The Interface

By Casey Newton

Three takeaways from a day at Twitter



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August 14 · Issue #367 · View online
The Interface
On Wednesday, Twitter invited reporters to its headquarters in San Francisco for an update on improvements to the product. It’s somewhat unusual for the company to invite reporters in — I’ve visited headquarters around three times a year for the past five years or so — but it’s not unusual for Twitter to provide updates. Providing updates is, in some ways, Twitter’s favorite thing to do.
In January we talked about the many times Twitter has substituted talking for doing, an approach championed by CEO Jack Dorsey this year on his lengthy podcast tour. I actually find it charming how readily Twitter employees will stipulate to any criticism of the product — usually while throwing in a few of their own for good measure. There is a rare candor among Twitter employees that makes me think fondly of the company even when things go wrong there, which they do with a regularity unusual for a company of its high profile.
The occasion for Wednesday’s event was to discuss its work on creating better conversations, fighting abuse and harassment on the platform, and letting users more easily follow their interests. All of that has only recently become possible, said Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s charming and unusually durable head of product. Twitter became profitable for the first time last year; its daily users are increasing even as monthly users decline; and it has shipped enough updates to fight harassment that it can now talk meaningfully about improvements.
Here are three things I took away from the event.
One, a new feature designed to let users follow their interests could open up Twitter to a big new audience. It could also amplify the worst stuff on the platform. I wrote about the feature, which Twitter calls “interests,” for The Verge. It’s now in testing on Android:
Twitter will begin allowing users to follow interests, the company said today, letting users see tweets about topics of their choosing inside the timeline. When the feature goes live, you’ll be able to follow topics including sports teams, celebrities, and television shows, with a selection of tweets about them inserted alongside tweets in your home feed.
Topics will be curated by Twitter, with individual tweets being identified through machine learning rather than editorial curation, the company said. For now, only sports-related interests can be followed, said Rob Bishop, a Twitter product manager. 
Twitter has long believed that if the average person could just find the tweets that interest them, they would become a daily user for life. And yet finding those tweets involves knowing which accounts to follow, and regularly adding to and pruning the list, and it turns out that most people don’t want to take on that burden. And so it has tried doing that job for users in a variety of ways — a suggested user list, Twitter Moments, a “temporary follow” feature for seeing tweets from sporting events — but none has been wildly successful.
Interests represent the company’s latest effort to crack that nut. Certainly it seems useful for following something like a sports game — Twitter can round up popular tweets on the subject from lots of accounts, using machine learning to identify relevant tweets even if they come from an unknown account or don’t use a particular hashtag.
But use the same feature for news and it starts to feel worrisome. For starters, it’s a new attack vector for bad actors. Figure out how to get your tweets included in the set shown to people interested in “politics” or “elections,” and you’ve got a fun new 2020 project for Russia’s Internet Research Agency. And even if state actors don’t get involved, you’ve still got a product that seems destined to amplify the hottest, most polarizing takes, no matter what the subject. If the current test shows that the feature takes casual fans of the Golden State Warriors and turns them into diehard season ticket holders, that could be reason to worry.
(Twitter’s response to all this is that yes, it knows, and that’s why it’s starting with something dumb like sports.)
Two, Twitter thinks it can save its much-maligned box of trending topics. I wrote here earlier this week that it’s time to end “trending” modules, which are easily gamed and provide little benefit to users. This seemed particularly evident over the weekend, when an explosion of conspiracy theories related to the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein overtook Twitter trends.
I asked Yoel Roth, who leads platform integrity efforts at Twitter, whether Twitter wouldn’t have more platform integrity were a thing of the past. He told me that he thought trends ought to be fixed, rather than canceled. “It’s a major area of investment for us to make trending topics more reliable,” he said.
One reason all those conspiracy theories appeared in the trending box is that … many people really were tweeting them, Roth said. The company did not find large-scale efforts to manipulate trends, such as with bots. There was a genuine and sincere spike of insanity on Twitter and it was accurately reflected in the trending box.
Still, Roth allowed, “the experience wasn’t what we wanted.” When multiple hashtags about a single topic trend, Twitter usually stitches them together into one. (The whole thing would have seemed less terrible if the trend was “Jeffrey Epstein” rather than dueling hashtags over which president was behind his death.) But that didn’t happen this time, due to bugs.
The company also argues that Twitter trends provide a useful view of what people are talking about on the platform, even when what they’re talking about is extremely dumb or wrong, and that it’s one of few places on the platform where people can easily escape the echo chamber of their timeline.
I don’t find any of this particularly convincing, but if you wonder why Twitter trends still endure, there you go.
Finally, Twitter should think about whether it’s too fast for democracy to withstand. I asked Beykpour whether Twitter’s product teams were thinking at all about speed, and what that does to the body politic. I was influenced by two good pieces I read recently on the subject — Robin Sloan’s argument that there should be an upper limit on how many people can read a tweet; and Margaret Sullivan’s call for a new “slow news” movement.
Beykpour told me that the team had talked about speed, but noted that speed has historically been Twitter’s signature advantage over its competitors. Other places slow the pace of posts via algorithms that make it harder for individuals to reach their audiences; Twitter delivers a real-time feed of information that makes it addictive for many of us.
In the wake of (*gestures broadly at everything*), and while Twitter is still rethinking its core incentives, speed seems ripe for reconsideration. 

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And finally ...
Michael Heller
Just yesterday, @CaseyNewton wrote about why Twitter's "trending" topics need to end, and today the word "The" is at the top of my trending list. I'm 97% sure Twitter is just trolling us now.
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