Sunday, January 8, 2017

Why We Can't Fix Twitter

Amtrak once asked a focus group what kind of food they wanted in the train’s cafe car. One participant requested more healthy choices, like salad and fruit. The person running the focus group said something like, “People always say they want the salad. Then they buy the cheeseburger.”

Today’s social media environment faces a similar paradox. It’s fashionable to complain about the low quality of Twitter conversations. We bemoan trolls, flame wars and the lack of nuance inherent in 140-character statements. Occasionally some high-profile tweeter will publicly declare that they are done with the platform, as the writer Lindy West did this week in an article titled: “I’ve left Twitter. It is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.”

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently asked his followers to suggest ideas for improvement. He got plenty of recommendations, such as an edit button so users could fix erroneous or ill-considered tweets. Other suggestions included a bookmark button and improved reporting options for bullying.

It’s unclear if these kinds of changes will improve the quality of Twitter discourse. What they won’t fix is the company’s cafe car problem. We say that we want more civil, thoughtful dialogue. But do we really?

Imagine that a Silicon Valley start-up created an online discussion platform precisely to address this problem. There would be no trolls or shouting matches. Shrill sound bites would be replaced by measured conversations. Users would span the political spectrum, allowing for civil exchanges among people with different views.

“Wow,” you’d probably say. “The world needs a platform like that, especially right now!” You’d sign up. Then, you’d go right back to Twitter.

How do I know this? Because we created that alternative platform. It was an online discussion forum called Parlio, and its chief purpose was to host civil, thoughtful conversations. Parlio was founded by Wael Ghonim, the former Google executive best known for running the Facebook page that helped spark the 2011 Egyptian revolution. As the euphoria over the revolution faded, Ghonim found that social media only amplified polarization. “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart,” he said. In 2015 he and Osman Osman, another former Googler, launched Parlio, and I became chief strategy officer.

The user experience was straightforward. A member would post a short piece of writing, or maybe a link to an article. Then, other members would discuss it. We also hosted Q&As. But Parlio’s culture was markedly different from other social media platforms. It was intended for conversation, not mass broadcasting. You had to be invited to post, but anyone could be a reader. New members signed a civility pledge, and we had a zero-tolerance policy toward trolls.

Parlio built a small but devoted following, including thought leaders from media, academia and business. We hosted remarkably civil conversations about divisive issues like race, terrorism, refugees, sexism and even Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. Author Max Boot wrote in Commentary: “I find that I’m using Parlio more because I can find a more reasoned engagement there than I do on Twitter. Parlio is not, of course, going to threaten Twitter’s business anytime soon, but it is an augury of what can happen if Twitter doesn’t address the problem of anonymous hate-speech that is poisoning its user community.” Tom Friedman penned a New York Times column about Parlio’s attempt to create a new social media experience, writing, “I participated in a debate on Parlio and found it engaging and substantive.”

While people loved the idea of Parlio, we weren’t sure how quickly we could bring it to scale. Last year we joined forces with Quora, which had just reached 100 million monthly users. I am proud of what we created at Parlio, and I also learned a lot about user behavior. The main takeaway is that the social media experience that people say they want is often different from the one that they actively pursue. Here are some of the main challenges to building a civil, thoughtful social media platform:

We’re addicted to the promise of going viral

Say you’re a journalist, and you just published a big article. You have two options for engagement. The first is to receive a relatively small number of comments and questions from informed and influential people, including top thinkers in your field. Option two is a flood of Twitter mentions. Some will be smart, but many will be rants from complete strangers. We might think that we want option one. But deep down, we can’t give up the thrill of option two.

Any Twitter pundit with a large following is familiar with that thrill. It’s that moment right after your provocative statement starts ricocheting across the internet. Your feed explodes with new mentions and your followers dramatically increase. You have no idea who most of these people are, or even if they are real people, but you feel like a rock star. If your tweet goes really viral, you might get on TV. Maybe you will be invited to write an op-ed expanding on your tweet, even though 140 characters were all you had to say on the matter.

Generally speaking, Parlio couldn’t offer that experience. In part because we didn’t have the numbers, but also because our content was not particularly conducive to virality. Often what go viral are antagonistic declarations that are unburdened by nuance. Our president-elect is a master of such statements, which is why Twitter has been such a powerful tool for spreading his message.

Parlio did a decent job of delivering option one, however. Authors would come to Parlio to discuss articles they had written elsewhere. Some of those posts attracted high-quality engagement that is very difficult to find in online commenting sections, and the authors would be delighted. But the next time they wrote an article, sometimes those same authors would skip Parlio and post it on Twitter. The next section helps explain why.

by Emily Parker, Politico |  Read more:
Image: Getty