What happened to Twitter? Once, it was glorified as a digital town square, where thinkers and activists could come together to discuss and organize. And yet this week, they finally admitted that their growth has stalled – and their stock quickly followed suit.
Twitter and its analysts appear to believe that the slump is due to competition — and so it’s adding new features, buttons, and functions, as fast as it can. But none of these have captured users’ imaginations, much less their interest. Instead, they’ve turned what was an elegant platform into a flashing Las Vegas of GIFs and #trending #spam. The downward spiral continues.
I think the answer’s hidden in plain sight. In case you don’t use Twitter, the unfortunate fact is that today, it’s less like a town square and something more like a mosh pit. Not just freewheeling, irreverent, and rambunctious, but plagued by harassment, abuse, bullying, intimidation, threats — a ceaseless flickering hum of low-level emotional violence.
It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots of a rise in abuse on Twitter — both its quantity and savagery — and a startling decline in engagement.
Although social media and what is quaintly called “real life” have drawn closer and closer together since Twitter’s launch, there’s still an important distinction. And it’s not just about anonymity on the web, which is increasingly less of a thing. The social incentives online still somehow work in reverse. Consider: call a dozen strangers names in real life, and you’ll probably get punched in the face six times. Punch six people in the face, and at least one of them is likely to call the police. But do it digitally, and 1,000 fake friends will magically appear from nowhere and actually cheer you on, while the tech companies hosting the mob won’t do much to stop (much less prevent) it. Hence, a downward spiral of cruelty.
Twitter’s central problem is low-quality interaction: abuse. But it’s not just Twitter’s problem. We can see it everywhere.
Abuse has become something like a systematized feature of life as we know it, in this age of discontent — and maybe that’s why it is an age of discontent. We expect to be mistreated by our bosses, ripped off by contracts we can’t read, swindled by fine print and hidden clauses, deceived by our politicians, and misrepresented by our representatives… and now, on the medium where we spend the majority of our waking lives, heckled and bullied by complete strangers.
In turn, we internalize the lessons of abuse, becoming little abusers ourselves. We expect to have to mistreat our customers, exploit our communities, bully our peers, cut corners, manipulate our colleagues, bail on our obligations, package the lowest common denominator at the highest possible price as a miracle-in-a-can… not just if we want to get ahead, but merely to anxiously tread water. And though it takes different forms, abuse is essentially what’s being piped through the tubes of the internet, or through the headquarters of VW, and into the water of Flint, Michigan.
The tech industry turns a blind eye to it. Courts excuse it. And abuse stops being the exception, and becomes the rule. We grow accustomed not just to the abuse itself, but to the fact that nothing’s going to be done about it. It’s treated as a customer service problem, or a PR crisis, not a core business issue.
But today, the business of most businesses isn’t just mass-manufacturing product (industrial age), plastering slightly slicker stickers on it (branding age), or even gleaning vital intelligence faster than rivals (information age). The business of most businesses is interaction. Why? For the simple reason that people can interact with institutions in ways that they never could before — on Twitter, yes, and also a dozen other ways. But if those interactions are going to be painful, difficult, tedious, pointless, much less abusive — if they’re scary, frightening, dreadful — would you blame anyone for shaking their heads and walking hurriedly away?
Today, we live in a world of strikingly dismally low-quality interactions. Can you remember the last time you really enjoyed going to the big-box store, bank, hospital, post office, theater, mall, gym … instead of secretly dreading it like a bad date? (Consider: why is the line for the self-checkout at the grocery store, or at Home Depot, or at CVS always the longest?) Can you remember the last time you didn’t expect to have to squabble with your mobile operator, cable provider, bank, HMO… just to notget ripped off?
In an age of interaction, the simplest path to advantage is higher quality interaction. Abuse isn’t a nuisance that’s peripheral to “real” strategic issues. It is the central strategic issue. Offering low-quality interactions in an omni-connected world is just like selling defective products, the interaction age equivalent of faulty auto parts in the industrial age, or false advertising in the branding age.
If we’re going to fix Twitter, or anything else, we must put people’s well being before our own institutional performance — because the former drives the latter. Here’s the rule that we must remember: High quality interactions expand human potential. Low quality interactions reduce, diminish, and shrink it. Thus, learning to produce high versus settling for low quality interactions is one of the great challenges of competence for institutions today. They’ve never really had to do it before — but if they don’t do it now, most of them are probably going to end up like Twitter: not just devalued by the stock market … but dwindling slowly into social, economic, and cultural insignificance … without a clue as to why.
Umair Haque is Director of Havas Media Labs and author of Betterness: Economics for Humans and The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business. He is ranked one of the world’s most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50. Follow him on twitter @umairh.
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