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Twitter to undergo “a huge fundamental shift”: Publishers take note

“Twitter, right now, when you go to it, you don’t necessarily walk away feeling like you learned something.”

“We’ve seen abuse, we’ve seen harassment, we’ve seen manipulation, automation, human coordination, misinformation.”

“It’s incented a lot of outrage, it’s incented a lot of mob behavior, it’s incented a lot of group harassment.”

“It’s a pretty terrible situation when you’re coming to a service that, ideally, you want to learn something about the world, and you spend the majority of your time reporting abuse, receiving abuse, receiving harassment.”

Pretty strong sentiments against Twitter, expressed by none other than its cofounder and CEO, Jack Dorsey.

In a discussion titled “How Twitter needs to change” at TED2019, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey discussed the future of the platform with Chris Anderson, curator of the TED Conference, and award-winning journalist Whitney Pennington Rodgers.

He outlined the steps already taken and shared some of the fundamental changes Twitter would be undergoing, changing the focus from following specific individuals to tracking topics of interest.

We started the service with this concept of following an account, as an example, and I don’t believe that’s why people actually come to Twitter. I believe Twitter is best as an interest-based network.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter

“People come with a particular interest. They have to do a ton of work to find and follow the related accounts around those interests,” Jack explained. “What we could do instead is allow you to follow an interest, follow a hashtag, follow a trend, follow a community, which gives us the opportunity to show all of the accounts, all the topics, all the moments, all the hashtags that are associated with that particular topic and interest, which really opens up the perspective that you see.

That is a huge fundamental shift to bias the entire network away from just an account bias towards a topics and interest bias.

Incidentally, for all its faults, when it comes to news consumption on social media, Twitter is the #1 platform of choice—according to the Trends Report from GlobalWebIndex. If there’s a “huge fundamental shift” in how the network operates, publishers will need to realign their strategies to remain relevant on the network.

So what would these fundamental changes look like?

What we’re looking most deeply at is just the incentives that the platform naturally provides,” Jack said. “What does Twitter incentivize you to do when you first open it up? In the past, it’s incented a lot of outrage, it’s incented a lot of mob behavior, it’s incented a lot of group harassment. and we have to look a lot deeper at some of the fundamentals of what the service is doing to make the bigger shifts.”

We asked ourselves a question: Can we actually measure the health of a conversation, and what does that mean? And in the same way that you have indicators and we have indicators as humans in terms of are we healthy or not, such as temperature, the flushness of your face, we believe that we could find the indicators of conversational health.

Twitter worked with a lab called Cortico at MIT to propose four starter indicators that the company believes they could ultimately measure on the system. The four indicators they identified are:

  1. Shared attention: A measure of how much of the conversation is attentive on the same topic versus disparate.
  2. Shared reality: What percentage of the conversation shares the same facts — not whether those facts are truthful or not, but are we sharing the same facts as we converse?
  3. Receptivity: How much of the conversation is receptive or civil or the inverse, toxic?
  4. Variety of perspective: Are we seeing filter bubbles or echo chambers, or are we actually getting a variety of opinions within the conversation?

Implicit in all four of these is the understanding that, as they increase, the conversation gets healthier and healthier.

Jack also stressed on building algorithms instead of just hiring massive amounts of people, because “we need to make sure that this is scalable, and there are no amount of people that can actually scale this.”

We want to have a situation where algorithms are constantly scouring every single tweet and bringing the most interesting ones to the top.

Referring to Jack’s vision of re-tweaking the fundamental design of the system to discourage some of the reactive behavior, and engage people’s more reflective thinking, Chris Anderson—the head of TED—dug in further, “The number one way you make your money is from advertising — that depends on user engagement. Are you willing to sacrifice user time, if need be, to go for a more reflective conversation?

“We want to get people to those topics and those interests much, much faster and make sure that they’re finding something that, no matter how much time they spend on Twitter,” Jack contended.

I don’t want to maximize the time on Twitter, I want to maximize what they actually take away from it and what they learn from it.

More relevance means less time on the service, and that’s perfectly fine,” he clarified. “Because we want to make sure that, like, you’re coming to Twitter, and you see something immediately that you learn from and that you push. We can still serve an ad against that. That doesn’t mean you need to spend any more time to see more.”

We’re watching for conversations and conversation chains. So we want to incentivize healthy contribution back to the network, and what we believe that is is actually participating in conversation that is healthy, as defined by those four indicators I articulated earlier.

“We are working as quickly as we can, but quickness will not get the job done,” Jack concluded. “It’s focus, it’s prioritization, it’s understanding the fundamentals of the network and building a framework that scales and that is resilient to change, and being open about where we are and being transparent about where are so that we can continue to earn trust.

“I’m proud of all the frameworks that we’ve put in place. I’m proud of our direction. We obviously can move faster, but that required just stopping a bunch of stupid stuff were doing in the past.”

You can watch the full discussion below:

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