The popular story of Twitter’s role in the ruin of civilization is that it is a runaway trash fire of reciprocal anger and offense, where otherwise nice people are possessed by overwhelming outrages, and drawn into throwing their own energy behind creating the vilest and most vindictive responses to what they see, turning away from reason and hurting others in turn, and so the place continues.

I’m not sure how much of Twitter activity this accounts for (apparently Michael Nielsen enjoys an entirely different place, and my experience seems pretty nice too). But I think there’s a real pattern of this kind, which makes game theoretic sense, and goes something like this:

  1. People say things
  2. People read these things
  3. If anything seems objectionable to any of these people, then they repost those things with commentary, and everyone else reads them extra.
  4. In the next round, people (or the ones who who get attention) say objectionable things (that they expect will get attention), about objectionable things (that they have their attention on from the last round)
  5. etc.

To lay out the effects of all this more clearly:

  1. People disproportionately read things they don’t like, which is presumably bad for them
  2. People get the visceral sense that others are disproportionately writing things they don’t like, which is misleading, and not in a helpful-for-public-friendship way
  3. Things people don’t like get extra space in the public conversation
  4. People who tend to write things that others don’t like get extra power and attention instead of less
  5. Writing things other people don’t like is incentivized (if you want attention, writing things other people don’t like is probably somewhat better than writing things people do like, and way better than writing things they don’t feel strongly about).

Supposing something like this model is true, and bad, it seems to me that there is a really simple solution: add a dislike button.

That is, what if when a person sees a thing they don’t like, instead of broadcasting it to others, they register their disapproval by quietly clicking a different button next to the heart, and then Twitter shows it to other people less instead of more? You can still retweet it if you especially want other people to see it more, but adding attention wouldn’t be the default disapproval vote.

This is not an original idea, and the other major websites that do it have not, to my knowledge, been run out of business by a dearth of disagreement. I think they are also not so much known for the above dynamic.

I posit that a Twitter downvote button would be great. What am I missing?