Twitter: why context collapse turns it into a battleground - and drives people away

The very structure of Twitter is creating the toxic atmosphere on there. Can it be fixed without completely reinventing itself?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Ezra Klein has done a compelling job of explaining why Twitter creates conflict:

We write for an audience we think we know, in a vernacular they’ll understand, using reference points they’re familiar with. Six years later, our tweets are weaponized to an audience we don’t know, thick with terms they understand differently, with the reference points completely absent.

The very mechanism of popularity on Twitter propels your jokes far beyond that little enclave of people who will understand them and their context. And they ride to war against a misunderstood miscontextualisation of what you've said:

Twitter is not your friend. It is built to reward us for snarky in-group communication and designed to encourage unintended out-group readership. It fosters both tribalism and tribal collision. It seduces you into thinking you’re writing for one community but it gives everyone the ability to search your words and project them forward in time and space and outward into another community at the point when it’ll do you maximum damage.

This situation isn't helped by the fact that there are people who are on there solely to create that kind of conflict. As Brent Simmons explains, the "good" Twitter is never coming back, because it's infested with bad actors:

Even if it were sold to some entity with energy, resources, smarts, and good intentions, it’s too late. It has celebrities with millions of followers. It has the president. It has millions of accounts using it for unlovable purposes.

And the more good people who quit Twitter, the worse the problem gets.

The argument machine

And people are leaving, as they realise that the problems may not be fixable. As Derek Powazek pointed out five years ago:

I’m not saying that Twitter was designed to create arguments. I’m just saying that, if you set out to create an Argument Machine, it’d come out looking a lot like Twitter.

Nothing that has been done in the last half decade has done anything to ease that. I see that Jack Dorsey is, once again, promising to fix Twitter. Sensibly, he's giving no timescales, because the problems seem to be tied up with the very nature of Twitter as a platform. The changes needed to fix it might well make it into something else entirely.

Do they have the courage to do that?

Argue or create?

In the meantime, I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that much of the time we spend on Twitter is not well spent. A brief conversation I had with an acquaintance on there this afternoon had somebody butting in aggressively. Neither of us were talking to her, but she felt the need to castigate us for something I said. It doesn't encourage me to open Twitter.

And, as one long-term Twitter user turned Twitter quitter put it:

It’s like a vacuum, sucking up every word I have to type, leaving very few words for other places. I’d like to put more words other places.

Amen to that.

X (Twitter)community managementcontext collapse

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.