on death (on the timeline), bad branding, worse incentives, power to the poasters, your attention belongs to you
There is only one word to describe the X (formerly Twitter) timeline these days: barbaric.
X is a unique platform on the internet. Even if the platform was never worth the 44 billion dollar price tag, it was necessary for someone to buy it and set it on a better trajectory. When Elon first made his bid to purchase Twitter, I was optimistic. Twitter appeared to be dying a slow death. The censorship of the platform under prior management was egregious and needed to end. Not only did it inadvertently fuel conspiracies but, according to the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court, it violated Americans’ first amendment rights.
There is a clear need for a social media platform that is firmly aligned with free expression and has users with a broad range of perspectives. Every Twitter clone has failed to capture a significant share of its user base. While I understand that X is a global company, America needs a public square to figure out our differences, whether you think it’s a ‘marketplace of ideas’ or an ‘information war’. If we cannot speak freely and argue with one another, more people will be radicalized and come to believe that violence is an acceptable answer.
Beyond free expression, X is a platform where people connect for all sorts of positive-sum adventures. Marriages have started from a humble DM. Business partners connect on the timeline. People make friends with like-minded and like-vibed people all throughout the world. My social life in Austin is downstream of innumerable friendships made through Twitter. Sorry for calling it Twitter but the alternative ”...friendships made through X '' sounds terrible. Unless the goal is to make it difficult to talk about, the rebrand to X is bad.
No one wants to say “I’m a content creator on X.”
You’re a what? Does your family know you’re doing that?
It makes sense to say “He’s one of my Twitter friends but we’ve known each other for years.” It doesn’t make sense to say “He’s one of my X friends but we’ve known each other for years.” Well, it may make sense as a stand alone sentence, but the response may be, “Why aren’t you friends anymore?” rather than “So you’re sure he’s like a normal person? You’re not afraid to go meet him for a drink?”
Okay the rebrand is bad, but it’s not why I’m concerned about the platform. It’s not the platform name, it’s the violence.
For those who do not know, every day on X there is a new ‘discourse’ or trending topic. If you don’t follow accounts that are plugged into the discourse, you may only see the faintest echoes of it on your feed. But a significant portion of active users will see the daily discourse rip across their timeline. Sometimes it’s political. But usually it’s about dating, sex, or some viral clip that first appeared on TikTok.
Last week, the discourse was firmly focused on the topic of murder and violent crime. There were a string of violent murders that happened in cities throughout the United States. If you’re thinking, “Yeah, and what makes that newsworthy? There will be brutal murders in the United States this week too,” no one can argue with that. But no one person decides what trends, it doesn’t have to be rational. The discourse is an emergent product of the swarm.
On October 1st, Josh Kruger, a journalist and LGBT activist was murdered in his home in Philadelphia. Two days prior to that, he had posted, “The Dilbert dude is like Nostradamus. Look at this prediction from 2020. Wow. Eerie.” in reference to a post made by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, “If Biden is elected, there’s a good chance that you will be dead within the year.” Adams’ tweet was from July 1, 2020 and was intended to use fear to encourage people to vote for Trump. Adams believed that under Biden’s leadership America would be soft on violence and that would lead to a higher homicide rate. Kruger’s post may have initially had limited reach. However, it later went viral once users found out that he had been murdered shortly after making his post.
The next day, Ryan Carson, a poet and social justice activist was stabbed to death on the sidewalk in Brooklyn in front of his girlfriend. The right wing swarm on X parsed this as a pattern that was reduced to “men who advocate for weak on crime policies became the victims of their bad ideas.” The quality of the discussion was much worse than that. People were celebrating their deaths. Others were writing apologia for murderers, as if the real harm was that two more violent criminals would be sent to prison. Others were being attacked for normal opinions like “dancing on graves is bad” and “murderers need to be removed from polite society.”
And it only got worse. The murder of Ryan Carson was recorded on video and released. The video was posted and reposted by thousands and thousands of accounts on X. The discourse accelerated. It became clear to everyone—at least everyone who hasn’t already lost their mind—that X is not only an aggregator of the worst people you’ve never met but is also actively breaking people’s brains.
I believe that part of the reason for this discourse going so viral, and in the worst way, was the implementation of direct monetization for views. Premium subscribers on X can now receive direct cash payments for the views that their posts receive. This change allows poasters who were otherwise unsuccessful in monetizing their posting addiction to collect a check for no additional work. This created a ‘meta game’ where, even more so than before, large accounts are incentivized to post the most inflammatory and engaging content.
As I put it in a tweet, “ People used to have to figure out how to monetize their followings, now they just post videos of literal murder and collect a check.”
If X wants to improve the quality of the content on its platform, these payments should no longer be offered through this mechanism. X should continue to support its creators financially but do so through a program that is more intentional and judicious. Without a change in policy, I believe that the quality of the discourse will come to reflect the most inflammatory takes of X’s most deranged posters. There are people who should be compensated for their content even if they’re antagonistic and play similar games, but the current policy unnecessarily supercharges the outrage machine. Part of a solution could be to give premium users one monthly ‘free’ paid subscription to a content creator of their choosing, as Twitch offers for Prime subscribers.
There’s many ways to improve the platform and encourage users to pay for the premium version. If you want people to purchase your product, offer them features that they want. Power users want fleets. They want a search function that works. If you want them to spend more time on the platform, implement end-to-end encryption for direct messages so they have less of a reason to switch over to Signal or iMessage for texts. They may even encourage their friends to join and subscribe. Many existing power users are paying third-party services to automate their posts, help them to schedule content, and delete their low-performing posts. Why doesn’t X either build these functionalities into the premium offering or acquire one of these companies? It’s clear that users want these features and are willing to pay for them.
If there are any product managers at X who want to conduct user-interviews, I know a lot of people who may be worth interviewing.
I do not want to see any more murder videos on the timeline. I don’t think they should be banned—as they can be critical to news stories—but existing user affordances, combined with the current incentives, are making the timeline a miserable place. At a minimum, users who are uploading these videos should be prompted with “does this video depict violence, sex, or other content that may be…” and be encouraged to check a box that will place a warning on the content. Community Notes could likewise be granted the authority to add these warnings to content and display them for users who want them. If users do not want to see any warnings on images or videos, let them opt out with a single click in settings. The content does not need to be downranked or otherwise punished. There are solutions to these issues that give users more choice over the quality of their experience without them having to unfollow most large accounts and actively mute words.
For example, the addition of Community Notes has been a game changer for the platform. It is a brilliant, non-coercive solution to the problem of misinformation on the internet. People whose primary motivation is to censor and control the flow of information on the internet would have never considered that it could work. But since the team at X is genuinely interested in building the best platform for sharing ideas, they developed and shipped this elegant solution. There are similar solutions to empower users to deal with unnecessary timeline violence.
For now, I plan to take a hiatus from X. There’s plenty for me to focus my time and attention on elsewhere. Maybe I could log back in and just unfollow and mute 100 accounts and my experience would be fine. But right now feels like a good time to log off, to remember that no one needs to be plugged into the hive mind.
You do not need to watch the murder videos. You can log off. You can choose to read the news with intention, or avoid the news altogether. You can choose to prioritize your local reality instead of flagellating yourself with a bombardment of psychic horrors.
If that feels like you’re turning away from the world, it doesn’t have to. Instead, you can choose to take concrete action to help solve the problems that you care about. Donate. Volunteer. Build. It is much more helpful to take intentional positive action than to opt into collective suffering.
This is my first post as part of the Write of Passage course. It has been an excellent experience so far. There’s been no shortage of support and feedback from the other members of my cohort. It is a great opportunity for me to improve the quality of my writing and build the habits I need to make the most of my talents.
Please consider sharing this post directly with a person who you think may appreciate it, particularly if they’re a product manager at X.
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