Twitter was a noble experiment, but it’s time to put it out of its misery once and for all. Like other tech platforms, Twitter was never designed to be what it’s become, which is why its keepers have had such a tough time figuring out what to do with it and how to make money off it.
What it has become is a modern day Madame Defarge, the gallery on the sideline screaming for blood. Lazy reporters love Twitter. They can pull some tweets into their article and pretend that they’ve captured the gestalt, when in fact all they’ve captured are the voices of people with too much time on their hands, people who’ve figured out that the angriest, most over the top tweets are what earns them those little boosts of dopamine that come from every favorite and retweet.
Which is why I marvel at all the pixels devoted to “Twitter said X” and “Twitter said Y” as if what was being said on Twitter was a reflection of anything other than what was being said on Twitter.
And if that wasn’t reason enough to put a bullet in it, the New York Times finally woke up this week and covered a story that the trade and financial press should have picked up on years ago: there’s a thriving industry around selling fake Twitter followers.
“Ecosystem” is a more accurate term than industry. Because while the Times picked on one of the largest Twitter bot factories, there are hundreds of others, all willing to sell you tens of thousands of Twitter followers, often for just twenty dollars or less.
There are sites that review the quality of the fake Twitter followers, sites that explain the cadence with which you should accumulate your fake followers, ways for your fake followers to talk to each other … it is, as I said, an entire ecosystem.
Fake Follower Farms
If you’re curious (I was), sites that charge a premium (a penny a follower, give or take) will provide more authentic fakes, bots with profile photos, thousands of followers and thousands of (random) tweets to their names. [Quick sidebar here: about a year ago TV[R]EV briefly got tagged by one of these bot farms. Every time we’d tweet something, several hundred of these bots would retweet us and each other. We quickly realized that these accounts, whose stated interests had nothing to do with anything we covered, were just bots who regularly retweeted random stories in random languages in an attempt to seem legitimate.]
The really cheap bot sellers will provide you with followers who don’t have profile pictures, who only have three or four followers and a few random tweets. Sadly, those profiles aren’t all that different than the legitimate profiles of many of our friends who signed up for Twitter and quickly abandoned it, but they’re pretty clearly fake and Twitter occasionally cleans them out.
Unsurprisingly, the Times is reporting this morning that “millions” of Twitter accounts have disappeared following the publication of its exposé on Saturday. Proving that Twitter could have taken care of this all along.
The Times’s article also touched on another nasty piece of Twitter that rarely gets mentioned: Porn Twitter.
And the thing about Porn Twitter is that everyone knows it exists because everyone’s been hit up at some point by a spam bot that promises photos of nude Russian girls or one that promises something much less salacious but turns out to be photos of nude Russian girls … performing graphic sex acts in animated gifs that Twitter, unlike Facebook and Instagram, somehow never figured out how to censor. Legitimate porn stars—straight, gay and in between—have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and regularly put up similar X-rated photos and gifs and video clips. Spammers, the ones looking to load malware on your computer, use these same graphic images to get their victims to take the bait.
It’s like a Mad Max movie or a one of those Second Life communities that quickly brought that platform to a grinding halt.
Only with Twitter, it lives on and thrives.
The Real Cost Of Fake
The Times quoted an industry “expert” as saying that around 15% of Twitter’s traffic was made up of spam and bots, but we’d say that was an incredibly kind estimate and it’s likely to be twice that.
Then there’s Multiple Twitter—all those people (ourselves included) who maintain multiple Twitter accounts and use them on a daily basis.
That’s because unlike Facebook, which provides Pages for people to plug their businesses, hobbies and interests, Twitter just keeps everything as a basic account, encouraging users to maintain multiples. So you can probably discount about another 15-30% of Twitter’s claimed monthly average users as the same people using two or three different accounts.
Which might not matter as much if there wasn’t so much riding on it.
Marketers pay “influencers” thousands of dollars based on the number of followers they have. Stereotypes aside, not all “influencers” are teenage narcissists in their bedroom—many are actual actors and athletes and musicians who use their social media influence to earn additional income. And if some of those influencers are using fake followers to claim influence, it hurts that entire industry, including lots of legitimate “influencers.”
It’s not just brands. Actors get roles based on their social media followings. Musicians get gigs. It’s a promise of butts in seats, of free PR and lot of buzz.
Then there’s politics, which has become inextricably intertwined with Twitter, where “Twitter reacted to politician X’s comment” is, as noted previously, the favorite trope of the lazy reporter and policy decisions are somehow made by otherwise serious people off of what “Twitter” is saying, and we seem to be at the mercy of the loudest, angriest, most over the top voices. And that’s before you factor in all the organized trollery that goes into influencing what “Twitter” is thinking.
The Media’s Love For Twitter Is Hurting Us All
So why haven’t the media previously reported on what a messed up place Twitter is, on how easy it is to game the system, how anyone with twenty dollars can add tens of thousands of followers, how easy it is for haters to harass people far less famous than Leslie Jones, people with zero access to the media and absolutely no recourse other than to hope some nameless drone in Twitter support is feeling helpful that day.
One reason is that Twitter and journalists are a match made in heaven.
Let’s start with the psychology of Twitter, or, as we like to call it, Why This Thing Will Never Work: most people are not comfortable saying anything publicly. Even if all they are saying is “Today is Wednesday, January 31st,” you’d be hard pressed to find more than 30% of the population who’d be willing to let that go up publicly, with their real name attached to it.
Tell them they can use a pseudonym and maybe another 10% will jump on.
Journalists, on the other hand (and we use that term loosely) love Twitter. At a time when the democratization of media means that anyone can have a voice, Twitter gives them a way to hawk that voice. And if they’re working for a mainstream publication, it gives them a way to push back agains the upstarts.
I am also amazed by how many “journalists” will consistantly engage with randos on Twitter. Rather than adhere to the seemingly logical notion that “no good will ever come of arguing with faceless strangers” they will spend hours trading 140-character missives with ill-informed Others. That this seems to be the primary leisure activity for many of them may explain why they’ve been so hesitant to call Twitter out for its misdeeds.
No “Trump Bump”
Or to put our theory another way: President Trump alone has given Twitter billions of dollars of free publicity every month for the past two years. And yet despite that massive, massive windfall, Twitter has not been able to add users or ad dollars in any significant measure.
That’s because Twitter is not a mass medium. It’s a mass hysteria medium, one that’s never going to get any bigger than it is, one whose user numbers are likely to prove to be less than half of what’s being reported, which is already pretty low.
One final analogy: ever read the comments section in any mainstream publication? I’ll bet the phrase “borderline personality” came to mind there pretty quickly. It’s why so many publications are shutting their comments section down. The same dozen or so voices having the same dozen or so increasingly insane conversations, all of which are only vaguely related to the article being discussed.
What’s Next. Or, A Phoenix Is A Bird Too
Twitter needs to become a broadcast network. (This isn’t a new idea, we’ve proposed this several times before.)
Limit it to vetted news sources (they don’t need to be professional, just Not Fake) and charge them for the privilege too. Use a sliding scale, so that CNN and Fox News pay more than the Pleasantville Weekly News. Let businesses and celebrities of all stripes establish accounts and charge them for it too, again with IBM and Ashton Kutcher paying more than Joe’s Diner and some band that still plays local bars.
Don’t allow replies. No one cares what total strangers have to say. If you want to share a tweet with friends, you can copy it and send it to them.
It might not have the “watching car wrecks is oddly fascinating” appeal of the old Twitter.
But it might just get the loud ugly voices to shut the fuck up.
And for that alone, it would be worth it.