Late last month I did an interview with GQ about technology and the coronavirus pandemic. “This is a little bit flippant,” I told the reporter, “but in terms of closing things down for public health, one of the big boosts they could make would probably be shutting down Twitter.” I don’t fully believe this anymore. Though Twitter is still overrun with toxic anger and fear-based nonsense (now more than ever), it is also, in one crucial way, beginning to play an important role in our response to the pandemic. But it needs help.
Let’s start with what’s going right: So-called Expert Twitter seems to be rising to the occasion. Pandemics are immensely complicated, and understanding them requires knowledge from obscure technical fields, like epidemiology, genetics, virology, and immunology. Identifying smart ideas and leading experts in these niche subdisciplines is a daunting objective. Twitter is helping.
Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019).
The platform’s commercial success is built on its eerily effective ability to filter through the avalanche of content generated by its 330 million users to find those gems that prove irresistible. It accomplishes this in a manner that’s largely agnostic to what the tweets actually say. The service’s timeline algorithm takes into account your relationship to the tweet’s author—not just whether you follow them, but also how often you like or retweet them—as well as the engagement the particular tweet has been generating from others. It combines these metrics to find tweets that fall into that perfect intersection of your affinities and sticky communication. In normal times, this algorithm serves to make Twitter almost destructively addictive. During the pandemic, however, when our affinities have turned toward a desperate craving for useful information, the dynamics of this algorithm now serve a crucial purpose: helping to surface otherwise hard to find niche experts.
It’s how, for example, so many now know about Trevor Bedford (@trvrb), a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, who’s using computational algorithms to understand how the virus is spreading. Or Cameron Kyle-Sidell (@cameronks), an emergency room doctor in New York City who’s been leading the call for drastic changes to standard intubation protocols. Or Hendrick Streeck (@hendrikstreeck), the director of the Institute of Virology at the University of Bonn, whose pioneering field studies of a German coronavirus hot spot are radically changing our understanding of how the virus spreads. (Hint: You’re not likely to get it from the jogger passing you on the sidewalk.)
We can use Twitter’s follower count metric to quantify the astounding rate at which these previously unknown experts have exploded into prominence. In mid-February, after Bedford first began tweeting extensively about Covid-19 related genomic tracking, he had 10,000 followers. By mid-April this number had grown to 211,000, giving him roughly the same audience as longtime New York Times columnist David Brooks.
This distributed expertise triage is not just useful but also a relatively new capability. If this pandemic had struck even as recently as 10 years ago, we would have been stuck listening to whichever experts an overwhelmed media corps happened to have in their Rolodex. Today we can be significantly more informed, but this vision of an information-rich pandemic response is not flawless. Twitter was optimized for links and short musings. It’s not well suited for complex discussions or nuanced analyses. As a result, the feeds of these newly emerged pandemic experts are often a messy jumble of re-ups, unrolled threads, and screenshot excerpts of articles. We can do better.
We need to augment social platforms with a surge in capacity of the original Web 2.0 technology that these upstarts so effectively displaced: blogs. We need WordPress-style sites featuring both easy-to-update static pages and chronological posts. These sites could be hosted by institutions with some degree of public trust and a reasonable technology infrastructure, such as universities, medical centers, and think tanks. Some mild gatekeeping could be performed on the experts granted blogs by these institutions, and critically, IT support could be provided so that the experts could start publishing with minimal overhead. If possible, there would be a similar look and feel to these sites hosted at various institutions, providing the sense that they all belong to the same cohesive extended information network.
When confined to Twitter, pandemic experts mainly express themselves through 15- or 20-tweet long threads. Not only is this format cumbersome to consume, it also can’t easily be updated. To make matters worse, these threads are quickly pushed out of view by the downward pressure of the growing user timeline. A page or post on a blog, on the other hand, allows the expert to more easily write long-form content, including links to their articles and rich graphics, they can easily update as new information arises. In addition, a stable section of core articles can be maintained at the top of the site where they will be immediately visible and not pushed out of view by new content.
In this proposal, these experts wouldn’t abandon social media. On the contrary, they would continue to actively engage with these platforms to summarize their ideas and comment on events, while the platforms would continue to work their algorithmic magic to amplify the more impactful content. The big change, however, is that this short-form content can now be pointing back to their longer, more stable elaborations.
One issue with this vision is that to some degree it already exists. Some experts—especially those in academia—already have personal sites hosted by their home institutions, and accordingly some are already posting longer form content. Such sites, however, aren’t widespread, and though some (like George Mason economist Tyler Cowen’s longstanding blog) are easy to update, most tend to be static repositories of CVs and publications lists that are not easily updated. Having a consistent WordPress configuration with dedicated IT support would enable many more of these experts to easily post and update material more frequently
Another existing option, of course, is to submit articles to existing academic and commercial publications (e.g., this one). Experts should, of course, keep doing this, but traditional publishing is slow and articles cannot be later updated as new information arises. Faster and more dynamic options are important to keep pace with this rapidly evolving crisis.
Experts could also rely instead on existing general-purpose publishing platforms like Medium, but this might exacerbate concerns about misinformation. The social capital required to request a blog hosted by a reputable institution would be significant enough to filter out cranks, but hopefully not so stringent that important dissenting voices would be excluded. (It’s here that relying on a diverse set of such institutions would matter.) There are also issues with consolidating all of this information on the servers of a small number of commercial companies granted the ability to censor posts without accountability or transparency. In the early weeks of the pandemic, for example, there were multiple reports of Medium taking down essays that challenged the effectiveness of stay-at-home orders versus less strict social distancing. Today, this topic is mainstream and an important part of the political discussion concerning restarting the economy. We don’t necessarily want to trust engineers at one company to make the decisions about what topics the public should and should not be able to read about.
In the first stage of this crisis, a lot of energy has been devoted to building out the supply chains for medical equipment, therapeutics, and testing materials. As we come to realize that the free flow of expert information can play an equally important role in our response, it’s time that we build out the best possible content supply chains as well.
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