Open Thinkering


Month: April 2022

Words and meaning are two different things

Sometimes, things that seem unproblematic and obvious don’t bear much scrutiny. Let’s take a popular case in point. Elon Musk, you may have heard, is buying Twitter. He tweeted the following of his intentions for the platform:

Elon Musk tweeting the following unattributed screenshot: "Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," said Mr. Musk. "I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential - I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it."

There is so much to unpack here. I almost want to go line by line. But instead, let’s zoom out a moment and just think about what’s happening here. The world’s richest man is buying a platform which has been known to have had an effect on democratic elections in at least two major western democracies. So he is absolutely right when he calls it a “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”. More than that, though, it’s a giant memetic influence machine which will no doubt help decide who will become next President of the USA.

Twitter isn’t “the” town square, however, in two senses. First, town squares aren’t usually privately-owned. They’re public spaces, owned by the people. Second, although it has a lot of users, Twitter doesn’t even have as many as Pinterest, never mind Instagram or Facebook. Also, worldwide, people use on average over seven different social platforms on average.

But, hang on, it’s a good thing that Musk’s is aiming to make Twitter better by “open source the algorithms to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans,” right? Well, perhaps not. Although I appreciate the sentiment, just because something can be inspected doesn’t mean it can be understood.

However, my main issue is with the idea that everything would be OK if we got rid of spam bots and ensured that everyone was in some way verified. Although it seems like common sense that the use of real names leads to civility, this has proved to be incorrect. It’s actually my experience on the internet as well. I’ve had some of the best interactions with people who I don’t know the real names of, nor where they’re located.

Someone sent me a link to which is a reductio ad absurdum of what Twitter could turn into. It claims: “No Trolls. No Abuse. No Ads. No Fake News. No Foreign Influence Ops.” Good luck with that. Again, although it sounds like something that social media users would want, it’s a thinly-veiled signpost to authoritarianism.

The answer to the problem of how to do online democracy is citizen education together with strengthening democratic institutions. It’s not allowing a billionaire who’s had some success buying companies before to parachute himself in to ‘fix’ things. Thank goodness I’ve spent the last five years on the Fediverse and deleted my Twitter account around six months ago…

Weeknote 16/2022

I’m composing this in the car as Hannah drives us all back home from Edinburgh airport. It feels like I’ve been driving for a significant chunk of the week in Croatia, and on the other side of the road. Note to self: never buy a Suzuki Vitara.

We flew back from Dubrovnik this morning, a wonderful city in which we didn’t spend enough time. Team Belshaw was based near Podgora in lovely, secluded location. The views, and in particular the sunsets, were spectacular. The only downside was that most things worth doing were in and around Split which necessitated an almost-daily pilgrimage of an hour and a half.

In addition to the driving was the Bora wind which blew hard for about 12 hours on two days. We also experienced an earthquake on our last night! All of that aside, we had a great time. There was enough sunshine to enjoy the (heated) outdoor pool, and having a table tennis table is always fun.

One of the highlights for me was unexpectedly being able to snag tickets to Hadjuk Split‘s football match against their main rivals, Dinamo Zagreb. The stadium, the atmosphere, and the policing(!) is unlike anything I’ve experienced in the UK. The hosts, Hadjuk Split won 1-0 and at one point we could barely see the pitch due to the number of flares being set off. Crazy.

I managed to go for a couple of 5k runs along the seafront while we were away. We travelled to the island of Hvar along narrow roads with precipitous drops. I read an entire non-fiction book on the flight back. My son and I went to an interactive communist history museum. Lots to unpack in the coming days.

Despite adding a few posts to Thought Shrapnel while away, and tomorrow being the last Sunday of April, I’m actually going to send out the next issue of the monthly newsletter on May 1st. (I also wrote a post here about unauditible algorithms.)

I’m back to work on Monday and want to make the most of the remnants of my third and final week off. I’ll have some catching up to do and need to get my head back in the game. I’m presenting at the Learning Technologies conference in a couple of weeks so I need to start preparing for that. It’s been great having long enough off (and having awesome enough colleagues) to fully unwind!

Unauditible algorithms are the enemy of social media users


Writing about Elon Musk trying to buy Twitter, Dorian Taylor reflects that:

What Twitter does really well is put you on equal footing with people you would otherwise never think to reach out to, and in other contexts, probably wouldn’t give you the time of day. These people put themselves out there to be interacted with, so you have implicit permission to interact with them.

I would say Twitter perhaps used to do this, at least for me. I find these kinds of interaction these days on the Fediverse, where people aren’t trying to please algorithms.

Chris Trottier, someone I have recently started following, wrote a post explaining the difference between interacting in a centralised, algorithm-controlled space, and setting up shop in a decentralised one.

I have managed to attract 35 followers. This is for a fresh new instance barely two weeks old. The network effect is low. There’s no social algorithm pushing my posts because the Fediverse has no algorithms like that.

Likewise, I am nobody particularly notable – just a guy having fun on social media. All anyone sees is pictures of computer games, cassette tapes, food, and stuff from nature walks. In effect, just stuff a typical person would share.

People respond to incentives: if algorithms are set up to reward users who interact in a certain way, then this is what (most) users end up doing. Proof of this comes through behaviours such as like-farming declarative statements on centralised social media, designed to maximise ‘engagement’ with a post.

It’s not so radical to wonder whether, when users of a system are posting things with the intention of ‘going viral’, perhaps authenticity suffers? Are algorithms used by centralised social media serving the needs of the humans using it?

Algorithms that cannot be audited are a feature, not a bug, of centralised social media. They are what provide ‘shareholder value” by allowing advertising content to grab the attention of users, whether they like it or not. These systems are focused on behaviour modification and are not going to change.

Capital, which is what centralised social media serves, loves hierarchy and social stratification. People knowing their place. People having a different experience based on their ability to pay, and, of course, monetising the ‘follower’ dynamic.

The Fediverse is a messy, weird, human place. It reminds me of Twitter in the early days. Everyone on a truly equal footing, being themselves — whatever that happens to be today. The experience isn’t sanitised, or corporate, or algorithmic. And, for me that’s perfect.