A Eulogy for Twitter

The beloved social publishing platform enters its twilight.
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We've been trying to figure out the moment Twitter turned, retracing tweets to see whether there was something specific that soured the platform. 

Something is wrong on Twitter. And people are noticing. 

Or, at least, the kind of people we hang around with on Twitter are noticing. And it's maybe not a very important demographic, this very weird and specific kind of user: audience-obsessed, curious, newsy. Twitter's earnings last quarter, after all, were an improvement on the period before, and it added 14 million new users for a total of 255 million. The thing is: Its users are less active than they once were. Twitter says these changes reflect a more streamlined experience, but we have a different theory: Twitter is entering its twilight.

The publishing platform that carried us into the mobile Internet age is receding. Its influence on publishing will remain, but the platform's place in Internet culture is changing in a way that feels irreversible and echoes the tradition of AIM and pre-2005 blogging. A lot of this argument comes down to what we feel. Communities can't be fully measured by how many people are in them. So as we suss out cultural changes, relying on first-hand experience is a first step. 

Twitter used to be a sort of surrogate newsroom/barroom where you could organize around ideas with people whose opinions you wanted to assess. Maybe you wouldn't agree with everybody, but that was part of the fun. But at some point Twitter narratives started to look the same. The crowd became predictable, and not in a good way. Too much of Twitter was cruel and petty and fake. Everything we know from experience about social publishing platforms—about any publishing platforms—is that they change. And it can be hard to track the interplay between design changes and behavioral ones. In other words, did Twitter change Twitter, or did we? 

* * *

But maybe there's a better question to ask first: Which Twitter did we lose?

Looking back, 2013 Twitter was basically a hangover to 2012 Twitter, when we could imagine leaving the platform some day but not anytime soon. Or maybe we're chasing the ghost of 2011 Twitter. It was a hectic feed then, a staticky mess of affiliate notifications, manual retweets, and Foursquare checkins. Remember 2010 Twitter? The year it seemed everyone had finally caved and signed up. The Arab Spring made people optimistic about the platform as a transformative force. Roger Ebert and Rob Delaney ruled. 2009 Twitter is a blur and the disjointedness of 2008 Twitter is hard to remember at this point. Before that, people weren't even having conversations on the platform. Not really. 

It's funny that we delineate Twitter eras by the year, or that we even can, because the platform is so fixated on the "right now." Describing Twitter by year can feel like counting raindrops in the ocean.

Besides, the Twitter worth talking about transcends all those other Twitters. When it was good—when it is good—Twitter created an environment characterized by respect and jokes so funny you wanted to show the person sitting next to you in real life. Not agreeing could be productive, and could happen without devolving into histrionics. The positive feedback loop of faves and interactions didn't hurt, either. 

As such, the idea that Twitter's 140-character format precludes it from being a place for depth has always been a red herring. But there are legitimate questions about how the format can scale. Sometimes it helps to picture Twitter as a network of overlapping concentric circles—made bigger by retweets, modified tweets, interactions, faving, hate-faving, subtweeting, snarking, trolling, etc., etc., until they get so big and the network gets so crowded that you can't see the circles themselves anymore. 

For a long time, we would’ve told people that if they weren't having a good time on Twitter, they weren't following the right people. This was code for you haven’t found the right network yet. And there are still great accounts on the platform, even great networks, but many of them are becoming more fragmented than ever—even as Twitter has changed functionalities in ways that seem designed to prompt interactions and conversations. Maybe this was inevitable. Fragmentation is a fundamental part of how people interact with information online; it's how we socialize offline, too. 

People are still using Twitter, but they’re not hanging out there.

* * *

Maybe the issue is that Twitter hasn't been growing in the right way to sustain highly engaged users. 

From the beginning, there were a few useful precepts that those of us who have obsessed over the platform had to believe. First, you had to believe that someone else out there was paying attention, or better, that a significant portion—not just 1 or 2 percent—of your followers might see your tweet. Second, you had to believe that skilled and compelling tweeting would increase your follower count. Third, you had to believe there was a useful audience you couldn’t see, beyond your timeline—a group you might want to follow one day.

Those fictions have proven foolish, one-by-one. The service is filled with spam accounts: The median tweeter has just one measly follower, so how many of your followers are real people? The growth of Twitter, year-over-year, has plunged since 2011. And the tensions of Twitter’s inherent (and explicit) attention market seem to push and pull it in odd, fractal ways: to keep your Twitter timeline slow is to stop following others, to stop following others is to stop exploring the service (and to reduce the number of folks who can find you), to stop exploring the service is to get bored.

Twitter users may just get too good at tweeting, too. When a new user joins Twitter, it takes time for them to figure out what they're doing. You get to see all the visible seams in their work—the misunderstood conventions and misapplied hashtags—and the service becomes fresher in their naivete. Here’s a new friend to hang out with! The new user, too, gets to interact with new people and establish his or her voice. It’s an exciting thing to watch, but as growth slows, the excitement does, too.

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Presented by

Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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