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Signal vs Noise: Twitter’s Problem Isn’t a New One

April 26, 2023

Headshot of Kyle Monson - Founding partner at Codeword

Kyle Monson

Founding partner at Codeword

So, the Twitter experience sucks now. The randos have taken over, and they’re getting extra visibility and higher word counts for their rando tweets. And apparently this is all according to plan: the loudest social channel decided to lean into the noise.

That’s death for a social platform.

Like any communications network, the basic challenge of a social network is the signal-to-noise ratio. If that’s a new term for you, it’s just a nerdy way of saying “how much of what you see do you care about? (signal) And how much is irrelevant stuff you don’t want to see? (noise)”

That’s the ratio, and it’s tricky to get right, especially on a scaled platform.

Every user has their own idea of what’s signal and what’s noise. And the platform needs to figure out how to boost the signal and reduce the noisy static for each of them, all the time.

That, more than anything else, determines the user experience of the platform. When I open the app, am I seeing what I want to see? Do I find value in the content? And how much noise am I willing to tolerate in my feed (knowing that “monetized noise” — ads — is generally how ad-supported networks make their money)?

[Self-promotional side note: There’s a ton of value for brands in learning to produce signal instead of noise. That’s Codeword’s whole thing.]

Twitter isn’t the first platform to deal with signal-to-noise issues. Some early social networks like Plaxo were basically pure unfiltered noise (IYKYK). Facebook and Instagram have been stumbling their way forward and tripping over their own monetization models for years.

YouTube, TikTok, and Snap are the platforms that generally get it right, IMO, by relentlessly valuing signal, and the people who create it.

Which brings us to last week’s Twitter move, the ultimate miscalculation of signal to noise.

We’re on Twitter for the tweets we give a shit about. For users, the entire value of the platform comes from the niche communities, public thinkers, celebrities, and friends we choose to follow. Twitter inverted this formula last week, putting the randos in charge. For just $8 per month, Twitter treats noise like signal, no questions asked.

$8. Has any company sold out its users for less?

As a user, that’s what’s so insulting about the whole model. Put a distracting ad in my feed and I’ll ignore it, but at least I’ll know there was real money changing hands, which goes to support the platform, pay for server space, maybe I dunno pay for some basic content moderation to make the platform more safe and pleasant for everyone.

The new model buys my attention so cheaply. I know that the randos in my feed paid almost nothing to be there. The utility of a platform I used to find so much value in has been destroyed for pennies.

The new system expects me to work to get content from the people I’m interested in, by scrolling through the noise of elevated randos who can write longer tweets. And the more popular a tweet gets, the more noise I have to scroll through to find the signal in the replies.

And at the very moment when we’re drowning in all this fresh noise, Twitter invites us to sign up for Twitter Blue ourselves. To pay for the privilege of creating signal, and saving the platform from its own mistake.

It’s not the first time a social network has misunderstood this very basic principle of boosting signal and monetizing noise. But it just might be the dumbest example of it.

On our end, we’re going to keep pushing clients to create signal instead of noise, and prioritize channels that put the audience needs first.

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