Twitter is easy to pick on; it feels increasingly incoherent. For the average user, the experience now amounts to watching tweets endlessly (and algorithmically) flow down a timeline, hoping for a fleeting gem: a fresh meme, a particularly inspired presidential tweet, or an endorsement for something worthwhile. You can try to prune and mute your way to sanity, but most curation features (e.g., lists) feel barely supported.
Paradoxically, Twitter also feels more vital than ever. It remains the world’s digital public square - relatively uncensored, and gushing with content (and spam) at increasing velocity. Interestingly, the worthwhile unit of content remains the individual; you can follow news organizations if you feel like drinking from a firehose, but the interesting activity happens between active users.
It’s unfortunate, then, that discourse on Twitter feels like it’s regressed since the early days of the platform. I think the kernel of the problem is the tendency to get stuck where you start, with little recourse. You join the platform, and begin by following other people. This is in itself rewarding, since you can follow people at a granularity that isn’t possible on other popular networks. (e.g., check out Nassim Taleb’s disdain for Sam Harris!) But to get someone’s attention, you need 1.) some form of preexisting notoriety, or 2.) a particularly inspired tweet that grabs their attention.
Content aggregators, like Reddit, allow new posts to gain popularity through a different paradigm: topic-segregated channels. You might have joined yesterday, but your post in the Gaming subreddit can get you a ton of Reddit karma, if you find just the right content. The tradeoff with this paradigm is that content is truly king. Submissions are effectively anonymous, and despite the occasional heartwarming exchange in the comments, the social interactions are overwhelmingly transient. You leave the thread, usually never to return to it or its denizens.
Theoretically, Twitter’s hashtags provide a topic-like anchor. In reality, I don’t know anybody that uses hashtags outside of live sports and other large-scale, transient events. It’s a navigation lifeboat, used as a last resort.
So what could a better modality look like? If you think about why discourse is difficult on Twitter, a lot of it boils down to the UX. If you’re decently famous: you tweet something, and there’s a gush of replies, smashed together like an accordion. If you’re not famous, and talking “laterally” to someone else, or a small group, then the replies string together endlessly. Someone else can try to jump into the conversation, or fork the thread, but typically with non-obvious consequences. Even fruitful threads die quickly, and are difficult to revisit or revive. (Which tweet did that conversation revolve around? I can’t seem to find it..)
Branch was a social media service that tried a different approach. Billed as the platform for “online dinner parties” (bear with me), it organized conversations around organic topics, and allowed - as the name suggests - users to branch the conversation, at any point. A key feature was the separation of reading and writing. Users could selectively include participants in a small-group discussion, which could then be observed by anyone else using the platform.
The result was, surprisingly often, interesting dialogue that could become progressively more inclusive - without devolving into chaos. A lot of threads were simply interesting to read. It was great if you were invited to participate - but even if you weren’t, you could simply branch a comment into your own thread. The same rules carried over; you could selectively add people to your forked conversation, and continue on. And who knew, maybe your forked dinner party would become the next hot thing.
Branch’s user interface revolved around discovering interesting dialogue. The fundamental unit wasn’t the individual post (with dialogue as addendum), but rather the conversation thread itself. The application highlighted which threads were gaining popularity, and allowed you to traverse conversations that included the particular people that you found insightful. It didn’t have a very elaborate UX, and it seemingly didn’t need one.
One consequence of the design was that it felt natural to (periodically) revive dormant threads. Each conversation had a limited set of participants, and a coherent topic - which together provided a stable context that could be revisited. Sometimes it made sense to simply tack on a new comment to an old thread; other times, branching was the answer. And again, any reader had the same power; if you had a flash of insight, or came across something amusing, you could take someone else’s old conversation in a new direction.
At its best, this sort of seed-and-branch cycle felt resonant with the original ethos of the internet; a distributed and organic approach to building knowledge, that could endure.
Alas, Branch is no longer with us; the team was acquired by Facebook, and the service was shut down in 2014. It’s peculiar that nothing similar has appeared, since. Nothing that is conversation-centric in the same way; or that allows for conversational branching. Interaction paradigms across the social media landscape feel increasingly static; Facebook and Twitter remain as largely as they were a decade ago, and the various chat apps have added bots and gifs, I suppose. I hope we see more experiments like Branch, either as standalone services or within increasingly-vital platforms like Twitter.
We’re in dire need of better conversation - perhaps that’s the one consensus that still holds.