Give and take, and the imbalance of Twitter

In any kind of social network — online or otherwise — the ratio of give versus take is an enormously important thing. When it gets out of balance the network begins to break down.

What do I mean by give and take? Well, every person who engages with a wider group of people is either a net contributor to or taker from the whole – neutral participants don’t really exist. If you're in a metal detectorists' group, for example, some will actively speak at meetings, share locations and finds, while others just listen quietly and absorb useful information. In a photo sharing community some will enthusiastically contribute photos and spark discussion while others quietly browse. And we all have the comedic friend who dominates every conversation down the pub.

This isn’t a bad thing — givers and takers are essential parts of a fulfilling experience for all. The givers give because they get a buzz from the takers taking; it validates and affirms their place in the world. The takers are grateful to take away something useful or entertaining. Therein exists a balanced value proposition.

I’ll admit that I’ve never really ‘got’ Twitter. Aside from engaging in the conversation at a public event or responding when someone specifically mentions me, it’s failed to find an important place in my life. In my minimal use I’ve always been a taker. That should be fine; even though I’m not contributing much I should still be entertained or engaged enough to keep lurking.

But scanning through the fifty or so latest posts in my Twitter feed, I see multiple requests to sign petitions, journalists promoting stories they’ve just written, someone asking for help to publicise their event, public sector funding opportunities, shops being promoted. There’s a mishmash of pictures, shortened URLs, infographics and embedded videos. Even as a ruthlessly particular user who only follows 121 others, I feel inundated and really, really can’t be arsed picking out the good stuff. 

When people post to Twitter you’d naturally assume they’re net givers. But actually a disproportionately high number are takers - and for a social network the very worst kind. They’re only there because they want your eyeballs, clicks, or to spread their taking even wider.

Facebook has put huge effort into automatically curating your feed, to lower the amount of clickbait and reduce the prominence of those friends or groups you don’t engage with very often. This hasn’t been without controversy, but they’ve worked hard to maintain a reasonable balance and keep people interested. 

If Twitter wants to fix itself, it should start here.