Twitter’s Root Injustice

The most significant problem with Twitter is that it’s hard to get followers if you’re a new user.

This seems like a small problem at first, but it’s a core one that extends to every corner of the product. The problem is so big because it builds on itself.

Twitter operates as an unregulated market for social capital.

The reason joining Twitter was so exciting in 2007 is the same for which it was exciting to register a domain name and start an Internet business in the 1990s — the first people who show up to open markets can win big. Yes, you can get a good username, but the real issue is the network effects that come from being first. It’s a classic platform problem.
Every time you’re followed it gets easier for others to follow you because you have a bigger audience more likely to spread your message to more people.
It’s easy to make an argument that what happened to blogging, and what is happening to Twitter, is a network effect and destined to happen to any platform, but that’s the easy and cynical way out.

You can design a social media platform that is more fair to new users just as you can design a government that is more fair to its less privileged citizens.

If you want a platform to thrive you need to do what good governments do: help newcomers, break up monopolies, and keep it competitive.

How To Make Twitter More Fair And Competitive

The story of my experience on Twitter is the story that is celebrated — but rarely the case for most people. When I joined Twitter in 2009 it was like showing up to a half-settled frontier town. I could talk with people who would normally never talk to me, I could gain a following in fields where I was years younger than most, and I could do this all from a laptop in my underwear.
Twitter was magical in 2009 because the platform was getting a daily flood of users of all stripes eager to find accounts to follow. We’ll never be able to get back to that era of Twitter, but there are a ton of things Twitter can do to help users.

Reward Engagement Over Inheritance

Twitter has a built-in method to reward users and it’s called the Suggested User List. The list comes in many flavors. You get a list curated by Twitter’s editorial team when you first join. This list is full of celebrities and recognizable news sources — in 2009, Anil Dash wrote a good post about what it’s like to be on this list. You then get a mix of personalized suggestions when you follow someone new in your email and in the left column after you follow someone. The algorithm for this is hidden but I get the same suggested users over and over, and I’m willing to bet most of these suggestions are fueled by overlapping followers of the people I follow.
The Suggested User List is a mechanism that can make Twitter more competitive but only if it rewards a behavior new users have a shot at. Imagine if it the list were generated more like this:
  • Twitter builds a long list of potential followers based off the people who you are already following.
  • Twitter orders that list based on their recent follower engagement.
By Cody Brown
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