Social Media Blog

Thoughts and rants on social networking.

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’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.

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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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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.

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