something off the cuff, and all the trending topics, pushing new features, etc. were like walking onto the Las Vegas Strip when all you want is a sandwich.

Never mind the normal “You haven’t logged onto Twitter in a few hours, here’s all the stuff you missed, and look, people are posting new stuff while you’re catching up, you’d better keep scrolling! What, you switched to another app for five seconds? Here, I’ll scroll it for you!”

Compared to Mastodon just showing you the latest that you’re actually following. And if you want to fill in what you missed, that’s up to you.

(There’s also the posting culture. On Twitter, people are used to discussing DOOOOOM all the time, so even curating your timeline isn’t always enough if you want to follow people talking, I don’t know, astronomy or whatever, because they’re also talking doom. And the algorithm reinforces it at both ends in a vicious circle, encouraging doom-posting and encouraging doom-scrolling.)

Choice Complaints

None of these complaints is inherent to the structure or functionality of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook etc. They’re deliberate UI design choices to optimize for the company’s targets. A third party client could bypass it all (which of course is why they basically don’t allow those anymore).

Similarly, Mastodon and Pixelfed and so on could implement UI like this, but they don’t. The project goals aren’t engagement at all costs. And each instance can have its own goals.

Or someone could add an ATTENTION-GRABBING EXPERIENCE on top of the code and launch their own service. And those of us on other instances, running different software, wouldn’t be affected. Unless the site injected ads into the ActivityPub streams going out to people following its users, in which case I imagine a lot of instances would block them really quickly.

Or they could write an app that adds extra popups and keep-scrolling incentives to the phone experience!

I’m not sure many people would consider that an improvement.

Then again, people do use Yahoo mail. 🤷‍♂️

Expanded from Mastodon.

Have you ever been to a Las Vegas casino? The main floors tend toward sprawling layouts, with lots of shiny distractions to entice you to stay and spend more time and money on the slots instead of helping you get where you’re going. That’s what Twitter’s new layout feels like.

When Twitter started out, the home timeline would just show me posts from people I followed. Now it also shows me

  • Posts they liked, but didn’t like enough to retweet.
  • Posts from people they follow.
  • A “Who to follow” box that I can’t seem to get rid of, which is also on the sidebar.
  • Advertisements – I mean “Promoted” tweets.

I get that ads are the business model they’ve chosen, but what’s with the rest of it? It’s not like I’m going to get bored if I don’t have more suggestions shoveled in front of me.

And I am going to get frustrated if I can’t find the stuff I’m actually looking for. Let’s think back for a moment to the early 2000s, back when there were a lot of different competing search engines. Google won not just because it was fast and accurate, but because it had a simple, fast-loading, no-nonsense home page while everyone else was trying to cram everything imaginable onto a “web portal.”

With that in mind, let’s look at what happens when we look at a specific post. The logical thing to do would be to show you tweet itself and the context around it: If it’s part of a thread, show the rest of the thread. If it’s part of a discussion, show the discussion. And that’s how Twitter used to work. But now you have to click through another link to see that context, and instead it wants to show you “Tweets from people like so-and-so.” How is that a useful default?

It’s like going to a page in a book and finding not the previous and next pages, but ads for other books.

I actually do like the two-click retweet button functionality, where you click and get a menu asking if you want to retweet by itself or quote-tweet it. Normally a two-item pop-up menu is a terrible idea for usability, but this is a case where introducing some friction in the process might give people a chance to consider what they’re doing.

But the rest of it feels like they’re desperately throwing everything they can think of at me in hopes of broadening my engagement with the site. And that reaches a point of diminishing returns. When you can’t use the site for what you’re trying to do, it ends up making you much less interested in coming back.

I wish I could use TweetDeck on my phone.

It would be simpler.

Sometimes you choose which social app to open based on

  • who you want to talk to
  • who you want to hear
  • what you want to talk about

Sometimes you’re just shouting into the void. At those times, I figure I’ll choose the void that feels less exploitative.

That’s part of why I still have a blog. And why I post more on Mastodon, while Twitter is mostly auto-shares from my other networks, retweets, and occasional cross-posts.

(And politics, because I’d rather keep that on Twitter, where it’s sort of the main topic anyway, than on the network that’s still fun. Not that Mastodon is apolitical. Far from it! But it’s a lot more varied than the overwhelming focus on US partisan politics I see on Twitter. And the culture and structure make the discussions at least somewhat less train-wrecky. Most of the time.)

Update: If you’re interested in checking out Mastodon and the Fediverse, good places to start are JoinMastodon.org and JoinFediverse.wiki.