What matters is the Twitter sidebar.
Every Twitter user who visits the website is greeted by a list of links, which appear in a sidebar under the headline, ‘What’s happening’. The items on the list are a mixed bag of paid promotions, viral fodder and hot-button politics or pop-culture topics — but what’s important is that they are curated by Twitter independently of what’s actually trending on the website. (For instance: as I’m writing this article, the most-discussed Twitter topics in the NYC Metro area, according to a third-party aggregator, are the LA Lakers, a bunch of banal motivational hashtags like #wednesdaywisdom and #humpday and the recent FOIA release of Anthony Fauci’s emails. Meanwhile, my ‘What’s happening’ sidebar is the Fauci emails, a link to an interview with Kate Winslet, and ‘Tucker’, because someone with a significant following on Media Twitter is mad at Tucker Carlson. Again.) ‘What’s happening’ in your sidebar is not, for the most part, what is actually happening on Twitter. It’s more like what Twitter wants to make happen, by making you curious enough to click.
Last month, the words ‘Fartlow’ or ‘Eve Fartlow’ appeared in the trending topics sidebar for a full 24 hours. The source was a bizarre, juvenile bullying campaign against journalist Eve Barlow, which had been percolating under the radar for several days but gained viral traction after actor Seth Rogen, who has 9.1 million followers on the platform, amplified it by tweeting a fart emoji at her. The trollng stemmed from an essay Barlow had written about the Israel-Palestine conflict that some people found offensive, but this wasn’t readily apparent if you clicked the ‘Fartlow’ link in the sidebar, which led to a bunch of mean-spirited tweets about Barlow but not to her profile or her work — because these things were, in fact, irrelevant. As with Ellie Kemper, the story wasn’t what Barlow did; the story was that someone was mad at her — and the site’s editorial team knew that amplifying those tweets would keep users clicking and scrolling.
Orwellian dystopian analogies come pretty cheap these days, but this one is too obvious not to point out — only instead of Two Minutes Hate, it’s a 24-hour buffet. Twitter’s sidebar points to people who have been declared fair game for punching and the mob gleefully piles on. It’s not just that these stories are born on the website; it’s that Twitter actively nurtures them, promotes them and throws their scapegoats to the wolves. For a platform that likes to style itself as a place that takes harassment and abuse seriously, it’s especially ironic: Twitter will protect certain high-profile users who complain about abuse, but it also foments drama on purpose and by design, like the high-school teacher who plays favorites with the cool kids and always happens to be looking the other way when some unpopular schlub is being tormented right under his nose.
There’s an oft-cited study about Twitter trends in which researchers found that negativity is the key to going viral, but the truth, which most users understand intuitively, is more nuanced: the best way to drive engagement is to give people an excuse to be cruel. And that ‘What’s happening’ sidebar? It’s not just a list of topics. Sometimes, it’s a list of targets.
She’s exactly right, and Yair Rosenberg had an excellent satire of the Twitter sidebar on — where else? — Twitter.
If Twitter's Trending Topics were honest pic.twitter.com/eGhuqO7JxC
— Yair Rosenberg (@Yair_Rosenberg) June 1, 2021
Twitter is an incredibly useful resource and a platform for more people to spread their speech widely than has ever existed in this country. It’s also a poisonous pit of nastiness and mob retribution.
I don’t intend to give it up — I don’t think — but I’m increasingly nauseated by the way it’s used.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: There is a solution! I have used this today and highly recommend it.
I tried this "fix new Twitter" extension today. I don't think I'm ever going back. Twitter's abusive sidebar: gone. Attempts to serve me an algorithmic feed: gone. Suggestions for topics for me to follow: gone. Blocking jerks happens with a *single* click. https://t.co/zhQzeFaEGU
— Patterico (@Patterico) June 4, 2021
All the stupid sidebar crapola is gone.