It's in our best interest to fix Twitter
And the entire internet.
There’s an episode of the show Mythic Quest in which the eponymous role-playing video game becomes inundated with Nazis. Specifically, a group of players start using their world-building tools to dig swasticas in the game—it’s a PR nightmare.
Now the video game designers have a conundrum: they want to ban Nazis—and all hate groups—from the platform, but when they do the math they realize that would eliminate 98% of their players. They want to ban them, but they kind of can’t.
I’m late to this show, but I’m obsessed. It’s basically a microcosm of our tech culture and this episode felt premoniscient of the Twitter drama in a way I haven’t been able to quite put my finger on until now. Particularly because Twitter faces a similar problem—actually, the entire internet does.
The problem is that the more sensational something is, the more it attracts attention on the internet.
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Imagine, for instance, that Kanye says something sensational on Twitter. If his followers react to it any way (and how can they not? It’s sensational!) their followers will see it too. And if any of their followers react to it in any way (and how can they not? It’s sensational!!), well their followers see it too.
Pretty soon it’s at the top of every Twitter feed. Whether your response is “hell yeah!” or “I can’t believe this perspective exists!” both responses are a net negative for humanity—they fuel the topic. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re on Twitter or not because—it’s so sensational that now the media picks it up and splashes it across a hundred headlines.
Suddenly we’re all talking about it—and all the implications of it—on every news station, every late show, SNL. It’s in the best interest of the media to get involved, you know—they need eyes on their articles, which get them more impressions on their advertisements, which make them more money. Sensational things are good for business, they suck us—and the advertisers—right in.
And that’s… bad. Because all that sensationalism is distorting our worldview. We talk about these topics as if they are a macrocosm of our culture, when in fact they are a microcosm. We think it represents the majority, when in fact it represents the minority.
Our perception is that the world is full of violence, that mass shootings are a threat to our safety and our children are at risk of gun violence, that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, that poverty is a worldwide epidemic, and authoritarian governments are sniffing out democracy. The much less sensational headline is that all of these things are totally and unequivocally untrue.
Quick montage of proof points:
According to Gallup, “Americans are more likely to perceive crime in the U.S. as having increased over the prior year (78%) than they have been at any point since 1993.” This is despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, violent crimes have been on the decline throughout the same time period.
Despite the fact that mass shootings have become a pervasive part of our lives, in the U.S. only 792 people have died in such incidents since 1999, making it an important threat to address but also a much smaller one than say road accidents (932,188 deaths), drownings (78,028 deaths), and even airplanes (10,681 deaths between 1999 and 2020).
Though 61% of people think childhood mortality is either stagnant or on the rise, our children are safer than ever before. Worldwide, the youth mortality rate has been cut in half since 1990. In the United States, the youth mortality rate is less than a quarter of what it was in 1950.
Though 52% of people think extreme poverty is rising, the exact opposite is true. Economic growth in low-income countries has led to a steep decline in poverty worldwide. Some economists believe that a 5 fold increase in the economy will eradicate poverty worldwide.
Not only is extreme poverty on its way out, but economic growth is raising all income levels. In fact, the World Bank no longer refers to developing vs. developed countries but low-income, middle-income, and high-income countries. According to the book Factfulness, 75% of humanity now live in middle-income countries—only 9% live in low-income countries.
Though sensationalist presidents might make it seem like democracy is on the decline, it’s actually on the rise. Remember: it was only 200 years ago that all governments were autocracies, and they’ve been steadily on the decline ever since. We are finally at a point where about half the global population lives in democracies. Of those still living in autocracies, four out of five live in China.
If you really want to feel good about humanity and how far we’ve come I strongly recommend reading the Future Crunch story, “99 good stories you probably didn’t hear about in 2022.” As if to highlight my point, the subtitle reads: “the world didn’t fall apart this year—you just got your news from the wrong places.”
Because none of these things make it into our everyday news cycle, we enter a state of future pessimism. Some call this trend “declinism,” others call it “doomerism,” but the end result is that overexposure to niche perspectives has an outsized influence on our worldview. As a result, more than half of people think things will stay the same or get worse from here.
And we are absolutely making voting decisions based on that distorted worldview. For example: our perception of crime has an actual effect on our justice system, and this has long been a point of contention in the United States. “If the public believes crime is increasing, it is likely that it demands more policing not for a reason grounded in reality, but for an imagined worsening of the society they live in.”
In other words: our perception shapes our reality. And right now we have the wrong perception.
It’s kind of our fault—we are biologically primed for the sensational. In his recent Netflix comedy special, Aziz Ansari poked fun at our Pavlovian response to drama:
“If we just figured out clean sanitation in the developing world we’d be able to save….”
“There’s a lot of sweatshop labor out there still and if we could just…..”
“Timothee Chalomet threw a boba tea at some Asian guy in Washington Square Park…”
Ansari deep dives into a fictional media spiral in which outrage sparks across the internet. Does Chalomet hate Asians??? But boba tea is Asian!!!! Oh wait, Chalomet just issued a statement saying that he accidentally spilled tea on some guy in the park and he feels so bad and he totally DOESN’T hate Asians. But wait! Now there’s a video that shows him rearing his hand back like maybe it was intentional!?? But maybe that just a deep fake!!!!!????
“What should we do?!!” Ansari pantomimes anxiously. “Let’s keep track of this and keep talking about it every day for two weeks even though it has nothing to do with our lives!!!!”
This fictional scenario might as well have been the actional debut of Olivia Wilde’s film Don’t Worry Darling. I’ll admit, TikTok served the whole thing up to me on a silver platter and I ate it right up. The one where the entire cast awkwardly avoids one another during a photoshoot? WHY DO THEY ALL HATE EACH OTHER? The one where it looks like Harry Styles spit on Chris Pine???? GOLD. The one where Chris Pine is totally disassociating from Harry Styles?? I HAVE NEVER LAUGHED SO HARD.
But if we are biologically primed for the drama then the media is taking advantage of that, stirring us into a frenzy in their clamor for our attention. They know that anything Kayne says will get more likes than the announcement that we finally have a malaria vaccine. Harry Styles spitting on Chris Pine will always get more views than India’s Supreme Court protecting abortion. Trump yelling about a rigged election will always go more viral than the fact that China has reduced more air pollution in seven years than the U.S. has in three decades. A school shooting that kills 10 children will always get more pageviews than 415 million people getting out of poverty.
As Our World in Data points out: “Every day in the last decade newspapers could have had the headline ‘The number of people living on more than 10 dollars per day increased by 245,000 since yesterday.” But they don’t—that wouldn’t get our attention, and it certainly wouldn’t sell ads. As a result, the part of the world we see on a daily basis is the intensely hateful, needlessly dramatic, supremely fascist, less than equitable, and erroneously pessimistic part. The part that grabs our attention. The part that makes us feel like something bad might happen at any moment—that keeps us on the edge of our seats watching. The part that sells.
But there is an alternate universe for Twitter, and indeed the media at large. One in which someone says something sensational and… nothing happens. It doesn’t get surfaced to the masses. It doesn’t spread. Unless you really try to find it, you won’t. You are no longer exposed to the niche worldview of whoever says the most outrageous thing or influenced by media outlets vying for your attention—you are only exposed to the voices you follow and trust online.
When Elon Musk purchased Twitter, I had some hope he might fix it. He called the current Twitter situation “code red,” and advocated “to transform Twitter from a social media platform distrusted and despised by at least half the country into one widely trusted by most Americans. To have it fulfill its highest mission: that of a digital town square where all ideas can be heard, and the best will win out.”
Rather than ban individuals or censor what they say, his plan was to allow everyone to be on Twitter but to use the algorithm to de-emphasize negative and hateful tweets. He called it “freedom of speech, not freedom of reach.” And, in the battle against sensationalism, that does seem a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has turned into the very kind of sensationalism he once intended to purge. It has become the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial of company takeovers, with every sentence he says blown into reality television drama for our own entertainment. Headlines say Elon Musk is “killing Twitter,” that he’s “bringing it down,” that “chaos reigns” at the company because he’s trying to lead it by “whim.”
They might be right. Despite Twitter’s claim to allow all accounts, it has already banned several in Musk Era—often related to whether or not Musk likes them. If Twitter has become the dark horse in this media storm then Mastodon has emerged the white hat, an alternative Twitter with a “no toleration” policy for hate and conspiracy theories and a bold claim that “things can’t go viral” there. I temporarily grabbed a Mastodon account to check it out and found only hundreds of viral posts hating Elon Musk and Twitter—I guess that kind of hate is ok?
I’m ambivalent to this battle—to me, it is beside the point, or perhaps illustrative of it. Because for every place we wack-a-mole down the sensational, it only pops up elsewhere. If not on Twitter then on Mastodon, if not on Mastodon then on Truth Social. Wherever there is an algorithm, there will be a reward for the most sensational—and a company with way too much control over it. And our worldviews will continue to be defined by whichever victor wins the war for our attention.
We need to eradicate the very sensationalism that holds our attention captive—I’d even go so far as to say it’s our moral imperative to do so—but it’s not enough to de-emphasize sensationalism, we also have to stop rewarding it. And this is where, if Twitter is still scrambling for a fix, Substack has already found the cure. Quietly, in its own corner of the internet, the publishing platform went on to create the utopian vision for the media I outlined above. And no one noticed because the founders didn’t carry a sink in with them when they did it.
In case you missed it: Substack forgoes the algorithm altogether. The only posts I see are the ones written by writers I subscribe to—and only in the chronological order in which they were published. If someone says something sensational on the platform but I don’t follow them, I won’t see it. Substack doesn’t decide what I read, I do.
That used to be how all social media worked, by the way—remember when the only thing we saw on Instagram was photos from the people we followed, in the order they were posted? Unfortunately, as social media apps went to monetize, they needed a way to get more eyes on ads so they introduced the algorithm—amplifying some posts while de-amplifying others, keeping our attention rapt with virality, while “personalizing” the experience for advertising—and that’s where this whole thing went wrong.
But Substack came up with an alternative: they don’t make money from ads, they make money from subscriptions. Writers aren’t incentivized to get a ton of eyes on one specific piece (something sensational!), they are incentivized to become a trusted voice in media so that readers follow them and support what they are doing as paid subscribers. And because Substack’s only revenue stream is earning 10% of writer incomes, they only succeed if writers do. In this way, Substack doesn’t reward the quick hit, the sensational—it rewards the long-haul, the good. Something a reader is willing to lay down a monthly or yearly subscription for, time and time again.
As Substack co-founderput it, “We believe that the next era of the social internet will be about deep relationships over shallow engagement; signal over noise; and ownership over serfdom. When people have the power over platforms, rather than the other way round, we can have more rewarding social experiences and healthier discourse, where we seek to understand our neighbors rather than score points against them. When the network is funded by paid subscriptions, not ads, trust relationships trump viral content.”
Could Twitter—and all the Twitter-like alternatives—adopt a similar formula? Where it is not the algorithm that decides what we read, but we do based on who we follow? Where it is not the most sensational thing in our feed, but the latest posts by those we follow? Where the platform doesn’t make money from ads and impressions, but from long-term subscriptions? Where authors can share paid posts for their inner circle, and even lock replies to paying subscribers? Where the platform earns a percentage of that revenue and is thus incentivized to become a great place to write, and read? I think so. I think all of these platforms would do well to copy Substack’s working model for the internet—and in fact that it’s in humanity’s best interest to do so.
Personally, I deleted my social media accounts, I started a Substack, I followed a bunch of writers I trust, and I have limited to no exposure to whatever sensational things are happening elsewhere. And I think that’s the ideal. Not just for Twitter, not just for social media, but for the entire media ecosystem. Because if the internet organized itself this way we might finally take back our attention and turn our future pessimism into future optimism. We might have a more accurate worldview. And we might use that worldview to start building a better future.
In the game Mythic Quest, the game engineers decide to tie all the Nazi accounts to an isolated server, an echo chamber. Hate still exists, they are still fighting, but now they’re only hating and fighting one another—no one else can see them. They are blissfully unaware. At the end of the episode, the game’s creative director sits back in his chair and asks: “If a Nazi digs a swastica in the forest and no one’s around to see it, does it really matter?”
Yes, exactly. Does it?
Thank you so much for reading!
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For every 2,000 words I write, I usually read about 200,000 (it’s a blessing and a curse). So I’m trying out a new thing where I share the things I read on a topic as further reading for those who want to dive deeper into a topic. Here’s a trial run. Let me know in the comments if you think this is interesting.