Twitter’s abuse problem is starting to seriously harm its business

User engagement on Twitter is stalling as users seek platforms that aren’t clogged with trolling, harassment and vindictive noise

Man walking with smartphone in front of Twitter logo

(Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty)

What’s wrong with Twitter? It’s a question everyone is asking, given its dreadful 2015. User growth has stalled, executives have fled and the stock has fallen off a cliff, provoking much analysis of what the company is doing wrong and what it can do to resume its previous upward trajectory.

And yet, the likely answer to the question comes from the unlikeliest of sources: Brandon Carpenter, a developer who works on Twitter’s iOS app:

His understatement came in regards to the news that Twitter will soon introduce an algorithm that changes what users can see in their timelines. Rather than a just chronological firehouse of tweets, they’ll have the option of switching to a feed that more closely aligns to their tastes.

Many Twitters users, worried that the algorithm approach wouldn’t be optional, lost it over the weekend. The change would be too much and too fundamentally against the immediacy of the platform, they argued. The hashtag #RIPTwitter even trended.

A bewildered Carpenter responded by tweeting what a lot of the company’s employees must have been thinking:

The resulting wave of comments led to the follow-up tweet about people being mean, at which point anyone who has used Twitter for any length of time must have wondered how familiar Carpenter was with his own product.

Yes, people are mean on Twitter—and that’s the problem.

Twitter has its strengths. It’s great for instantly reporting news and sharing links and for many it’s a go-to time-waster—the thing you do when you’re bored and have nothing else going on.

But it also has its weaknesses, with the lack of ability to have proper conversations ranking high on the list. Twitter’s very structure and its 140-character limit make it inordinately difficult for users to engage in reasoned, nuanced and in-depth conversations, especially with strangers.

Consequently, it’s very easy to be mean, or to come across as mean.

Twitter has signed up more than a billion users, yet retained only about a third of them. Timeline views are flat or declining and user engagement—where people actually interact with each other—is declining steadily.

With every message broadcast to the world, and the potential of it being forever enshrined online, it’s no surprise so many users shy away from engaging. Why risk getting into an argument with a stranger, and getting insulted or embarrassed? What is the payoff for doing so?

As far as Twitter is concerned, the “social” part of social media is quickly evaporating. With fewer people interacting, it’s quickly becoming a broadcast medium – a one-way platform not unlike television or radio.

The problem is similar for Facebook, according to a recent Business Insider story. Teens are switching away from larger social networks such as Twitter and Facebook and moving toward more intimate platforms, such as Snapchat and Kik, where they interact primarily with friends.

Teens cite privacy as a key reason for doing so, which means they’re subtly expressing what humanity has collectively learned about communication over the course of centuries: We prefer to do it with people we know and trust, rather than with random strangers who may criticize and shame us publicly.

The idea of being “social” entails a certain decorum, a set of generally understood rules that govern behaviour and steer participants away from being mean to each other. Circles of friends tend to adhere to those rules, but all bets are off in “social” media. We’ve learned to avoid such uncomfortable situations. It’s biological.

Yes, people are mean on Twitter. The service may have a bright future as a one-way broadcast medium, but unless the company’s brain trust can somehow put an end to that meanness, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s doomed as a social communications platform.