Social Media Blog

Thoughts and rants on social networking.

The Future of Twitter

The media has been awash of late with suggestions that Twitter is dying, because its user base has stopped growing and the share price has fallen. It’s true that it’s nowhere near the size of Facebook. But people were predicting the imminent death of Facebook years ago, but it doesn’t seem to gone away. Twitter’s problem is unrealistic expectations; it’s failed to displace Facebook as the world’s number one social network. But it’s still become something substantial in its own right.

Twitter has probably plateaued now, but has enough of user base to ensure that it’s going to be around for a long time yet. Though not as big as Facebook it’s got a big enough network multiplier effect that people are going to use it in preference to smaller competitors who will struggle to break out of their niches.

Twitter’s biggest problem is that it’s still terrible at dealing with harassment, especially the pile-on attacks you get when someone with a substantial bully pulpit sets their followers on some poor nobody who’s got in their way.

Twitter does need to address this, but there are differing opinions as to exactly how they need to do it.

David Auerbach has called for a radical rethink on how Twitter handles conversations. Meanwhile Kasimir Urbanski suggests that the sky is falling, the authoritarians are taking over and it’s time to create a free speech alternative.

Twitter really has three options

  • Do nothing on the grounds that any solution will cause more problems that it will solve.
  • Publish much stricter terms of service, and throw a sufficiently large number of human moderators at the problem.
  • Do what David Auerbach suggests and devolve moderation to the user level.

The first of those is almost certainly not an option. Despite the protestations of noisy libertarians, Twitter does have a real harassment problem, and it can’t all be dismissed as the whining of bullies who dish it out but can’t take it. It’s true that some activists have a very subjective and highly politicised definition of harassment. It’s true that not all victims are women and not all perpetrators are men. But there is enough evidence to suggest that women pay a far higher price in terms of harassment for expressing remotely controversial opinions. If you still think that’s not a problem, I refer you to the word “privilege” (I dislike the term and it’s often misused, but there are times when it’s still appropriate. This is one of them). And no, third-party block lists are not the solution, they have too high a cost in false positives.

Twitter seems to be going for the second option, and it’s the one place I agree with Kasimir Urbanski, it’s not going to work. Human moderation can work very well for community sites, but only where there is a level of trust between the moderators and the community. Twitter is not a single community but many, many overlapping ones, most of which have few shared values in common. The failure modes of a mass human moderation approach are easy to imagine, and we’re already seeing worrying signs of this. We’ll see high-profile figures perma-banned “pour encourager les autres” because they’ve offended some other high-profile person or group with whom Twitter wants to curry favour. There will be no transparency, and who does and doesn’t get banned for near-identical behaviour will depend on who has the right friends or the right politics. Trust will evaporate.

Which leaves the third option, as proposed by David Auerbach. It’s not actually as radical a change as he suggests it is. It’s just a matter of applying some kind of reputation ranking on who can appear in your notifications, based on who the people you follow have either followed or blocked. They could have some kind of “traffic light” system; Green people are those who plenty of your friends follow and none have blocked. Red people are those many of your friends have blocked, or have accumulated many blocks relative to their tweet and follower counts. Amber people either those for whom not enough information is available, or your friends are divided over whether they follow or block them.

It’s not necessarily perfect, and there is a danger of echo chambers, which have their own problems. Whatever algorithms they use need to be designed to short-circuit anyone who tries to game the system by mass-blocking people they don’t like for reasons other than harassment, and that’s probably easier said than done.

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Twitter: Private Business or Public Square?

Fail WhaleTwitter has again been the centre of controversy following their removal of verified status from a prominent but notorious right-libertarian journalist with a reputation for setting packs of followers on people who have incurred his displeasure. Arguments rage over whether this is appropriate punishment for a serial bully, or whether it signals Twitter is publicly taking sides in the increasingly ugly culture war.

As I’ve said before, Twitter needs to get a handle on the mobbing and abuse that’s blighted the network for a long time. But when Twitter has taken on the role of a public square, it’s dangerous for them to impose top-down speech policing in the service of anyone’s political agenda, and they are currently sending out very mixed messages on the subject.

If Twitter is to impose any kind of rules, which they need to, they do need transparency in how they’re enforced. With the best will in the world it’s difficult to know precisely where to draw the line between harassment and speaking truth to power, so much is subjective and dependent on context. It would not be a good thing if every long-established Twitter user risks a permanent ban for crossing some invisible line at the same time as a relatively junior moderator is having a bad day. If you can’t imagine that even happening to you because you’re one of the good people, I refer you to the famous words of Pastor Niemöller.

Despite some of the wilder claims, it doesn’t look as if the sky is falling on freedom of speech, at least not yet. But there is a danger of ceding so much of our virtual public square to one private business. It’s a single point of failure, and there is always the danger it may pivot and allow powerful political or corporate interests to suppress conversations they don’t like for reasons which are not in the wider public interest.

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Twitter and those 10000 character Tweets

Twitter is allegedly going to introduce 10000-character Tweets, and a lot of people do not like the idea at all.

As the old saying goes, The Devil is in the details, and a lot depends on exactly how they implement this and how people subsequently use it.

A lot of people are assuming a worst-case scenario; that Twitter are simply going to extend the maximum Tweet length and clumsily shoe-horn the results into the existing user interface. That would have the effect of destroyed a lot of Twitter’s unique identity and make it indistinguishable in many ways from Facebook or Google+. The user experience will be degraded a lot if you end up having to click “more..” on every other Tweet just to see that last two or three words. Or worse, if your entire screen is taken up by the sort of rambling poorly-formatted stream-of-consciousness screeds you frequently see on Facebook.

A better and more likely scenario might be a space for occasional longer-form content along the lines of a native rival to Medium, something that can be attached to a Tweet and displayed when you expand it much like pictures are handled now. James Worrad explains why he considers that could be a good thing; there is a place for longer-form content, but not everyone has the time and inclination to set up a blog especially for it, especially if they only post to it occasionally. It’s not something I have any need for, since I already have a blog. Anything I can’t express in 140 characters goes here rather than on Twitter.

But ultimately the brevity and succinctness enforced by Twitter’s existing 140-character limit is fundamental to Twitter’s identity. The user experience and the user interfaces of the various apps are built around a stream of small bite-sized pieces of information, and that’s actually what the bulk of the user base loves about the service. It’s not something that should be messed with lightly.

140-character Tweets and longer-form blog posts are really two quite different things. They have very different life-cycles; it’s common to see links on Twitter to blog or Medium posts from months or even years before if the content is still relevant. In contrast, the life-span of most Tweets can be measured in hours if not minutes.

Nobody knows precisely what Twitter are going to do. They’ve done unpopular things before, most notably the way they cut off so many third-party clients that had been crucial to Twitter’s early growth. They’ve done things that have had unforeseen longer-term consequences to Twitter’s culture before; I still think the worst toxicity of Twitter was encouraged when they introduced the Retweet. They’ve done things that degraded the UX before; look at the way inline images have encouraged mindless sharing of low-quality but emotionally-appealing content generated by sleazy meme-farms at the expense of intelligent conversation.

Those things are the reason why so many people are willing to imagine the worst and don’t trust Twitter not to screw things up.

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Has the net become a more hostile place?

A few days ago I had some discussions online with an online friend who, like me, had been blogging for well over a decade. We both agreed that we self-censor a lot more nowadays compared with the early days of blogging. I’m very reluctant to promote political posts on Twitter, for example.

It might be that we’re both slightly older and wiser and more aware that we could tread on people’s toes with careless words. But I don’t think that’s the whole story; the growth of social media has made the net a more hostile place.

Sites like 4chan, Tumblr and parts of Reddit spawn toxic communities that don’t play nice with the rest of the net. It’s also it’s far easier nowadays to end up at the wrong end of a social media witch hunt if you say anything that someone with a substantial bully pulpit doesn’t like. I’ve had to remove posts in the recent past because the comments section turned toxic after a major figure linked to it.

This is sounding a bit like a grumpy “Kids, get off my lawn” post, I know. But I do think somewhere along the line, something good has been lost

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The Internet Is Broken

Are you sick of provocative clickbait articles across the web that read like something deep into Poe’s Law territory? Ben Collins of The Daily Beast is sick of it too. This is his response to a particularly ridiculous piece of above-the-line trolling that’s generated far too much monetised outrage.

As you know, this is a stupid thought only an intentionally provocative person would think, and the Internet let the author (whose name we’re also not printing, because we’re not rewarding this kind of thing) know exactly that. At some level, you’ve got to admire the guts: this guy had to have known that no person with real problems on this Earth shared this thought, and yet he spent hours of his human life writing about it before disseminating it on a big media platform with his face next to it.

But it’s still profoundly stupid. And he knows it. And he printed it anyway.

It’s not his fault, though.

If you think you’ve seen more of these recently—stories with no grounding in reality that 99 percent of the planet would never agree with and exist solely to get you to click and see if you’re not having a very swift stroke—well, you have. If you think standards for what is an acceptable story in respected news publications on the web have gotten lower in a chase for clicks, you’re right.

I don’t think this stuff is merely irritating but essentially harmless. The worst examples deepen the internet’s cultural and political divides, making the online world a more polarised and nastier place. We’re seeing people egg-manning this stuff, loudly declaring that their chosen outgroup believes some outrageous thing, and this is why we must all hate them.

Just like the ever more intrusive nature of web advertising, it’s a race to the bottom which will ultimately eat itself. Sadly even once-respected publications are being dragged down this route.

Ben Collins has suggested websites change their advertising model to encourage engagement rather than maximising clicks. Whether he’s right or not, the current situation is not sustainable.

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The world would be a far better place if we were all more willing to unfollow those who unthinkingly reshare every viral outrage of the day on social media, but never bother to post corrections when the stories they’ve been signal-boosting turn out to be completely bogus. One major SF author and a well-known game designer are currently on Yellow Cards over this….

Posted on by Tim Hall | 2 Comments

Peeple: App or Poe?

PeepleEveryone you know will be able to rate you on the terrifying ‘Yelp for people’ — whether you want them to or not, which up this horrifying app. Twitter is melting down again with outrage, such that the founders of Peeple ironically ended up protecting their Twitter account at one point.

This makes me wonder if Poes Law now applies not just to extremist ideologues, but to social media applications as well. It’s actually very difficult to tell if Peeple is a real but dangerously ill-conceieved application waiting to be launched, or if the whole thing is a very clever hoax, perhaps viral marketing for something quite different.

Fortunately, if it is real, its core functionality appears to violate UK and EU data protection and privacy laws, so there’s no way an applicaiton which can so obviously be used as a bullying platform could legally launch here in Britain.

Also, if it’s real, it raises the question of tester ethics again. As a responsible ethical tester, can you fail and entire application as not fit for purpose and potentially dangerous at a fundamental business requirement level?

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The Pros and Cons of Twitter Blocklists

Slate’s David Auerbach has written a well-balanced piece in Slate on the pros and cons of Twitter blocklists. He recognises that they’re a valuable weapon against harassers and trolls, but can cause their own problems, and that people and especially organisations should be wary of using third-party blocklists without understanding the agenda of whoever is maintaining the list.

For example, Arthur Chu has a shared blocklist of 30,000 people. All you need to do to get on that list is having ever disagreed with or criticised Arthur Chu. The fact that I’m on it ought to tell you all you need to know. Other blocklists will include you merely for following the wrong accounts.

Blocklists are at best a sticking plaster for a problem Twitter itself should have been more pro-active at dealing with a long time ago.

What’s very telling, though, is the level of vitriol I’ve seen directed at the the author of the piece, with some high-profile figures not even bothering to critique the piece itself but going straight to ad-hominem, accusing him of being pro-harassment (he’s not) or being a supporter of Gamergate (which he isn’t). Somebody’s even threatened to build a new blocklist threatening his followers (i.e. unfollow him or you’ll get blocked).

It does sound as though he’s struck a raw nerve.

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Reddit: The Darkening

I’m not a user of Reddit. But the current meltdown is turning one of those bad car crashes you just can’t look away from. It’s a textbook demonstration of the fundamental incompatibilty between a top-down autocratic management style and a business that’s very heavily dependent on unpaid voluntary labour. I’m getting flashbacks to AOL’s gutting of CompuServe’s forums a decade and a half ago.

Meredith Patterson provides the best summary of the whole thing I’ve read, in the Medium post On Port 80 which ends with this quote.

Users may be the cash cows of the internet economy, but thinking that users can be herded like cattle is a mistake that entrepreneurs cannot afford to make.

The whole thing is well worth a read, especially the observation that so many of the most popular web applications (Gmail, Reddit, Twitter) are essentially web-based versions of much older internet protocols.

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How Software Affects Behaviour

Lengthy and interesting post on Slate Star Codex titled The Toxoplasma Of Rage. The whole thing is well worth a read as one explanation as to why so-called “Outrage culture” behaves in the way it does.

One section that jumped out was the part about how the nature of social media platforms affects the ways in which people behave, and cites Tumblr as an example.

Tumblr’s interface doesn’t allow you to comment on other people’s posts, per se. Instead, it lets you reblog them with your own commentary added. So if you want to tell someone they’re an idiot, your only option is to reblog their entire post to all your friends with the message “you are an idiot” below it.

Whoever invented this system either didn’t understand memetics, or understood memetics much too well….

…. I make fun of Tumblr social justice sometimes, but the problem isn’t with Tumblr social justice, it’s structural. Every community on Tumblr somehow gets enmeshed with the people most devoted to making that community miserable. The tiny Tumblr rationalist community somehow attracts, concentrates, and constantly reblogs stuff from the even tinier Tumblr community of people who hate rationalists and want them to be miserable (no, well-intentioned and intelligent critics, I am not talking about you). It’s like one of those rainforest ecosystems where every variety of rare endangered nocturnal spider hosts a parasite who has evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize that one spider species, and the parasites host parasites who have evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize them. If Tumblr social justice is worse than anything else, it’s mostly because everyone has a race and a gender so it’s easier to fire broad cannonades and just hit everybody.

Tumblr’s reblog policy makes it a hothouse for toxoplasma-style memes that spread via outrage. Following the ancient imperative of evolution, if memes spread by outrage they adapt to become as outrage-inducing as possible.

Which begs the question: to what extent do the design decisions taken by the developers of a social network determine the culture that develops? The above example suggests the decision of Tumblr not to have blog-style comments ended up fostering the aggressive call-out culture for which Tumblr is infamous.

In a similar way Twitter became a significantly more hostile place around the time they introduced the Retweet, which I don’t think is entirely a coincidence. And Jay Allen has suggested that the anonymous imageboard culture that’s developed through sites like 4chan is responsible for the toxicity of #GamerGate. Similar things have been said about the self-reinforcing echo-chambers of parts of Reddit.

Will the next generation of social media platforms learn anything from this? It’s really a diversity-in-tech issue. If a platform is developed by a term who are overwhelmingly young and male with homogeneous socio-political views, it will inevitably reflect their biases and blind spots. Sometimes you can spot those blind spots instantly; for example ello.co’s launching without a mute or block function demonstrated that nobody there knew anyone who’d been subjected to stalking or bullying online.

Human nature and wider society being what they are, it’s not possible to design out toxic behaviour entirely by technical means alone. But social media companies do need to think what sorts of behaviour their design decisions have the effect of rewarding, what sorts of behaviour they actively want to discourage, and what wider impact they might have.

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