Twitter’s Certainty Problem

Definitiveness is one of Twitter's core characteristics. Should it be?

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Twitter’s Certainty Problem

Twitter is a game played on certainty, where nuance goes to die. The tweets with absolutist statements tend to collect the most retweets, no matter how loose their relationship with reality. And since retweets are the Twitter game’s points — used for reach, influence, and earning potential — people tend to be as definitive as possible on the service, even under the most uncertain of circumstances. 

Because Twitter rewards taking a stance, doing so quickly, and lining up with tribal sympathies, it encourages people to share news with definitive framing, even before events conclude. This extends beyond news, to people too. Twitter users regularly judge each other with absolutism, distilling multi-dimensional humans into caricatures based on a single tweet, thread, or video. No matter the cost of being wrong about someone’s character or intent, to win on Twitter is to be sure about them. 

Twitter’s certainty problem can be amusing at times, such as when a sizable portion of the service’s 200 million daily users become ‘experts’ on the topic of the day, like meme stocks, eclipses, or cicadas. And certainty on its own isn’t bad either. But the service’s pervasive false assuredness damages our understanding of the world around us, and each other. This, ultimately, is a design problem. One that needs fixing. 

The Twitter feature that amplifies false certainly most egregiously is its trending column, something Nate Silver this week called a “bat signal for idiots.” More charitably, Twitter’s Trends are engagement bait that entice us to chime in on hot topics. Trends can be harmless. But too often, they invite us to form definitive opinions on a person, no matter how obscure, based on just a few tweets, or even just one. So we get Bean Dad, Shrimp Guy, and a cast of characters whose lives are disrupted — or destroyed — for the sake of entertainment. 

Some want Twitter to remove trends completely, but that’s tough to imagine. Twitter is about knowing what’s in the moment, so trends are important. But is it too much to ask for some monitoring? Perhaps Twitter’s editorial team can ask whether a layperson is deserving of placement in Trends, and remove them if not. Why subject them to a pile-on? Why encourage behavior where people eviscerate fellow users, who they previously never met, just for the engagement?

The certainty problem is a bit more complicated when it comes to news. Too often, news organizations are overconfident they know something when there’s plenty of grey area. Think, for instance, of the initial underreaction to Covid (it’s the flu) and the assumption that the lab leak hypothesis was discredited.

Twitter can, however, slow its platform a bit to make news sharing more thoughtful. It’s started that, in part, by asking users if they’d like to read a story before retweeting, a move it said led to 40% more link clicks and fewer retweets generally. A Twitter employee hinted this week that more changes of this nature are on the way. It’s time to test them and roll them out where successful. 

Human beings naturally view each other — and the world around them — with nuance. When going about real life, we learn to appreciate complexity. Online, some of that complexity will inevitably go away as a consequence of scale. But it doesn’t mean we should be satisfied living in a world where false certainty is the norm.

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Further Reading:

Do we really need influencers’ Israel-Palestine hot takes? (Vox)

The internet is flat (Galaxy Brian)

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