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Twitter’s Latest iOS Update Allegedly Downplays Follower Counts

Culture

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Twitter has reportedly de-emphasized follower counts in its latest iOS update. But how big is the difference, and what difference will it make?

If you’ve opened Twitter on iOS lately, you may notice a slightly different look to your feed. Key profile details have been reduced in size: locations, birthdays, join dates, and follower count. It is this last metric, one that may be key in measuring your brand’s social strength, that has received the most vocal pushback from Twitter execs, and the company’s latest professed goal is to make it less prominent.

At a fireside chat in New Delhi, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey expressed remorse for how the company “put all the emphasis, not intending to, on that number of how many people follow me. So if that number is big and bold, what do people want to do with it? They want to make it go up.” Founding Twitter executive Ev Williams has similarly expressed that the original prominence of the number was short-sighted. “I think showing follower counts was probably ultimately detrimental. It really put in your face that the game was popularity,” he said at the Web Summit earlier this month.

The Follower-Climate Connection

This online popularity contest, which Dorsey and Williams believe to be fueled in many ways by the Twitter interface, is proving detrimental to our mental health as a society, some researchers say. In their deep dive on the topic, Time magazine noted that “while such features are no doubt rewarding, for users as well as Twitter’s bottom line, experts say they may also be contributing to a culture of mindless outrage and making people more susceptible to manipulation.”

The Verge reported similarly, saying “by emphasizing an account’s number of followers, Dorsey believes it incentivizes individuals to post more polarizing content that has the potential to go viral and attract more followers, creating a more divisive and toxic discourse on the platform.” Users with greater follower counts are listened to with more authority, and this number, therefore, has a disproportionate, if at times subconscious, impact on the direction and quality of discourse on the app.

A Tale of Two Fixes

And yet, it cannot go without mentioning that the widely-reported on change to the interface is…underwhelming in practice. The latest iOS update claims to de-emphasize this number, but when the change is compared side by side with its original source, the difference strikes some as laughable. This slight change is compounded by the fact that these changes have not taken hold with similar consistency on the Android version of the app. To have a large-scale impact on the health of the site, shouldn’t these changes in emphasis be standardized across the app interfaces as well as the desktop experience (which hasn’t come up in these discussions at all)?

This partially executed change’s questionable impact is compounded by Instagram’s recently announced crackdown on accounts that generate fake likes, comments, and follows. TechCrunch reports that these efforts, like Twitter’s follower count size reduction, are aimed at improving users’ experience on the site:

If no one can believe those counts are accurate, it throws Instagram’s legitimacy into question. And every time you get a notification about a fake follow or Like, it distracts you from real life, dilutes the quality of conversation on Instagram and makes people less likely to stick with the app. – Josh Constine, TechCrunch

But unlike Twitter, this strategy aims to not just minimize the number of followers one has but to interrogate their cause and source. The apps’ challenges may differ, but one action goes further to neutralize platform health (and, for that matter, user health) than the other.

Finding a Better Fix

Infrequent but notable and controversial Twitter user Kanye West actually proposed an interesting alternative solution: allowing users to toggle the display of follower counts and/or likes. “Just like how we can turn off the comments,” he tweeted in September 2018, “we should be able to turn off the display of followers.” Still another proposed method to incentivize meaningful conversation, as Dorsey has stated is his goal, is to create a holistic measure that looks at the tone of conversation a tweet generates- something machine learning is far from being able to do accurately.

But through all these additional suggestions, one thing is certain. If the current long-term goal for Twitter is, as Dorsey told Congress, “improving the health of the site,” these changes will need to be more than merely cosmetic—or, if solely cosmetic, more substantial than this latest set of tweaks.

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