Indulge me in a fantasy.
Currently, reply scope on Twitter works like this:
- If Alice replies to Bob’s tweet, everyone who follows both Alice and Bob will see the reply.
What if, instead, it worked like this:
- If Alice replies to Bob’s tweet, everyone who follows Alice and saw Bob’s tweet in their timeline will see the reply.
The difference is subtle but significant, because following Bob isn’t the only way I might see Bob’s original tweet. Someone else I follow could have retweeted it into my timeline. Alice herself may have done so, in fact. So one effect of this change would be to eliminate that awful “dot-reply” cheat: instead, just retweet the original before replying and all of your followers will see both.
Another effect is that it gives us a way to meaningfully interact with promoted tweets. Today, replying to a promoted tweet is all but pointless. The promoter won’t hear me — they’ll have thousands of replies to sift through, if they even bother to look — and beyond that, only those who already follow both me and the promoter will see my reply. That’s not likely to be very many people, since the whole idea of promoting a tweet is to put it in front of people who aren’t following the promoter. But under this new rule, all of my followers who saw the promoted tweet would also see my reply. Now we’re getting somewhere.
That’s step one. Step two is where this dream gets crazy:
- Using an algorithm similar to that of Top Tweets, when a reply to a promoted tweet receives a large number of retweets and/or favorites, the reply should also be promoted to the same audience.
It might look like this:
(Original tweets.) Completely nuts, right? Why would any advertiser ever go for this? It’s not fair, you may be thinking: Microsoft paid good money to have their tweet promoted, so why should any random nobody get to ride that train for free?
Here’s why: like it or not, by introducing promoted tweets, Twitter has declared that popularity and money are equivalent currencies. Your tweet can gain exposure organically, by virtue of your own following and the viral nature of retweets, or you can just pay up and they’ll stick it in everybody’s stream (or some large subset of everybody). What’s unfair is that due to the way replies currently work, the paying voice speaks alone. It’s paying to disrupt conversations, not to participate in them.
Which, of course, is what advertisers want, so this will probably never change. But to me, that’s an unfortunate failure of imagination. Banksy, or possibly Sean Tejaratchi, writes:
Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.
What if this idea of freedom to rearrange and reuse were baked into the concept of what ads are? What if online ads became less like discarded flyers blowing down a busy street and more like living, breathing fragments of human conversation? What if users were treated like thinking beings and not like credit cards with eyestalks? Wouldn’t everybody win?
Naturally, not all replies to promoted tweets will be favorable to the promoter, and that’s OK: when you barge into a crowded room and start shouting through a megaphone, people don’t always say nice things. That’s part of the deal. And the longer ads continue to live on a weird plane of their own that barely intersects reality, the less effective they’ll continue to be, and the sooner the things we love that depend on ads will stop being able to exist.
I’d rather Twitter didn’t have ads at all, but if we must have them, let’s at least try to do something better than throwing rocks at heads.