Shaping User Behavior Gently

As Twitter continues to get slammed from every imaginable angle, I can’t help but think that the platform has stopped growing for one simple reason: It’s pain-to-pleasure ratio, PTPR, is too high.

Say what? There’s too much pain on Twitter?

Yes, that’s precisely what I’m saying. On Twitter, fights erupt over the smallest things. And it seems, from personal experience, that someone is always looking for an opportunity to transform a simple opinion into a veiled, highly-coded attack. Twitter is kind of like Choose Your Own Adventure, the Snarky, Self-Important Know-nothing Edition.

It was obvious to me from my second startup that there’s something like a natural law of social:

All social platforms and services have to manage PTPR very carefully. If a company fails to do this, its growth, user retention and monetization will all be negatively affected.

That particular company had a location-based social feed that was very much like Twitter. While we were building the platform, we experimented with different ways of trying to incentivize civil behavior and discourage abuse. We did this to no avail, by the way. It’s a really difficult problem.

So that raises a critical question: Why has Twitter failed to manage PTPR properly? Part of the answer is that Twitter rewards trolling behavior. Say something incendiary, and one’s supporters and detractors will both republish your verbal refuse, albeit for different reasons. In other words, being a jerk increases your popularity on Twitter.

Another problem is that Twitter is an agora full of strangers who will probably never have to cooperate with one another in the real world. Now, this isn’t always true, as Twitter has been used to solve collective action problems, thereby allowing like-minded people to organize to effect political, social and economic ends. However, in general there’s really no social glue to hold Twitter users together.

A third and final reason is that Twitter has no sheriff, no one whose official responsibility is keeping the peace. This is why issuing a threat against someone via Twitter is unlikely to result in any kind of legitimate sanction. Quite the contrast with Facebook, I would say, since any one of your 3K friends can complain that one of your posts is offensive, inappropriate or spammy.

Where does this leave Twitter? At the moment, I’m not sure. But I will say this: By failing to build the platform from day 1 with a strategy for managing PTPR, Twitter created its own Achilles heel.

Look for a longer piece on Twitter’s future from me shortly. Until then, take care.

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