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.

As you’ve probably heard, Twitter is planning major changes, and is testing them in a prototype app.

Threaded conversations are good, though I think the UI here still needs polish.

Hiding the interaction buttons until you click on the post: Yeah, it might make people think a little more. Putting some friction into sharing can improve the signal-to-noise ratio. (Also, I could swear I’ve seen something discussing this UX choice somewhere before, not necessarily for Twitter, but I can’t place it.)

Hiding the like/retweet counts: I know it was a deliberate decision to do that on Mastodon to discourage timelines from being too much of a popularity-contest. But it’s not clear how effective it’s been. In fact Mastodon recently added reply counts to its timeline (though boost and favorite counts are still behind a click). There is some value in social proof. Even if in a lot of cases it just amplifies how popular (or unpopular) something is to start with.

It’s not clear whether Twitter intends to hide the like/retweet counts completely, or keep them with the buttons like Mastodon does. Either way, I can’t imagine they won’t keep those numbers visible at least to the original poster. At some level they’re all about the metrics. And as Slashdot pointed out way back when they introduced karma: if you provide an actual number, people will try to optimize for it. Update: Buzzfeed indicates that the metrics are visible when zoomed into a specific tweet. In that case, you can still gauge its popularity or awfulness ratio, you just have to be motivated by the tweet to look for them. Essentially, it’s on the title page instead of the cover.

Camera features: There’s not really much I can say about these, since I tend not to post directly to social media in the first place. I like to take a picture (or several), then wait until I have time to crop, adjust, think of a caption, etc.

So on balance, these things might help a little.

But if Twitter is still going to be driven by showing you a timeline in most-likely-to-engage order — especially if those hidden replies are chosen in a way to encourage engagement — it’s still going to be a train wreck. Just, maybe with fewer things on fire.

Twitter is suited for short statements and back-and-forth conversation.

It’s terrible for anything long-form.

Long Twitter threads* and images filled with text remind me of the old tech support days when users would paste screen shots of error messages into Microsoft Word documents and email me the document. It was a terrible tool for the job, but it was the one they knew.

Once you get past two or three tweets (doesn’t matter whether they’re 140 characters or 280, it’s the structure that matters), your ideas will hang together better and be better understood if you write an actual article somewhere. Sadly, Twitter has trained people to stay in Twitter instead of going outside to read the %#$ article**, because you won’t be able to get back to where you were in your timeline, and besides, that’s just too long to read right now.

And that would require you to have, like a blog or something, and what sort of weirdo has one of those? 🙄

So people use what they know, and we get screenshots of long paragraphs that are awful for accessibility. And we get 40-tweet threads that people only see fragments of and take bits out of context. And they’ll reply to tweet #5 complaining about something that’s addressed in tweet #12, but they didn’t see it, because that was hidden behind the “read more” link, and how long does this thread go, anyway? (Scroll bars solved this problem decades ago.) And we get links to articles that people don’t read, but they reply to them anyway — or rather they reply to what they assume was in them.

Which I suppose is what we had in the old days, I mean “nobody reads the articles” was a joke on Slashdot 20 years ago. But it’s still frustrating.

Update: I realized I don’t see this so much on Mastodon. I wonder if that’s one of the ways the culture is different, or if I just happen to not be following anyone who writes/boosts long threads on a regular basis, or if 500-character posts give people enough room to breathe that they don’t feel like they’re already writing a long chain, so why worry about keeping the number of posts down, what’s the difference between 10 tweets and 15?

*To clarify, I’m talking about long threads that are effectively one piece of writing, not a series of “oh, and another thing” follow-ups, live-tweeting as things come up, actual conversations, etc.

**This part is true of Facebook as well.