The unpursuit of clout

Dec 27, 2022

I’m old enough that I still remember when “likes” on Twitter were called “favorites”. It initially sounds like a distinction without a difference, but especially in retrospect, the change was highly intentional, and maybe one of the smartest things to increase engagement that Twitter’s ever done.

A “favorite” implies it’s some of the best content you’ve seen on the platform. It’s more like a bookmark – something you want to go back and look at again by perusing your personal list of curated favorited tweets.

A “like” is more like its analog on Instagram/TikTok or a Reddit upvote, a low-bandwidth positive signal in the direction of the content creator. Used at scale, it’s also a tool to pile onto the numbers for tweets that users agree with.

Back in those earlier days of Twitter, it was a privilege to have someone favorite one of your tweets – it meant that they genuinely liked the content, or were a good friend. I distributed my own favorites sparingly, partly because I actually was using them as a “best of Twitter” list that I’d occasionally go back and reference.

The seemingly minor semantic change of “favorite” to “like” upended the game as likes became a more numerous and widely distributed commodity. Users now dealt likes with wild abandon, sometimes to favorite but more often just to agree.

The knock on effect was to change the behavior of content creators. They now had a clear number to act as a quantitative measure for the popularity of their output, and consciously or not, they started working to maximizing it. And Twitter’s dirty, not-so-well-kept secret is that by far the easiest way to do that was to go more extreme – be more provocative, more angry, more hateful, more condemning – the more amplified the emotion, the better the impressions. Most people wouldn’t style themselves as liking extreme content, but regardless most do, and can’t help themselves from clicking the latest sensationalist rhetoric generated by masters of the art like Taylor Lorenz or AOC.

Even for those not seeking to maximize engagement (and right or wrong, I bucket myself in this category), the light incentive of dumb internet points still drive behavior in subtle ways. All my tweets go into a drafts page in and have to spend some time there before they’re allowed out in the world, which is my way of filtering out anything overly angry. But some make it through despite this attempted control, and I also find myself filtering anything that I don’t think will “perform” well enough, not consciously so much as on a level barely perceptible, which I hate factors into my decisions. Incentives around likes and engagement are changing everyone’s behavior – the only question is degree.

I’m not in the camp that believes that Elon’s destroying Twitter, but I am in the one that loves the idea of the independent web, and over break coded up a little experiment for this site called “Atoms”, a stream of little multi-media particles. You might even say tweet-length. They’re published to this site, an RSS feed, and a Spring ‘83 board, but on no social platforms. I still tweet, but this is an alternate venue floating off in its own corner of the void, unyielding to the 280-character yoke.

I’ve been writing them for a few days, and the biggest takeaway of the experiment is how comparatively freeing it is. In the distributed world of RSS there are no likes, favs, quote tweets, or replies – no numbers to minimize or maximize. Just find content that meets a personal baseline of interestingness, overcome a modest friction to publish (edit TOML + git push, built in by design), and send it out.

The world would be a better place if everyone published to their own distributed feeds instead of Twitter and Facebook, but I’m not naive enough to think that it’s ever going to happen. For a month already New York Times writers have been posturing about how they’re going to jump ship from Twitter to Mastodon. They won’t, and there’s a very simple reason for that, which is that their visibility would shrink four orders of magnitude overnight. On centralized platforms with network effects, engagement is amplified and compounding. It makes celebrities and it makes careers. An independent feed meanwhile is certain to only be seen by a small group of techno-traditionalists still using RSS readers.

I have undying appreciation for people who write blogs and indeed who’ve never stopped, drumming along reliably in the background without trying to take centerstage and become an influencing superstar. And as much as I respect it, it might not be the right choice for everyone as getting your name out there certainly has some advantages. But that said, the unpursuit of clout – just writing without trying to manipulate the numbers or even looking at them – is satisfying unto itself.

This post also gets an Atom entry.

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