One of the most useful concepts for understanding why social networks so often drive us to despair is context collapse: taking multiple audiences with different norms, standards, and levels of knowledge, and herding them all into a single digital space to coexist. Predictably, this regularly leads to conflict — and, at the scale of an entire country, may even make us more polarized.
Nowhere has this all been more true than on Twitter, Earth’s public chat room. Bringing together hundreds of millions of people into a text-based daily competition for attention has resulted in that familiar litany of problematic content: misinformation, influence operations, scams, harassment and abuse. Like its peers, Twitter removes a lot of that stuff. But what remains can be just as annoying or hurtful: the Reply Guy, the sea lion, and maybe worst of all, the quote-tweet dunker, who shows up in your timeline just to clown on you because your 280-character post failed to account for all forms of lived human experience.
The result is too often a social network that, to a user with even a moderately large following, feels booby-trapped. Whether you say the right thing or the wrong thing, it will inevitably get misconstrued by someone, and suddenly you’ve wasted an afternoon explaining yourself to people seemingly determined to misunderstand you.
When people call Twitter “a hell site,” this is often what they mean.
But what if you could build a version of Twitter that kept out the Reply Guys and the sea lions, and included only people who had some shared context around a subject or interest? That’s the idea between the company’s launch of Communities, a way to create semi-public groups where only members can participate in conversations. Here’s Alex Heath at The Verge:
Starting Wednesday, Twitter users can be invited to an initial batch of Communities that include #AstroTwitter, #DogTwitter, #SkincareTwitter, and #SoleFood (a group for sneaker enthusiasts). Once people join a Community, they can tweet directly to other members rather than to just their followers. Only members of a Community can like or reply to tweets sent by other members.
Similar to how groups on Facebook and Reddit’s subreddits work, each Twitter Community will have its own moderators who are able to set rules and invite or remove people. Twitter invited a handful of users to create the first Communities and will let anyone apply to create their own on its website.
In his thread about the test, Twitter product chief Kayvon Beykpour said he hopes Communities will make people feel more comfortable tweeting. “Tweets you post in Communities are ‘narrow-casted’ to only the people in that Community,” he said. “They’re still public tweets, but they aren’t amplified to all of your followers and they don’t show up on your profile. We think this can help lower the pressure of talking on Twitter.”
To get some sense of how this is working in practice, I spent the day messaging moderators of various Twitter communities. Collectively, they’re optimistic that these groups can make Twitter a little more fun to spend time in.
Josh Ong, who moderates a Twitter community about non-fungible tokens, told me that it had often been difficult to discuss the complexities of cryptocurrencies in front of his nearly 40,000 Twitter followers.
“The NFT conversation can be particularly high-context, from technical jargon, our own memes, and the random menagerie of the latest projects and their respective animals,” Ong said. “I’ve always loved how Twitter was a set of loosely interlocked conversations about specific interests, but that came with its own frictions too. Communities gives us the option to separate those conversations when it makes sense.”
Communities could also help with one of the core problems for people tweeting about NFTs: scammers showing up trying to steal from them. Twitter has a years-old problem in which people create accounts pretending to be Elon Musk and perpetrate various Bitcoin scams, and new grifts are bubbling up all the time.
“One thing I’m excited about for the NFT community is not having automated scammers commenting when we use specific words,” Ong said. “For instance, the word ‘Metamask’ is targeted by an army of bots posting fake customer support forms trying to phish for details.” (Metamask is a popular crypto wallet.)
Shawty Astrology, who tweets about horoscopes to 111,000 followers, told me her posts can sometimes draw attention from trolls trying to hijack the conversation. She’s now a moderator on Twitter’s astrology community, and said it felt like “a safer environment to share their information and knowledge with other people in a like-minded environment.”
Matt Nelson had a different problem. He runs We Rate Dogs, an account with 9 million followers that does just what you would expect from the name. (His tweets are often incredibly good. The account is beloved for good reason.) Nelson is now a moderator of Twitter’s dogs community. He told me he likes the idea of a dedicated home on Twitter for dog lovers — and a more limited group to interact with on a daily basis.
“We currently can’t interact with everyone who engages with our account. There’s too many!” Nelson said. “We wish we could reply ‘omg’ to every pic we’re sent. And a dedicated community allows that exclusivity.”
“But it’s more about what it does for our audience,” he added. “If they want to escape to a world only about dogs, now they can.”
This afternoon, Ong invited me to be the 229th member of the Twitter NFT Community. Like the rest of the NFT-obsessed internet, it’s awash in colorful, cartoon profile pictures of animals: a variety of sharks, birds, and especially apes. And the chatter there was notable for its friendliness: one artist announced he would give away some NFTs he created free to anyone who asked for the next 10 minutes, and the community responded with a joy I have not seen on my timeline in the last decade.
The community chatter arrived at a steady clip — not quite as fast as you would find in a popular Discord server about NFTs, perhaps, but more rapidly than you would find on the more orderly, hierarchical Reddit. More than anything else, I was struck by the sense of possibility that the community had seemed to inspire in its members.
One member suggested community-only Spaces for live audio discussions, which would be a natural fit for the product. Another, taking advantage of the handful of invitations given each member, announced that he had invited MC Hammer to join the group. “We’ll see,” he said.
Of course, groups have their downsides. Facebook’s groups product has regularly run into criticism for hosting extremism and misinformation, particularly related to vaccines. The same thing that can make groups fun to use — the posts are less visible to outsiders, and can therefore build a sense of shared purpose — also makes them harder to police.
And even if Twitter navigates those issues successfully, it’s still unclear how its groups product will fare against some fairly robust competition. Facebook Groups, Reddit, especially Discord have been thriving lately, and the latter two have been built from the ground up to promote the kind of group discussions that Twitter is only now getting around to bolting on to the core product.
But as someone who has created not one but two alt Twitter accounts to explore my least popular interests (indie rock and pro wrestling, thanks), I’m happy to see Communities arrive. Context is returning to Twitter after all these years. And we’ve never needed it more.
This column was co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and democracy.