Social Media Blog

Thoughts and rants on social networking.

Pumpkin Spice?

Ello might not be the Facebook-killer we are looking for, for it’s yet another closed propietary silo.

Maybe it will be something like Pumpkin Spice, an idea that’s come from the delightfully retro tilde club.

Take all the standards we’ve got – RSS, Atom, FOAF, email, etc. – and use them to simulate Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc. while letting the user own all the data, and without requiring the user to sell their personal data or eyeballs.

There are a lot of projects out there that let you own your data, but usually that means you go buy a raw server. Ain’t nobody got time for that, where “nobody” means “my relatives.” What we need is something that’s absolutely brain-dead easy to use, and that simulates a social network they’re already using. That means it has to have content, which means it has to be pretty agnostic about what it allows you to “friend.” Under the hood it’s mostly an RSS/Atom reader, but it’s also got to make use of as many proprietary APIs as it can, to pull in Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, whatever the stuff they want to follow is on. Of course, since ideally those “friends” catch on and bail on the silo’d, privacy-hungry social networks, being able to use those APIs for long is going to be a problem.

This sounds like an interesting concept; a decentralised social network that doesn’t rely on any server-side infrastracture of its own, doing everything in the client.

Given the increasing popularity of tables, especially their adoption by the generation that grew up before the internet, it will really need client applications for Android and IoS as well as Windows.

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Hey Twitter. Instead of shoving random celebrity nonsense we didn’t ask to see into our feeds, how about building a reputation system instead? We could use that to filter out junk from drive-by trolls from our notifications and searches, which are the only parts of Twitter we’re not able to actively curate ourselves.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

Trolls Are The New Spam

Abi Sutherland made a very good point on Twitter a couple of days ago comparing the troll problem with the spam problem.

A few years back, spam threatened to overwhelm the internet. Our email inboxes were getting flooded with fake Viagra and make-money-fast schemes that drowned out legitimate communications. Likewise bot-generated comment spam meant that any blogger that wanted to enable comments either needed to spend vast amounts of time hand-moderating comments or see their comment sections flooded with garbage.

The spammers and their apologists used to say “Just delete it”, and then whined about freedom of speech every time anyone proposed anti-spam solutions.

We didn’t let the spammers win. Instead we built reputation systems like Akismet, and we added Bayesian filtering to our email, and it turned the tide. They weren’t 100% effective, and did generate the occasional false positive, but they have reduced spam to a manageable problem.

Today we’ve got a huge problem with trolls. They reduce the signal-to-noise ratio across so many sites that “don’t read the comments” and “bottom half of the internet” are commonly used phrases. They harass people online to the extent that far too many people with something worthwhile to say end up being hounded off social media.

Trolls can kill productive conversation. “Just ignore them” is equivalent to “Just delete it”.

Dealing with trolls is a hard problem. Trolling is vastly more subjective and context-dependent that spam. Building an equivalent reputation system based upon who’s favourited or blocked blog comments and social media posts won’t be an easy task. Building one that reduces the impact of bad behaviour without creating dangerous echo-chambers may prove even harder. But it can’t be an impossible task either.

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The Trouble With Twitter

Fail WhaleI am getting sick of #GamerGate on Twitter, especially when I have online acquaintances on both “sides”.  There way too much toxicity swilling aroud the whole thing, to which people on both sides are contributing. It’s yet another example of the failure mode of “Hashtag activism”, and I know I’m not the only person who wonders if all this negativity is sucking out all the positive aspects of Twitter.

I’m not the only one who thinks this:

Dave Rickey writing in Zen of Design

Twitter is a breeding ground for social dysfunction, where you are lulled into a sense of community and comradery because everyone you follow and everyone that follows you are basically in agreement. The only things that can penetrate the bubble are “Outrage Porn” being retweeted into it, and attacks responding to outrage porn that is being passed around other bubbles.

There’s no room for nuance or in-depth discussion, and anyone who makes the mistake of trying will see their lengthy and thoughtful think-piece distilled down to a barely-true (if that) 140 character sound bite that will be used as a new piece of outrage porn.

David Auerbach writing in Slate:

People are accustomed to being irreverent in conversations with friends, but on Twitter, anyone who might take offense is likely to overhear (unless your tweets are protected, but why be on Twitter in that case?). At least you can go on Reddit without having the repugnant Philosophy of Rape subreddit being shoved in your face; Twitter drags everyone down to the bottom. No matter whom you unfollow, mute, or block, someone you do follow will sooner or later draw your attention to an outrage and encourage you to join the condemnation. On Twitter, negativity is viral.

Twitter didn’t used to be like this. I can remember the times when it was the virtual equivalent of the friendly local pub where all your mates hung out and you swapped joles and stories. I remember reading Robert Scoble’s blog post from five years ago claiming Twitter didn’t suffer from the “forum/chatroom problem” because your feed showed only people you’d invited to join the conversation.

We’ve lost that somewhere along the line.

Maybe it was when Twitter gave greater prominence to the notifications tab. Maybe it all went pear-shaped when they introduced the retweet, something Robert Scoble raised as a concern. Or maybe it was just that, like so many other places, Twitter was better in the early days before the rabble arrived, when most people were enthusiastic early adopters.

Twitter at it’s best can still be great fun; I love the rapid-fire exchanges between one particular group of friends who managed a mashup of The Shipping Forecast and Bruce Forsythe’s Generation Game (“…set of matching luggage 4, becoming 5 later…“)

But I can’t help feeling that either we all need to be smarter in our use of Twitter, with a little less “outrage porn”, ot Twitter needs to rethink some aspects of how the service works, so it amplifies the loudest voices a little less.

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I am now seeing posts on LinkedIn saying “What does ello.co mean for brands?” Can we point these people towards the B-Ark, please?

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

The Web We Lost – And How To Rebuild It

A couple of posts from Anil Dash from 2014, first The Web We Lost, and then the folowup, Rebuilding the Web We Lost. Both are well worth a read.

It’s easy to overlook that way social giants such as Facebook and Twitter have given an online voice to millions who lacked the technical skills to create their own blog or configure an RSS reader. You could even argue that Facebook’s killer app was Edgerank, which solved the information overload problem that was the Achillees heel of RSS.

It’s difficult to predict what the web of five or ten years time might look like, but Im hoping Anil Dash’s optimism that the pendulum will swing away from closed propietary networks. If he’s right, new startups like ello.co aren’t part of the future, but more of the same.

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Ello, Goodbye

elloIs ello.co the first social network to jump the shark before it’s even out of beta?

Today has not been a good day for the fledgeling application. Their expansion coincided with a mass exodus from Facebook as a consequence of Facebook’s heavy-handed enforcement of their “real names” policy, and a flood of new users found a system that wasn’t ready for prime time. Simultaneously serious doubts have been raised about their potential business model.

First, the beta went live without any form of block or muting functionality, which ought to be a fundamental part of any social networking application, and guarantees it will turn toxic the moment the trolls turn up in any numbers. Which also makes it unsafe for anyone who’s concerned about being stalked or harassed online. They did have a lengthy and rather vague list of speech codes, some of which were themselves problematic, which combined with a lack of a block function gave the impression they wanted the sort of centralised top-down moderation typical for smaller community sites rather than the sort of decentralised user-level moderation that actually works for larger unfocussed networks. This might explain why knowledgeable and reliable people believed the hoax that ello were banning users referencing “#GamerGate” as “hate speech”.

Second, it’s another closed-source proprietary system with no API and no means of exporting the data you’ve been putting in to it. The world really doesn’t need yet another walled garden that retains complete control over your data and your connections. I still live in hope that the next generation of social networking will be an ecosystem of open source applications which no one corporation controls. I’m not holding my breath though.

Finally, the founders never revealed the fact that they were funded by venture capitalists, which suggests the promises of being ad-free and not selling user data may well not survive the exit strategy demanded by the VCs. Vague promises not to be evil seldom survive IPOs or sales.

At the moment, I don’t think ello.co is for me. There is a chance that it might take off. But at the moment at its best it’s value little more than an insurance policy against Twitter turning bad. I can’t see it becoming the Facebook killer it’s been touted to be. It’s more likely to fade away like app.net did.

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If I find myself leaving snarky comments against risibly pompous and patronising articles served up by LinkedIn (Really, there was one that suggested your career depends on driving the right car!), then perhaps I really need to get back on Twitter…

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

Moderating Twitter

Twitter has a troll problem.

If you’re white, male, not a celebrity and don’t tend to say anything much that’s controversial, then blocking the occasional drive-by troll works perfectly well. If at least one of those things doesn’t apply to you there’s plenty of evidence that Twitter is a little bit broken and better blocking and moderation functionality is needed.

Twitter does have a function to report abuse, but I’m seeing complaints that it’s far too cumbersome, and that has a (possibly deliberate) effect of limiting its use. At least one person has noted that it takes more effort to report an account for abuse than it does for a troll to create yet another throwaway sock-puppet account, a recipe for a perpetual game of whack-a-mole.

In contrast, here’s the Report Abuse form from The Guardian’s online community. There is no real reason why reporting abuse on Twitter needs to be any more complicated than this.

Grainiad Abuse Report
And here’s dropdown listing the reasons. Not all of those would be appropriate for Twitter; “Spam” and “Personal Abuse” certainly are, the others less so.

Grainiad Abuse Report 2
While I approve of Twitter taking a far tougher line against one-to-one harassment, I am not at all convinced that more generalised speech codes are appropriate for a site on the scale of Twitter. Such things are perfectly acceptable and even expected for smaller community sites where it’s part of the deal when you sign up and reflects the ethos behind the site. Indeed, most such community sites are only as good as their moderation, and there are as many where it’s done badly as those where it’s done well. We can all name sites where either lack of moderation or overly partisan moderation creates a toxic environment.

But for a global site with millions of users the idea of speech codes opens a lot of cans of worms which ultimately boil down to power. Who decides what is and isn’t acceptable speech? Whose community values should they reflect? Who gets to shut down speech they don’t like and who doesn’t? I can’t imagine radical feminists taking kindly to conservative Christians telling them what they can or cannot say on Twitter. Or vice versa.

Better to make it easier for groups of people whose values clash so badly that they cannot coexist in the same space to be able to avoid one another more effectively. Yes, there is a danger of creating echo-chambers; as I’ve said before, if you spend too much time in an echo-chamber, then your bullshit detectors cease to function effectively. But Twitter’s current failure mode is in the other direction; pitchfork-wielding mobs who pile on to anyone who dares to say something they don’t like, overwhelming their conversations.

At the moment, the only moderation tool available to individual users is the block function, which is a bit of a blunt instrument, and is only available retrospectively, once the troll has already invaded your space.

There are other things Twitter could implement if they wanted to:

For a start, now that Twitter has threaded conversations, how about adding the ability to moderate responses to your own posts ? Facebook and Google+ both allow you delete other people’s comments below your own status updates. The equivalent in Twitter would be to allow you to delete other people’s tweets that were @replies to your own. If that’s too much against the spirit of Twitter, which it may well be, at least give the power to sever the link so the offending tweet doesn’t appear as part of the threaded conversation.

Then perhaps there ought to be some limits to who can @reply to you in the first place. I’ve seen one suggestion for a setting that prevents accounts whose age is below a user-specified number of days from appearing in your replies tab, which would filter out newly-created sock-puppet accounts. A filter on follower count would have similar effect; sock-puppets won’t have many friends.

Another idea would be to filter on the number of people you follow who have blocked the account. This won’t be as much use against sock-puppets, but will be effective against persistent trolls who have proved sufficiently annoying or abusive to other people in your network.

All of these are things which Twitter could implement quite easily if the will was there. But instead they seem more interested spending their development effort on Facebook-style algorithmic feeds.

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Violet Blue on Facebook

Tech commentator Violet Blue writes about Facebook’s “emotional contagion” experments, and does not mince words, calling them “unethical, untrustworthy, and now downright harmful“:

Everyone except the people who worked on “Experimental evidence” agree that what Facebook did was unethical. In fact, it’s gone from toxic pit of ethical bankruptcy to unmitigated disaster in just a matter of days….

…. Intentionally doing things to make people unhappy in their intimate networks isn’t something to screw around with — especially with outdated and unsuitable tools.

It’s dangerous, and Facebook has no way of knowing it didn’t inflict real harm on its users.

We knew we couldn’t trust Facebook, but this is something else entirely.

Time will tell, but I wonder whether this will turn out to be a tipping point when significant numbers of people conclude that Zuckerberg and co cannot be trusted and seek other ways of keeping in touch online with those they really care about.

It may just be a bizarre coincidence, but I’ve noticed a lot of people I used to know on Facebook showing up as “People I may know” on Google+. Not that Google is much less creepy and intrusive than Facebook.

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