Twitter is throwing the towel on democracy

When I was growing up in Turkey, one of the more curious political insults was a “statukocu”, or “one who favors status quo”.  I remember asking my parents what it meant. And when I got the answer, it didn’t satisfy me either; why would wanting things to stay the same be a bad thing? It took me a bit longer to fully understand what that really meant.

Jokes about “move fast and break things” are as original as an Adam Sandler blockbuster these days. And so are essays about them. Sure, democracy is too important to accidentally break by moving fast. We get it. Facebook gets it too, they changed their slogan.

But what if what kills democracy is not Zuckerberg et al moving too fast but the crippling inability of Twitter to take a single action? Those jokes haven’t been made yet by others. Luckily for us, though, Twitter management continues to be that joke. And we are the butts, I think.

It ’s hard to describe this any other way, without sounding mean. As I mentioned yesterday, Trump couple days ago tweeted some blatantly racist tweets, showing people getting killed. Twitter first said they didn’t delete those tweets because they were “newsworthy” and provided “both sides” of an argument. I am of the opinion that inciting violence and racism are universally derided but OK, maybe Twitter knows better?

Then, and here’s the joke part, they walked back on their decision making. Not their decision, but their decision making. I wrote yesterday that “newsworthiness is just a fleeting moment of decision making done in San Francisco” but I was wrong. My larger point was that “newsworthiness” was a sham, a non-falsifiable hypothesis that allowed Twitter management to do as they wished. But, with the new “explanation”, I am not sure if there’s even anyone in the room anymore. Maybe there’s just a robot that just throws darts at a Wheel of Apology?

Imagine getting rejected for a job application, and the recruiter sends you an email the next day “Sorry, we didn’t hire you not because you are too junior, but because we just didn’t like you”. That would be hugely disrespectful, and would show a startling lack of professionalism. But this has been going for literally years when it comes to Twitter. Is this fine?

At this point, I am not sure what to say. One running joke is that Medium  is a Silicon Valley blog for apologies. Maybe we can say that the main reason Twitter exists at this point is to provide a platform for Trump to spread vitriol and for Jack to come up with post-facto rationalizations on why that’s a good thing, some Nazis, and sure, a bunch of startup (read: Uber) drama. This joke works on many levels, considering Medium is also founded by a Twitter co-founder.

I consider myself a progressive. I think favoring the status quo is not a amenable political position in general, and definitely not ideal in today’s America. But here’s the thing; I am from Turkey. I know how fast the sense of normalcy shifts under you when you let a few people play you. My Turkish diaspora jokes about how “we had Trump years ago, no big deal” but there’s darker underbelly here. Nothing is too sacred to discuss, but some things are worth saving. Democracy is a good one. Twitter is throwing the towel here.

Erdogan’s rise to the authoritarianism didn’t happen overnight. Turkish mainstream media did not become a single propaganda machine overnight. Educated Turkish youth who are hopeless, tired of the constant political drama that sucks the oxygen out of any room did not start looking for jobs abroad en masse overnight. There were millions of people screaming about how dangerous Erdogan and AKP is before he got elected, and before they changed the laws left and right.  The madness came slowly, and then all of a sudden.

America is nowhere near Turkey, but it’s also farther ahead when Erdogan first gained power. Turkey and US are similar in many ways, mostly depressing ones such as lack of belief in evolution and income disparity. But it will slip, and it’ll happen both faster you can think and slower.

So, this is the world we live where Twitter (and Facebook and Google and YouTube) operate. Don’t be fooled; these companies are American companies that prospered under American values and are headquartered in America, mostly staffed by Americans in decision making levels. And the American values are under attack. There are no sides here. There’s only one side. It’s the side of liberal democracies.

Our, and yours, current leaders of social networks are flailing. In their attempts to keep their businesses afloat and provide a semblance of impartiality, they are picking the side of chaos. As Bret Stephens aptly puts in his piece, we are all part of Trump’s game now. Politicians of all statures, even heads of state, all across the world are on the edge, because they think the US president is unhinged. Everyone who is letting these shenanigans are going to be on the wrong side of history. A few people who have points of leverage are failing.

History books are being written. And they will definitely outlast any Medium blog post.

Digg was all about news and nothing else. It didn’t work out.

Couple days ago, I was having lunch with a friend who used to work at Twitter. Eventually, the issue of Fake News came up. I told him, as more of a joke, that Facebook could just solve the Fake News problem by taking the News out of News Feed, and turning it to essentially just a bunch of social update. He retorted, saying that product already existed and it was called Instagram. We both sighed and shrugged and downed a few more drinks.

Now, apparently Facebook is trying that exactly, and of course publishers are freaking out. You can’t really blame them. For many publishers, Facebook is their biggest source of traffic, which they monetize via ads. But you can also not just feel bad for them, because, that is the risk of building your business on someone else’s platform. Just ask Zynga.

My understanding is that Facebook started promoting news sources and publishers more or less as a defense mechanism against Twitter. It might be ancient history now, but there was a time where the fates of these companies weren’t as far apart as they are now. Facebook noticed that Twitter was getting an undue amount of attention from the media folks, with newscasters and individual journalists signing up on in droves and moving the conversation there. Facebook wasn’t a fan, decided to flex its muscles a bit.

I don’t know if that’s true, but it rings true. And I know this, because I used to work at a company that was in the same boat, at the same time. When we launched Digg V4, one if its goals was to cut down the noise of Twitter and just focus on links instead of the mundane status updates. It didn’t work out, and Digg imploded rather spectacularly but the idea was solid. Digg was always at the forefront of many ideas that are common now, such as “liking” things both in and out of Digg’s website and apps. But with Digg V4, it all came crushing down.

To understand all this, you need to go back to 2010, if not earlier. Twitter and Digg were both merely curiosities, largely unknown outside of Silicon Valley. Twitter However, Digg controlled a significant amount of traffic, and getting on its front page could be a huge boost to not just publishers but really any company. Even Dropbox, now a pretty much a household name, attributed a significant amount of their early users to getting on Digg’s front page.

However, Twitter was already gaining momentum. Although the site could barely stand without failwhaling, it was already signing up big time users like Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber. But they didn’t really drive traffic to anyone; and most people were using it as a more public stream of consciousness than anything.

So that was one of Digg’s plays with V4; that we’d be the driver of traffic to publishers because we didn’t have any of those pesky “I am eating a cheese sandwich” updates that littered your Twitter timeline that you didn’t know what to do with.

Kevin Rose tweet about Digg V4
Kevin Rose tweet about Digg V4

The why and the how of Digg’s failure is complicated. But largely, it was a perfect storm of technical issues (mostly of our own doing), management mishaps, and of course the Cold War Digg used to wage on its users finally erupting into thermonuclear skirmishes. Digg always had a delicate relationship with its most influential user base; either side never really blinked but with Digg V4,  it all changed.

One of the most controversial changes was making My News, the logged in personalized page the default option, as opposed to the “Top News”, which was The Digg Homepage. With this change, the importance of Top News was significantly reduced since we essentially distributed the logged in page views across thousands of personalized homepages. This was both a way to keep more people logged in, by providing them a better and more engaging homepage, but also to make sure that we had more unique pages where most publishers could get clicks from.

The real controversial change was actually allowing publishers to automatically submit items to Digg by sucking in their RSS feeds. What this meant is that now you could participate in Digg without really participating; we could just suggest your account to new users who would see your content, which Digg would automatically ingest, without you doing ever anything. And the fact that we accidentally, I swear, promoted those items over manually submitted items did not help.

While Digg made a conscious decision to prioritize big publishers, we managed to scare away most of the user base. Without users, of course, the traffic publishers received started dwindling down. But more critically, without eyeballs on Digg itself, the advertisers slowly fled. The rest is history.

Facebook, for what’s its worth, never had a problem with users leaving its service and I doubt they ever will. I don’t know if they would, but they could remove all the links to publishers from News Feed and most users wouldn’t give a damn. The genius of News Feed was never the links, but it was the ability to give living and breathing person on earth their own personalized rumor mill. The outrage articles, especially in the age of Trump is addictive, for sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the addictiveness of being able to see a new update from one of your friends.

I am a strong believer in the importance of journalism for a liberal democracy. I would dare not wish for publishers, and journalists to lose their sources of revenue. But at the same time, I can’t imagine that at least the big publishers did not see this coming. No one in their right mind would put all their eggs in someone’s basket. And hey, maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this is the wake up call we all needed.