Twitter, Baskets of Hands, and the Incentive Problem

 

I should state up front that I do not use Twitter. I have occasionally followed a link to Twitter, but I don’t linger there. It is a confusing mess that seems to bring out the very worst in people. It seems that Twitter is starting to realize this, and to understand that the solution may not be in controlling who has access to Twitter, but in how the system rewards its users. We all respond to incentives. We all, to some degree, are rewards junkies – when certain behaviors are rewarded, we repeat and amplify those behaviors to receive more of those rewards. Twitter’s problem, as its CEO Jack Dorsey has begun to understand, is that it rewards awful behavior, rage, groupthink, bullying, and dehumanizing its users.  A Buzzfeed article from May 15th details how Twitter is experimenting with a new interface – one that reduces the incentives for the worst of behavior, and perhaps restores some humanity.

In its early years Twitter optimized for engagement, which engagement features (replies, and the like and retweet buttons) and metrics (number of followers, likes, retweets, and replies) help to deliver. So now it’s trying to shift what it encourages people to do.

Advertisement revenue largely funds Twitter, and advertisers pay based on how often their ads are seen by Twitter users. For Twitter to maximize revenue, therefore, it needs to keep people active and engaged on the platform, and to keep them engaged it needs a constant churn of tweets. These tweets can either form conversations, or they can be endless re-tweets of what others have said, either to support or tear them down. Their character limit precludes long-form replies, so what gets attention tends to be either the outrageous or the pithy. The incentives at play are the accumulation of followers, as well as replies, retweets, and likes — the more people you get to follow you, the more your tweets are recirculated, the more people respond to them either in outrage or support (or outrage at the support, etc.), and the more they are liked, the more you as a user are rewarded, and the more attention you get. With hundreds of millions of users worldwide, a large count of followers helps you to rise above the din – especially as those followers will retweet your own work to people who would otherwise not know who you are. This system is especially good at rewarding outrage and anger – there are ample incentives to be horrible, and to band together with other horrible people either for prestige or protection. And Twitter is losing members.

One user, @matthewreid, replying to Stone, summed up the issues facing Twitter nicely: “A quick scroll through many of these replies illustrates what made this place I love so toxic. Bullying. Mob mentality. Insufferable knowitalls.” Twitter CEO Dorsey has admitted the same himself: “I also don’t feel good about how Twitter tends to incentivize outrage, fast takes, short term thinking, echo chambers, and fragmented conversation and consideration.”

In 1998, Adam Hochschild published King Leopold’s Ghost, about how Leopold II of Belgium, through fraud and barbarism, carved out the Congo River basin as his personal slave plantation and turned it into one of the worst examples of colonialism ever to darken human history. The podcast series Our Fake Historyhosted by Sebastian Major, recently ran a three-part series exploring both this book and other source material on the Congo. One of the especially notable horrors of that time was how human hands became a sort of nightmarish currency of trade. You see, colonial troops would be issued ammunition for their rifles, but were not allowed to expend that ammunition except for “legitimate” cases of need. If you used all of your allotment of ammo, you would not be issued more without proof. What was that required proof? The severed hands of the people you shot. Of course, in a small skirmish, one might fire many rounds that would miss, or fail to kill. Well, better make up those numbers…

In just a couple of years, this led to soldiers massacring or maiming entire villages, tribes raiding and slaughtering other tribes to have hands to barter for goods or weapons, and all manner of other brutalities one can envision. Terrible incentives lead to terrible behavior.

Twitter’s incentives (particularly likes and retweets) reward vanity, rage, and humiliation — we’re not seeing the bartering of severed hands, but we are seeing the rewarding of other forms of dehumanizing behavior. Whatever behavior you reward, you will see more of that behavior. If you reward barbarism, you will get more barbarism. Other social media platforms are suffering similar problems:

Twitter is not alone in this. Tech leaders across the industry are rethinking the role of their platforms’ incentives, in response to mounting criticism that technology platforms do more harm than good. Instagram is running a test where like counts are hidden to followers, but are viewable by the post’s account holder. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri told BuzzFeed News that the test wasn’t about incentivizing specific behavior but “about creating a less pressurized environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves” and focus less on like counts.

If this pans out, it may tone down the rewarding of vanity. But there are other pressures at play. In the current structure, conversations are often impossible just due to the scale and the nature of the feed — it’s nearly impossible to tell who is replying to whom, or to which comment.. Moreover, aside from a Twitter user name and profile picture, you may know nothing about to whom you are replying. Are they really a Russian troll (as you’ve just accused them of being), or are they a married mother of three in suburban Atlanta? Unless you take the time to look into that user’s profile, you do not know, and unless you look at their other tweets, you do not know if their comment (which so enraged you into shouting back) is at all reflective of who they are. Maybe you don’t know the context, or the person at the other end?

Haider explained, “If you can see who you’re replying to, then you may change the tone in which you reply. I know this anecdotally, when people tweet [redacted] to me, and I respond, right? Imagine if in this reply state, you could actually see ‘oh, this person’s a father of two.’”

Beykpour acknowledged that the feature feels “tiny” but said Twitter is starting to “tug on this string” related to empathy: “How do you surface context around who this person is, but ideally also give you a little bit of empathy around who you’re talking to? It’s harder to have an uncivil dialogue with someone that you know a little bit more about than if it was an anonymous face.”

He added, “Civility is one really important aspect of [healthy conversations]. It’s very difficult for people to feel like they can speak freely, if they don’t feel safe enough to speak in the first place.”

There have been a number of arguments on Ricochet and elsewhere about “deplatforming” and the rights of Twitter and others to kick off especially awful users like Alex Jones or Louis Farrakhan. Ultimately, though, I would argue that booting people off, or blocking them, is a last resort. If you get to the point on a platform where you have to ban a number of bad actors, then it is time to look at the platform itself and try to adjust it such that the bad actors themselves have less incentive to join the platform and abuse it in the first place — you cannot reward them, and you must find ways to reward those who try to keep the forum civil. It’s actually similar to how a lot of corporate employee handbooks evolve — there are rules in those books for certain behaviors because someone, at some time in the past, exploited how things used to work (I joke that my own company handbook has several “Person X Memorial Rules” because I can point directly to the series of incidents that led to that specific rule being in there). You have to have a system that rewards the behavior you want, or what your best customers want, or what your employees need and want.

It will be interesting to see if Twitter or the other social media giants can rebuild themselves, and I do wonder at what new incentives they are, perhaps unwittingly, creating. Will Twitter become less of howling mob than it now is? Hard to say. But all online forums, large and small, have to grapple with what behaviors they are rewarding, and what they are punishing, and whether they are even aware of it. Leopold II claimed he wasn’t rewarding the maiming of others (though his defense was itself horrible — he claimed that cutting off the hands meant his subjects wouldn’t be able to work for him, so he would have suggested cutting other things off). I’m sure Dorsey at Twitter never thought he would be psychologically rewarding the very behavior he now laments, though the evidence is now clear that this is exactly what his platform does. Twitter as it now stands rewards people for being terrible to each other. If they are able to remake their system to end that, I wish them well.

Published in Science & Technology
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There are 11 comments.

  1. Stina Member

    It’s interesting that Dorsey is taking this failures of his platform seriously and seeking to improve it in meaningful ways…

    However, empathy isn’t learned in sound bytes… it can be learned from reading stories and interacting face to face with people.

    I don’t really know how technology gets around that.

    Perhaps making physical event creation more prominent on the platforms (as organization is far easier in social media), but it largely is not their purview to facilitate people interacting in their communities.

    I like that facebook has community pages, but Facebook is just so clunky and awkward now.

    • #1
    • May 16, 2019, at 9:36 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Percival Thatcher

    Last year Twitter lost 23% of its valuation in one go. Cited reasons were a dropoff in user activity and fewer original tweets. Will hounding off “the haters” fix any of that?

    • #2
    • May 16, 2019, at 9:44 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. Old Bathos Member

    I was trying to imagine what would happen if we linked this post on Twitter.. what kind of response would we get? Maybe something like this:

    TrumpMustDie @DeploableKiller456 If you don’t like what you find on Twitter, go away and die. #Death2WhtePrivlige

    Jewel X Gender @RoeMyBody The first ones to bitch about intolerint behavior on Twitter are usully Natzi white supremicists like you #Die&RotInHell

    Green Warrior Bob @MyPlanetYes BooHoo, the planet is dying and your tweet feelings are hurt. #TrumpIsTheDevil

    • #3
    • May 16, 2019, at 10:00 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  4. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    Percival (View Comment):

    Last year Twitter lost 23% of its valuation in one go. Cited reasons were a dropoff in user activity and fewer original tweets. Will hounding off “the haters” fix any of that?

    I think it just might. There are a lot of people who might be inclined to use Twitter if they had some reasonable expectation that they don’t attract mob attention, or that a 5 year old tweet wouldn’t be taken out of context and cost them their job.

    • #4
    • May 16, 2019, at 10:05 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    Stina (View Comment):
    However, empathy isn’t learned in sound bytes… it can be learned from reading stories and interacting face to face with people.

    I agree on the sound bites – you cannot easily interact or tell stories within those severe character limits. But while I agree that face to face interactions are wonderful, they are not the only means, else we wouldn’t have story tellers. One can still learn empathy by interacting online, if one slows down and avoids reflexive responses.

    • #5
    • May 16, 2019, at 10:08 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Ed G. Member

    Sex sells. Controversy sells. Outrageousness sells. Safe doesn’t sell. Or, at least it’s not particularly interesting. Safe can easily entomb us in a museum instead of living relevancy. Edgy can easily lead us to doom. Tradeoffs. 

    Same as with civil society, we can lay out a structure with broad parameters – no incitement, fraud, etc. More than that gets tyrannical and authoritarian. Back when we had more homogeneous communities we could probably agree on something like “community decency standards”. Now not so much: everything is relative, everyone is used to having it their way on their time (ultra customization). Besides – such a community if it could be recreated wouldn’t exactly be atwitter in constant conversation.

    But is social media like civil society? Or is it more like a club within a broader civil society? It’s billed as the first but increasingly acts like the second. That’s not a winning recipe. 

     

    • #6
    • May 16, 2019, at 11:05 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Hank Rhody-Badenphipps Esq Contributor

    SkipSul: In just a couple of years, this led to soldiers massacring or maiming entire villages, tribes raiding and slaughtering other tribes to have hands to barter for goods or weapons, and all manner of other brutalities one can envision. Terrible incentives lead to terrible behavior.

    Girl at work comes with the last name ‘Leopold’. I could tell she had married into it by the way she didn’t even flinch when I said “If you ever need me to give you a hand let me know.”

    • #7
    • May 16, 2019, at 12:00 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  8. Old Bathos Member

    It isn’t just the utterly horrific things done to the people in the Congo. It is the embarrassment of being colonized by a third-rate power like Belgium. France, maybe. The British, certainly. But Belgium? It is a measure of the enormous advantage imparted to Europe by the Industrial Revolution and all the cultural and cognitive changes that gave rise it that Belgium was able to project power into a different hemisphere.

    • #8
    • May 16, 2019, at 12:29 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Hank Rhody-Badenphipps Esq Contributor

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    It isn’t just the utterly horrific things done to the people in the Congo. It is the embarrassment of being colonized by a third-rate power like Belgium. France, maybe. The British, certainly. But Belgium? It is a measure of the enormous advantage imparted to Europe by the Industrial Revolution and all the cultural and cognitive changes that gave rise it that Belgium was able to project power into a different hemisphere.

    White Privilege, got it.

    • #9
    • May 16, 2019, at 1:02 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. WillowSpring Member

    I have joined 3 “social sites” – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I was coerced into Facebook when my mother died and my younger relatives decided that Facebook would be a good way to coordinate plans for the funeral. That was ok, but then Facebook continued to try to connect me to kids like my nephews schoolmates. I got out of it as soon as I could.

    I joined LinkedIn specifically to be able to write a recommendation for a former employee. I even got one consulting reference from it, and I am still in it, even though I am retired. I mostly ignore all of the pleas to “Link” with someone.

    I used Twitter to follow Trump, Gorka and Brett Bair, but the interfaces that I have found have been so awful and the unwanted junk (NBA highlights) drive me crazy. It is only inertia that keeps me from stopping.

    My wife used to use Facebook to track a group involved in Deerhounds, but even in that group, the politics (all left leaning) has caused her to quit.

    These days, Ricochet and similar sites are all I depend on for that type of community.

     

    • #10
    • May 16, 2019, at 3:03 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  11. Slow on the uptake Thatcher

    The threads we have on Ricochet: Can you imagine them on FB/Twit? Hardly! 

    I am not persuaded that the cost/benefit ratio is sufficient to recommend Twitter or FB regardless of how they are massaged.

    (As an aside, I wonder how much business would Snopes and their ilk have were FB/Twit to go away.)

    • #11
    • May 16, 2019, at 4:53 PM PDT
    • 2 likes