As David Carr wrote in 2010, browsing Twitter is like “listening to a wired collective voice.” Twitter makes publishing what you’re seeing, reading, hearing or experiencing friction-less. That’s a blessing and a curse, as many people have found. What you write can instantly be amplified around the world, from one mobile device to another.
Six years ago, I thought #hashtags on Twitter were like cable channels on television. Today, what’s harder to judge is is the extent to which Twitter wants to become more like TV, with a controlled experience and various channels of professional programming that people can comment upon and engage with, as opposed to create. That’s more of a media company than a technology company that acts as an information utility for journalists and the public to disseminate and discover documentary evidence of what they’re seeing, hearing, reading, or doing.
Nearly a decade ago, Jack Dorsey thought of a distributed way to track emergency vehicles around a city, which is more like the latter model. (That’s the sketch at the top of this post.) Where he leads Twitter next is still unknown.
In aggregate, Twitter does what many journalists and media have traditionally done, giving a platform to the voiceless and empowering them to speak about their own experiences, bearing testimony to everything from the mundane details of parenting to unbearable losses endured in wars, revolutions and crimes.
Twitter has been perhaps the most important platform for documenting and sharing the actions of American police departments during the #BlackLivesMatter movement, providing a powerful counter-narrative to official accounts of protests, enabling people to share YouTube videos and livestreams. It’s now a force against corruption in Brazil and India, too, and would be in China, too, if it weren’t blocked.
I don’t think shifting Favorites to Hearts is a change that will fundamentally bring in new users and increase the diversity of the social network. It may help to retain more people if they try Twitter, simplifying a feature that makes it easier for them to understand, even while the shift removes some nuance for people who have been there a long time.
What I worry about is shifting the Favorite to a Like, which is inherently positive. Read Zeynep Tufekci for a more nuanced exploration of the issues surrounding the Facebook Like.
I understand that it standardizes a Heart across Twitter, Vine and Periscope, and I’m certain that it’s more understandable to everyone. The trouble is that Twitter, perhaps more than any other social network, often carries important news about a difficult world that’s difficult, ugly and heart-wrenching.
Media and the public may not want to “Like” it, but it’s crucial for us to be able to amplify it and signal that it’s important to us, in some way. We need another way to show that that’s universally understandable.