Doug Belshaw

Web Literacy Lead for the Mozilla Foundation. Enthusiastic about all things related to education, technology and productivity.

Twitter, algorithms, and digital dystopias

Twitter (typography)

Introduction

My apologies for the long post. I’m channeling my inner Mark Twain when I say I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.

I woke up this morning to a couple of great links shared by John Johnston on Twitter. Don’t Be a Platform Pawn by Alan Levine led me to Frank Chimero’s From the Porch to the Street and then onto a post about The Evaporative Cooling Effect which, in turn, cites this paper.  The other link, Waffle on Social Media took me to a post called Community Services which led to What’s a Twitter Timeline?

What did we used to do before Twitter?

The first time I came across John would have been in the 2004-5 academic year, I reckon, when I started blogging. This was a pre-Twitter time, a time when Facebook and YouTube had only just been invented. We used RSS readers like Bloglines, and Technorati (then a blog search engine) a was a big deal. Back in those days it was easier to sort the signal from the noise as I could literally follow everyone’s blog that I wanted to read. As you would expect, this number grew exponentially over the years and, by the time Google Reader shut down, the number of unread articles I was faced with numbered in their thousands. This, I believe, is what Clay Shirky calls filter failure.

So, although I know of people (like Stephen Downes) who are notable exceptions, we collectively swapped our RSS readers for easier-to-manage, and less guilt-inducing social streams such as those provided by Facebook, Twitter, and (later) Google+. These services made it more acceptable not to keep up – and provided a way, in the form of Like, Favourites, and +1′s, for the most popular content to bubble to the surface.

I’m not being facetious when I say that Twitter had a helping hand in me landing my last three jobs. In particular, the 2009 interview where I mobilised my followers to show the panel how powerful the network can be remains my all-time favourite example. But Twitter has changed since I joined it in 2007.

How we are now

What’s so problematic about all of this, of course, is that whereas we used to be in charge of our own reading habits, we’ve outsourced that to algorithms. That means software with shareholders is dictating our information environment. I have to admit that sometimes this works really well. For example, although I’d prefer greater transparency around the algorithm that powers Zite, it consistently surfaces things that I care about and otherwise would have missed. Other times, and especially in the light of Twitter’s changes to the way favourites are used, it makes me more wary about using the service. And don’t even get me started on Facebook.

I’m at the point where I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter. It’s so useful for me in terms of keeping my finger on the pulse of the sectors I’m involved in. However, especially at this time of year, I can become overwhelmed and I can’t see the (human) wood for the (technological) trees. Frank Chimero pretty much nailed it:

This may be overstating or overthinking the situation. Twitter is just a website. Yet, I can point to many opportunities, jobs, and (most importantly) friendships that sprung from it. Some married friends met on Twitter. It’s tempting to give an importance to the service for those of us who joined early and were able to reap these benefits, but that doesn’t mean Twitter needs to stick around forever. It matters. Or mattered. To me, I’m unsure which just yet.

How we might be in the future

During the height of the Web 2.0 boom, there were a plethora of services vying for attention and users. People jumped between these based on a small pieces, loosely joined approach. The thing that tied everything together 10 years ago was your domain name, which was your identity on the web. Nowadays, even I link to people’s Twitter accounts rather than their domains when I’m blogging about them.

It’s all very well saying that other social networks will come along to take their place, but will they? Really? In an age of megacorps? I’m skeptical. So perhaps we need a different approach. Something like Known, perhaps, or a service we can own and install ourselves that allows us to personalise our online experience rather than monetise it for shareholders. It’s heartening to see that the publication of The Circle by Dave Eggers seems to have made us question the sprint towards a digital dystopia.

As a parent, the mindset that goes with social networking concerns me. One thing I notice every year when emerging from my yearly (and grandly-named) Belshaw Black Ops period is how shallow my thinking is when I’m doing so in tweet-length morsels. It’s easy to think that I’m ‘doing it wrong’ and that I should use different services, but  what I think we need is a different approach. Perhaps I should be advocating POSSE, as championed by the Indie Web Camp folks. This stands for Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. However, it seems a touch reactionary rather than future-facing. People don’t comment on blogs like they used to, so I’d miss out on a boatload of interaction with people from around the world.

Conclusion

Twitter is a company listed on the stock exchange. So is Facebook. And Google. Pinterest will be soon. In fact, every successful social space is, or is likely to end up being a monolithic corporation. As such, they need to provide shareholder value which, given the web’s current dominant revenue model, is predicated on raising advertising dollars. Raising the kind of money they need depends upon user growth, not necessarily upon serving existing users. After all, if they’ve provided the space where all your friends and contacts hang out, you’re kind of locked in.

OK, that’s enough. I’ll end this overly-long post with a quotation from Jesper, the author of Community Services:

Social media has come to symbolize, for me, the tyranny of having to appear relevant, visible and clean to everyone else, the inability to define my own boundaries and the uncertainty about what’s going to happen tomorrow to the fundamental structure of this tool that I’m using – all the while someone either makes money off of me or adds to the looming amorphousness trying to stay afloat.

You don’t have to share these fears, but that’s why I’m writing this on hosting space I pay for myself on a domain I own myself. Not because I relish absolute control over every bit. Not because of personal branding. Not because I am a huge nerd (I am a huge nerd because I write these kinds of articles and quote Douglas Adams in them). I do it because it’s the worst alternative, except for all the others.

Image CC BY-SA Jennie