Twitter’s Certainty Problem

Definitiveness is one of Twitter’s core characteristics. Should it be?

Visuals on Unsplash

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Twitter is a game played on certainty, where nuance goes to die. The tweets with absolutist statements tend to collect the most retweets, no matter how loose their relationship with reality. And since retweets are the Twitter game’s points — used for reach, influence, and earning potential — people tend to be as definitive as possible on the service, even under the most uncertain of circumstances.

Because Twitter rewards taking a stance, doing so quickly, and lining up with tribal sympathies, it encourages people to share news with definitive framing, even before events conclude. This extends beyond news, to people too. Twitter users regularly judge each other with absolutism, distilling multi-dimensional humans into caricatures based on a single tweet, thread, or video. No matter the cost of being wrong about someone’s character or intent, to win on Twitter is to be sure about them.

Twitter’s certainty problem can be amusing at times, such as when a sizable portion of the service’s 200 million daily users become ‘experts’ on the topic of the day, like meme stocks, eclipses, or cicadas. And certainty on its own isn’t bad either. But the service’s pervasive false assuredness damages our understanding of the world around us, and each other. This, ultimately, is a design problem. One that needs fixing.

The Twitter feature that amplifies false certainly most egregiously is its trending column, something Nate Silver this week called a “bat signal for idiots.” More charitably, Twitter’s Trends are engagement bait that entices us to chime in on hot topics. Trends can be harmless. But too often, they invite us to form definitive opinions on a person, no matter how obscure, based on just a few tweets, or even just one. So we get Bean Dad, Shrimp Guy, and a cast of characters whose lives are disrupted — or destroyed — for the sake of entertainment.

Some want Twitter to remove trends completely, but that’s tough to imagine. Twitter is about knowing what’s in the moment, so trends are important. But is it too much to ask for some monitoring? Perhaps Twitter’s editorial team can ask whether a layperson is deserving of placement in Trends and remove them if not. Why subject them to a pile-on? Why encourage behavior where people eviscerate fellow users, who they previously never met, just for the engagement?

The certainty problem is a bit more complicated when it comes to news. Too often, news organizations are overconfident they know something when there’s plenty of grey area. Think, for instance, of the initial underreaction to Covid (it’s the flu) and the assumption that the lab leak hypothesis was discredited.

Twitter can, however, slow its platform a bit to make news sharing more thoughtful. It’s started that, in part, by asking users if they’d like to read a story before retweeting, a move it said led to 40% more link clicks and fewer retweets generally. A Twitter employee hinted this week that more changes of this nature are on the way. It’s time to test them and roll them out where successful.

Human beings naturally view each other — and the world around them — with nuance. When going about real life, we learn to appreciate complexity. Online, some of that complexity will inevitably go away as a consequence of scale. But it doesn’t mean we should be satisfied living in a world where false certainty is the norm.

Further Reading:

Do we really need influencers’ Israel-Palestine hot takes? (Vox)

The internet is flat (Galaxy Brian)

News Briefs:

Amazon warehouse workers suffer serious injuries at higher rates than other firms (Washington Post)

Amazon keeps telling us about how well it treats its workers. The company does guarantee a minimum wage of $15 — more than double the federal minimum of $7.25 — but it’s not all roses inside its fulfillment centers. In this story, the Washington Post dives into the Amazon’s serious injury rates, which it finds are nearly double those at similar warehouses.

Facebook Wants Your Thoughts and Prayers (Gizmodo)

We’ve increasingly moved from real-life community to virtual community, turning the church group into the Facebook group. So it’s no surprise that Facebook is starting to build elements of real-life community into its platform. This week, Gizmodo’s Shoshana Wodinsky covers how Facebook is expanding into “Prayer posts,” where users can prompt others for prayers on the service.

[Crosspromo] Give yourself a leg up on all things Google (Android Intelligence)

If you use an Android phone or live inside Chrome, Gmail, or other Google services, you should check out a high-quality newsletter called Android Intelligence. It dives deep into all sorts of Googley subjects with plain-English perspective on each week’s most important news and tons of off-the-beaten-path, productivity-boosting tips — everything from hidden Chrome features to privacy-enhancing Android adjustments and advanced tactics for taking control of Gmail. It’s written by veteran Android journalist JR Raphael, whose work you might know from Fast Company and Computerworld, among other places. For anyone interested in Android or even just Google services in general, it’s a fantastic read and ongoing resource. You can sign up for free here and get your first issue on Friday.

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This week on Big Technology Podcast: The Rise and Fall of Juul, With The Devil’s Playbook Author Lauren Etter

You’ve heard this story before: Two Stanford kids take on a big bad industry, one that harms people, and they disrupt it. Typically, these stories are portrayed as heroic in Silicon Valley. Yet, the story of Juul is different. The company sells sleek e-cigarettes packed with nicotine to cigarette smokers looking for a less harmful solution. But flush with VC cash and determined to grow, the company ended up addicting millions of kids, leading to a serious backlash and decline. Lauren Etter, a Bloomberg reporter and author of The Devil’s Playbook, which covers the Juul saga, joins Big Technology Podcast to discuss the company’s rise and fall.

To subscribe to the podcast and hear the interview for yourself, you can check it out on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Tips, Comments, Ideas?

Send them my way by writing bigtechnology@substack.com. I read every response.

Thanks again for reading. See you next Thursday!

Silicon Valley-based journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.

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