#RIP Twitter?

Fail WhaleSo Twitter is apparently planning to replace the current reverse-chronological timeline with a new “algorithmic feed” which will prioritise the things the writers of the algorithm think you most what to see. The chorus of raspberries from Twitter users is such that the hashtag #RIPTwitter is trending, and was #1 at one point.

Yes, it’s a bad idea, and on the surface it looks like yet another attempt to turn Twitter into a low-rent copy of its bigger rival Facebook, oblivious to the fact that many of us prefer Twitter because we don’t care for the Facebook experience. The chorus that the sky is falling may be overstated, but the way everyone is immediately assuming the worst is indicative of the way Twitter’s user base no longer trusts the company.

It may be that Twitters strategy is for the basic Twitter apps, especially the web version, to be dumbed-down products aimed at new users, with the power users responsible for much of Twitter’s content steered towards Tweetdeck and third-party apps. We shall have to wait and see.

I know I’m not the only person who uses Twitter for real-time conversations, as a kind of personally-curated chatroom. Algorithmic feeds risk breaking that use-case. There are also justified concern that algorithmic feeds will reinforce existing power hierarchies, with even the most inane posts from celebrities prioritised over the speech of ordinary people. There’s another darker fear that it’s a trojan horse for filtering feeds in the interests of corporate and political agendas, weakening the ability to speak truth to power. Finally we should also not underestimate the way Facebook’s notorious Edgerank algorithm contributed towards poisoning the rest of the web by encouraging the worst kind of clickbait.

Many people are rightly complaining that Twitter devotes more time and energy to new features nobody asked for while doing too little about Twitter’s known problems with harassment. That’s a whole ‘nother issue I’ve covered elsewhere. But in passing I do wonder how many of those who advocate loudly for centralised moderation would change their tune the moment one of their own got permabanned for leading one witch-hunt too many.

But in the end perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether we should invest so much of our online presence and social connections in corporate platforms we do not own and do not control. Maybe it’s time to stick a fork in social media and go back to blogs and RSS aggregators. Not as a retro attempt to recreate the web of a decade ago, warts and all, but something that learns the lessons from what social media does well. Something that combines the ease-of-use of Facebook and Twitter but without a central hub controlled by a single untrustworthy company that could pivot and any time.

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4 Responses to #RIP Twitter?

  1. I’ve long felt that the biggest advantage RSS and blogs had was that nobody owned them. If you wanted to change blog hosts, off you go. There was an overhead involved in setting things up and maintaining them, but one of the unspoken advantages of such a high bar was that it kept out the people who weren’t really all that interested in having something to say. The original Web was self-curating, in the same way that the first home computers forced a certain degree of technical competence.

    I don’t think we can have a total return to such things; it’s unrealistic to expect it at this point. But I do think people are finally realizing that they don’t own these things, can’t expect them to be run by people with their best interests at heart, and don’t leave them with any recourse if they go far afield.

    If Twitter were an open source project akin to WordPress — where you paid for the privilege to be hosted on the most readily identifiable version of the product — we might not have had these problems. People could have forked off the software and started another version of it with more attention paid to things like harassment and crummy user experiences. Maybe that’s more the kind of thing we need.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    Part of my disillusionment with Facebook was the way it encouraged you to connect with people you know in real life despite the fact many of they didn’t really have anything worthwhile to say; all they did was endlessly share superficial fluff and memes.

    The other big problem was the mutual friend model that seems to encourage cliques and personal drama, which was why I eventually bailed because I’d had enough.

  3. Serdar says:

    Facebook works best when it’s used at arm’s length, as a syndicated for other media I do control. The network effects are only useful when you’re the one controlling them, and for the most part, you aren’t.

  4. Tim Hall says:

    Seems Jack Dorsey has responded and stated that real-time Twitter isn’t going away. But everything that happened in the previous twelve hours shows just how little he’s trusted.