Social Media Blog

Thoughts and rants on social networking.

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’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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Interesting that taking a break from Twitter (I will be back) results in some very different usage patterns on this blog.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Comments Off

The Social Media Outrage Cycle

It goes like this:

  • Somebody does or says something that somebody else thinks is tacky, tasteless or offensive.
  • Somebody else throws together a hastily-written and completely overblown 600 word thinkpiece on why that thing is an existential threat to civilisation, and it’s published on a clckbait website.
  • The link to the thinkpiece gets shared on social media by people outraged at the target of the thinkpiece
  • The link gets shared by an opposing group of people who are outraged at the thinkpiece itself.
  • The whole thing gets picked up by trolls who just enjoy watching the internet burn
  • Innocent bystanders end up being hurt.

There is no point linking to the current outrage-of-the day. There will be another one along tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that….

I wish there was some way of breaking the cycle.

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Things I love about Twitter: You can have conversations with Anglican vicars and church wardens on the subject “What sort of car would The Devil drive?”. The consensus seems to be a Jag.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 2 Comments

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 tablets, 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 | Comments Off

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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