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Twitter Asked People to Be Less Offensive. The Results Were Surprising

Big lessons from a little nudge.

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Imagine this: Someone writes something offensive, and they’re about to post it on Twitter.

I know — it’s not actually that hard to imagine.

So, the offensive person hits send. But instead of their nasty message going out into the world, Twitter instead gives them a nudge — asking if they really, really want to send this thing out.

Here’s the question: Does that work? Like, can a little nudge really make people less offensive?

A new study revealed the answer. And it says a lot about how we can make change, both big and small.

But first, what does this “nudge” look like?

Twitter has been experimenting with this feature since 2020, and gave it a significant update in 2021. If you, like me, are not in the habit of blasting people on social, then you’ve probably never seen it. So here’s what it looks like:

Twitter Asked People to Be Less Offensive. The Results Were Surprising

Image credit: Twitter

Twitter has been studying what happens after someone gets this nudge, and last month released a fascinating report.

Here’s a handy chart from the report:

Twitter Asked People to Be Less Offensive. The Results Were Surprising

Image credit: Twitter

Let’s break this down. Even when nudged, most people (69%) sent the tweet anyway. But 22% revised the tweet in some way — mostly in a positive or neutral direction, although 1% of people decided to become more offensive, because of course. The purist victory was small: Only 9% of people just straight-up canceled the tweet.

But that’s just the beginning. The really intriguing stuff comes next: After getting the prompt, users were 4% less likely to write another offensive tweet in the future — and they were 20% less likely to write five or more offensive tweets.

In other words, the nudge didn’t just change someone’s behavior in the moment. It made them reconsider their actions in general, and then changed their behavior going forward — although, of course, we don't know if that change will last forever.

So, what can we learn from this?

There are a few different ways to read this data. Maybe you’re encouraged — because even though the nudge didn’t transform all haters into lovers, it did at least have a meaningful impact. Or maybe you’re discouraged, because the nudge only worked on a small number of people.

But here’s another way of looking at it: This is a good first step, and Twitter would be wise to keep experimenting, but something like this will never be the solution, because we cannot expect individuals to shoulder the burden of an entire system.

I got to thinking about this after reading the fantastic newsletter Garbage Day, which is where I first learned about the Twitter data. Writer Ryan Broderick called Twitter’s nudge “a Clippy for cyberbullying,” and offered this valuable caveat:

Putting a “you’re about to be mean” warning on tweets, or whatever, is like having a seat belt in your car while you’re driving on a highway with no speed limit. You can be as nice as you want on Twitter, but that won’t change how aggressive other people are being, nor will it change how literally every other part of the Twitter experience is designed explicitly to make you want to respond aggressively to other people’s content.

That’s a sharp observation. This data shows us how people respond to the nudge, but it does not show us the circumstances of their original experience. They may be on the receiving end on offensive tweets as well. Or they just may have become habituated to online nastiness, and therefore acted in kind. (Or they might just be jerks.)

Twitter’s nudge, well-intentioned as it may be, essentially asks individuals to alter their behavior in a system that remains fixed. And if that’s the case, we can’t expect someone to maintain their changed behavior for long.

Science has said as much. Here’s an interesting review of behavior theories in the journal Health Psychology Review, which points out that “intervention effects diminish over time.” Then it ticks off all the places where relapse rates are high: weight loss programs, smoking cessation attempts, alcohol reduction, stopping risky sexual behavior.

You’ve surely felt this yourself at work. Remember the last time you worked at a company, and, after some time, your performance lagged and someone scolded you? I’ll admit — that’s happened to me twice! It felt strange both times, because I know that I’m a highly motivated, highly efficient worker. So why wasn’t I able to succeed in these jobs?

In both cases, I looked around and realized that I was succumbing to the culture of the company. Employees weren’t supported. Morale was low. Now the company was asking me to improve, despite being inside of a system that was not improving.

I couldn’t do it. I left both jobs.

If we are the people trapped inside a broken system, leaving is perhaps the best we can do. Just this week, I was listening to an interview with beloved Miami Heat player Udonis Haslem, who talked about why, as a young man, he distanced himself from the gang-ridden neighborhood he grew up in. He knew that, despite having the talent to be a great basketball player, being in that environment would ultimately destroy him. Out was only way out.

If we are the creators or stewards of a system — whether that’s a company, community, or anything else — then we need to operate with this reality in mind. We cannot simply expect individuals to carry our weight for us. We can’t just say, “Hey you, be better!”, and then expect people to fix a bigger problem themselves. They might try, but they can’t do it alone. They need our help. They need everyone’s help.

That feels like the real lesson of Twitter’s study.

Yes, people can get better. But if we want to make real change, we cannot only heap huge expectations on the shoulders of individuals. We must be willing to make big changes along with them.

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Cover credit: Getty Images / calvindexter