This week, Twitter finally decided to stop cropping image thumbnails on mobile feeds. While many will welcome this news, Twitter still has a lot of work to do if it wants to become a platform that appeals to photographers.
Back in March, Twitter announced that it was testing full-size image previews on Android and iOS devices, potentially bringing an end to the frustration felt by photographers tired of seeing Twitter’s poorly designed algorithm carve up their photographs. We wait to see whether Twitter rolls this out to other devices.
Quite why Twitter has been so slow to address its thumbnail algorithm is a mystery. Unless there was a face in your image, the selection seemed to be completely arbitrary, often rendering landscape and architecture photographs annoyingly abstract and far from engaging. Workarounds emerged, such as photo16x9.com, which adds a border to an image to bring it to a 16:9 ratio and thus avoid Twitter’s terrible cropping. Given that the speed at which you can Tweet is part of the platform's allure, such workarounds are not ideal.
Does Twitter Like Bright Faces or White Faces?
The inclusion of a face in your photograph doesn’t necessarily mean that Twitter’s bungling algorithm knows what it’s doing. It’s long been reported that it will choose white faces over Black, and one would imagine that this bias is something that the company would seek to fix as quickly as possible. Even cartoon characters can make Twitter’s programmers look like a bunch of white supremacists, and the platform has now had more than eight months to address this. At least with the new update, Twitter is no longer seemingly racist on iOS and Android devices:
Click through to the tweet to see how Twitter has created these thumbnails.
Back in October, Twitter wrote:
While our analyses to date haven’t shown racial or gender bias, we recognize that the way we automatically crop photos means there is a potential for harm. We should’ve done a better job of anticipating this possibility when we were first designing and building this product.
Why is it taking so long? Society is all but enslaved by algorithms, with some becoming so complex thanks to deep learning that their creators no longer know how they work. And yet, Twitter, a pioneer of technology, seems to struggle. Tech companies pride themselves on being nimble; Twitter, by contrast, does not.
Twitter Could Displace Instagram — but It Won't
It's frustrating to watch Twitter’s failure to seize an opportunity. With the decline of Instagram as a platform for image sharing, Twitter has an opening that it seems reluctant to grasp. Everything that Instagram lacks, Twitter has: curated lists, the option to switch to a chronological feed, and an oft-elusive sense of authenticity — achieved in this case largely by simply not being owned by Facebook. (Twitter once had the chance to buy Instagram; how different things might have been for photographers had that sale gone through.)
Trust and Control
For photographers to trust Twitter, it needs to provide means for creators to protect their content. The technology to do this exists (check out how Imatag works), and yet, no social media network seems interested. Uploading your images could easily embed an invisible watermark so that you can track its appearance across the network and even beyond. So, why isn’t such a system being implemented? For Instagram, the answer is simple: it's not simply that it wouldn't generate profit (and is therefore pointless), but eliminating posts made by those who don’t own the IP would likely carve the amount of content being viewed on Instagram by half. Freebooted content accounts for hundreds of millions of views every day, and removing it from the network would destroy ad revenue.
Embedding content outside of Twitter and Instagram is another minefield, but again, one that could easily be addressed. Upon uploading, users could decide whether a post should be embeddable or perhaps partially embeddable, with readers needing to click through to the original in order to view properly. If your post were suddenly being embedded into countless articles and you wanted to take back a degree of control, you could simply toggle the setting in your post so that readers would see a blurred version and would need to click through to your original post to view in full. These and other options exist — if Twitter wants to implement them.
Twitter’s terms and conditions don’t fare much better than those of Instagram. I spoke to photographer Jason Lee, who, a few years ago, discovered that footage of a storm that he had tweeted had been featured on the website of a major national newspaper. Twitter had then used this tweet in an email encouraging users to tweet more as their photos and videos could also appear in the national press. Twitter can use all of your content for free, but you’d at least expect to be told.
The Answer Is Not Another Social Media Network for Photographers
I’ve lost count of the number of Instagram alternatives that have sprung up over the last couple of years claiming to be the perfect solution for photographers. Each and every one of them fails on one basic premise: photographers do not want to use social media to show their work to other photographers. Instagram worked (pre-Facebook) because it was a platform for everyone that lent itself well to those with images to share, and content creators could reach and build an audience. Conversely, on a platform built by photographers, designed for photographers, and marketed at photographers, there is no audience: just other creators.
Twitter is different. The broad use is there, the audience exists, and with a few tweaks, it could be the ideal platform through which photographers can share their work. Unfortunately, those tweaks might be so long in coming that this opportunity to usurp Instagram as the ideal home for photography will be long gone.