Twitter’s plan to make people stop yelling at each other

Twitter’s leadership knows that it’s basically broken, and its latest attempt to fix itself shows how daunting of a task that will be.
San Francisco — In March, Twitter cofounder biz Stone tweeted a screenshot of an iPhone homescreen along with a message: “Notice our new prototype? … It’s called ‘twttr.’ The bird flew away from the app icon representing: Simplicity. Blue sky thinking. We’re re-working. Not there yet: hence, no logo.”


Twitter, predictably, immediately dysregulated in response. “Most moronic design decision ever made.” “It’s horrible.” “Awful.” the most viral reply leaned on a popular Twitter trope to poke fun at the platform’s inability to ban bad actors: “everyone: get rid of the Nazis. Yall: we got rid of the logo.”


And yet, it was all a misunderstanding. Twitter hadn’t modified its icon in the least. It launched a separate app, “twttr,” as an external, public prototype to experiment with new features it’s considering rolling out on Twitter itself; a way to test things publically. Stone clarified: “Folks, the bird isn’t going away from Twitter.”


The entire episode was a microcosm of Twitter’s larger problems, some of which this new prototype itself is supposed to address: everyone yelling, and no one talking. “Little t” twttr is a part of the company’s grand plan to treat the platform’s underlying problems, instead of just its symptoms. The concept is that what it learns from small-t twttr will help huge Twitter foster conversations, rather than outrage.


Thanks to its open, freewheeling public platform, and stance on free speech, Twitter has been a hothouse for ginning up misinformation, harassment, and outrage. Plenty of these issues were caused, the company’s leadership believes, by product decisions made early in its existence. And in very Silicon Valley fashion, the San Francisco–based company is currently attempting to solve these institutional issues with product fixes, without killing its platform’s open, real-time magic. However it isn’t exactly sure what those fixes are and it knows that massive changes to its product, rolled out widely, might even make things worse. So, yes, the corporate is basically overhauling its product, however it’s starting with baby steps on twttr.


Over several days this spring, BuzzFeed News met with Twitter’s leadership and watched as twttr’s team worked on its initial big push: helping individuals better understand what’s being said in often chaotic conversations. The team thinks that if people took more time to read entire conversations, which would help improve their comprehension of them. Perhaps they wouldn’t jump to react. Maybe they’d consider their tone. Perhaps they’d quit yelling all the time.


Or maybe, not even thousands of deeply studied highly tested product tweaks will be enough to fix the deep-seated problems with a culture more than 13 years in the making.