Open Thinkering

Menu

Tag: Twitter

The state of professional social networking: a personal history

In September 2003, I was just married and embarking on a postgraduate course to become a History teacher. My online social life up to that point had consisted largely of MSN Messenger, but professional online interaction tended to happen via email or forums.

One particularly useful resource at the time was the Schools History discussion forum. This featured History teachers of all ages and experience and was a treasure trove of interesting information and resources.

Early on in my teaching course, I was a registered member of the forum, but was just a lurker. The information and resources were useful, but I hadn’t even introduced myself. My Gravatar history would suggest that my avatar was Cary Grant.

This changed one day when, after a seminar, the only other person on my course who was a member of the forum asked why I didn’t post anything on there? I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, so I introduced myself soon afterwards and, well, that was that. I was regular poster on the forum from late 2003 for the next seven years or so.

Alongside the forum, I experimented with a Facebook account, courtesy of my academic email address. Ditto with MySpace, which I also didn’t use much. What I did do was blog a lot, as there was emerging what was known as the ‘edublogosphere’. I published every day on teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk as well as maintaining resources for my History students.

What I enjoyed about the edublogosphere was bloggers like me commenting on each others’ posts and discovering new voices. I remember FriendFeed being really handy in that regard. And then, in the midst of the Web 2.0 boom, came Twitter. I joined in the same month my son was born, January 2007.

It’s impossible for me to overstate the importance of Twitter to my career. It accelerated my development as an educator and gave me a network to draw from and rely upon. Part of me skipping middle management and going straight to senior management in schools is directly because of the connections and growth facilitated through my Twitter network.

I ran workshops on Twitter in the schools in which I worked. Most educators didn’t ‘get’ it until around 2010 when the BBC interviewed Stephen Fry, technophile and certified UK national treasure, about Twitter. He waxed lyrical about the platform, and all of a sudden people saw it as something that could connect you to celebrity. That was different. That was exciting.

Over the last decade, Twitter has become an entirely different platform. I’m not particularly interested in criticising it but will note that you get a different ethos and vibe when verified profiles are making official pronouncements using the platform. Even if you don’t particularly want to, you end up spending more time discussing politics and policing other people’s opinions.

As a result of my dissatisfaction with something I previously held so dear, since early 2017 I’ve been exploring decentralised social networks. Since then I’ve been using different instances of Mastodon, but also have accounts on different ‘Fediverse’ platforms as well, such as Pleroma and PixelFed.

In fact, I went reasonably far down the rabbithole, becoming Product Manager for MoodleNet, the world’s first federated social network for educators, and taking it from zero to one. So I’ve spent the last couple of years primarily thinking about issues relating to decentralised social networking.

Reflecting on all of this has made me realise that, for me at least, social networking has been intimately linked with professional networking. Now that it’s difficult to have a professional discussion on Twitter without politics getting in the way, where’s that moving to?

The obvious answer is LinkedIn, I guess, but there’s a definite self-congratulatory tone about updates there. Everyone’s “excited to be part of” something, or “pleased to be able to announce” something else. Look at me, ma! I’m doing business! 🙄

Despite, or perhaps because of, my background in Philosophy, I’m a practical kind of person. While I’m comfortable in the abstract, I want to get down to brass tacks – to what works in practice. So I can bide my time in the early stages of a social networks where people are talking primarily about the network itself, but am itching to get to more practical uses.

That’s coming, for sure. The Fediverse in 2020 is a more mature and nuanced place than it was in 2017, for example. But we’re still waiting for more than geeks and early adopters to get with the program. Then, for few glorious years, we’ll hopefully have a place that flourishes before the inevitable(?) commodification and selling out.


This post is Day 51 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com Posted in 100DaysToOffload

Weeknote 41/2020

Traffic cones in a large puddle

This week has been much like last week — busy, somewhat fraught, and involving lots of thinking about the future. It’s been typical autumn weather, with bright sunshine one moment and a torrential downpour the next!


I applied for a role at the Wikimedia Foundation entitled Director of Product, Anti-Disinformation after a few people I know and respect said that they thought I’d be a good fit:

The Wikimedia Foundation is looking for a Director of Product Management to design and implement our anti-disinformation program.  This unique position will have a global impact on preventing Disinformation through Wikipedia and our other Wikimedia projects.  You will gain a deep understanding of the ways in which our communities have fought disinformation for the last two decades and how this content is used globally.  You will work cross-functionality with Legal, Security, Research and other teams at the Foundation and imagine and design solutions that enable our communities to achieve our Vision: a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.

As a result, I ended up writing about my issues with Twitter’s attempts at anti-disinformation in the run-up to the US Presidential election.

On Friday evening, a recruiter for a different global product director role got in touch seemingly slightly baffled that I’d applied for it, given my career history and credentials. I suppose it’s easy to undervalue yourself when various people chip away at your self worth over a period of months during a pandemic.


I’m very much enjoying working with Outlandish at the moment. It’s particularly nice to work alongside people who not only work openly and co-operatively, but are genuinely interested in improving communication, trust, and empathy within their organisation.

During October, due to my commitment to a four week Catalyst-funded discovery programme with nine charities, I’m only working with Outlandish the equivalent of one day per week. However, from November to January, I’ll be spending half of my week (2.5 days) divided between two things:

  1. Helping them productise existing projects, and training/supporting new ‘product managers’ (although that role will look slightly different initially)
  2. Working on helping them expand their ‘Building OUT’ programme which stands for Openness, Understanding, and Trust.

One of Outlandish’s values is that they are ‘doers’, meaning that the space between verbally proposing something, gaining the consent of colleagues, and getting on with it is really short. It’s so refreshing, and meant that on Friday I was able to publish the MVP of a playbook using existing Building OUT-related resources.


On Thought Shrapnel this week I published:

Here, I published:


Other than the above, I’ve been making final preparations for a milestone birthday for my wife, Hannah, next week. I’ll reach the same age as her in a couple of months’ time, so at the start of 2020 we’d begun to draw up plans to celebrate both birthdays. Those plans went out of the window due to COVID-19, so I’m trying to make the day as nice as possible, with an eye on a belated celebration later.


Image of traffic cones in large puddle at Morpeth, UK.

The problems with Twitter’s attempts at anti-disinformation in the run-up to the US Presidential election

This week, Twitter published an article summarising the steps they are taking to avoid being complicit in negatively affecting the result of the upcoming US Presidential election:

Twitter plays a critical role around the globe by empowering democratic conversation, driving civic participation, facilitating meaningful political debate, and enabling people to hold those in power accountable. But we know that this cannot be achieved unless the integrity of this critical dialogue on Twitter is protected from attempts — both foreign and domestic — to undermine it.

Vijaya Gadde and Kayvon Beykpour, Additional steps we’re taking ahead of the 2020 US Election (Twitter)

I’m not impressed by what they have come up with; this announcement, coming merely a month before the election, is too little, too late.

Let’s look at what they’re doing in more detail, and I’ll explain why they’re problematic both individually and when taken together as a whole.


There are five actions we can extract from Twitter’s article:

  1. Labelling problematic tweets
  2. Forcing users to use quote retweet
  3. Removing algorithmic recommendations
  4. Censoring trending hashtags and tweets
  5. Increasing the size of Twitter’s moderation team

1. Labelling problematic tweets

We currently may label Tweets that violate our policies against misleading information about civic integrity, COVID-19, and synthetic and manipulated media. Starting next week, when people attempt to Retweet one of these Tweets with a misleading information label, they will see a prompt pointing them to credible information about the topic before they are able to amplify it.

[…]

In addition to these prompts, we will now add additional warnings and restrictions on Tweets with a misleading information label from US political figures (including candidates and campaign accounts), US-based accounts with more than 100,000 followers, or that obtain significant engagement. People must tap through a warning to see these Tweets, and then will only be able to Quote Tweet; likes, Retweets and replies will be turned off, and these Tweets won’t be algorithmically recommended by Twitter. We expect this will further reduce the visibility of misleading information, and will encourage people to reconsider if they want to amplify these Tweets.

Vijaya Gadde and Kayvon Beykpour, Additional steps we’re taking ahead of the 2020 US Election (Twitter)

The assumption behind this intervention is that misinformation is spread by people with a large number of followers, or by a small number of tweets that can a large number of retweets.

However, as previous elections have shown, people are influenced by repetition. If users see something numerous times in their feed, from multiple different people they are following, they assume that there’s at least an element of truth to it.


2. Forcing users to use quote retweet

People who go to Retweet will be brought to the Quote Tweet composer where they’ll be encouraged to comment before sending their Tweet. Though this adds some extra friction for those who simply want to Retweet, we hope it will encourage everyone to not only consider why they are amplifying a Tweet, but also increase the likelihood that people add their own thoughts, reactions and perspectives to the conversation. If people don’t add anything on the Quote Tweet composer, it will still appear as a Retweet. We will begin testing this change on Twitter.com for some people beginning today.

Vijaya Gadde and Kayvon Beykpour, Additional steps we’re taking ahead of the 2020 US Election (Twitter)

I’m surprised Twitter haven’t already tested this approach, as it’s a little close to one of the most important elections in history to be beginning testing now.

However, the assumption behind this approach is that straightforward retweets amplify disinformation more than quote retweets. I’m not sure this is the case, particularly as a quote retweet can be used passive-aggressively, and to warp, distort, and otherwise manipulate information provided by others in good faith.

One of the things that really struck me when moving to Mastodon was that it’s not possible to quote retweet. This is design decision based on observing user behaviour. It’s my opinion that Twitter removing the ability to quote retweet would significantly improve their platform, too.


3. Removing algorithmic recommendations

[W]e will prevent “liked by” and “followed by” recommendations from people you don’t follow from showing up in your timeline and won’t send notifications for these Tweets. These recommendations can be a helpful way for people to see relevant conversations from outside of their network, but we are removing them because we don’t believe the “Like” button provides sufficient, thoughtful consideration prior to amplifying Tweets to people who don’t follow the author of the Tweet, or the relevant topic that the Tweet is about. This will likely slow down how quickly Tweets from accounts and topics you don’t follow can reach you, which we believe is a worthwhile sacrifice to encourage more thoughtful and explicit amplification.

Six years ago, in Curate or Be Curated, I outlined the dangers of social networks like Twitter moving to an algorithmic timeline. What is gained through any increase in shareholder value and attention conservation is lost in user agency.

I’m pleased that Twitter is questioning the value of this form of algorithmic discovery and recommendation during the election season, but remain concerned that this will return after the US election. After all, elections happen around the world all the time, and politics is an everyday area of discussion for humans.


4. Censoring trending hashtags and tweets

[W]e will only surface Trends in the “For You” tab in the United States that include additional context. That means there will be a description Tweet or article that represents or summarizes why that term is trending. We’ve been adding more context to Trends during the last few months, but this change will ensure that only Trends with added context show up in the “For You” tab in the United States, which is where the vast majority of people discover what’s trending. This will help people more quickly gain an informed understanding of the high volume public conversation in the US and also help reduce the potential for misleading information to spread.

Twitter has been extremely careful with their language here by talking about ‘adding’ context for users in the US, rather than taking away the ability for them to see what is actually trending across the country.

If only trends with context will be shown, this means that they are being heavily moderated. That moderation is a form of gatekeeping, with an additional burden upon the moderators of explaining the trending topic in a neutral way.

While I’m not sure that a pure, unfiltered trending feed would be wise, Twitter is walking a very fine line here as, effectively, a news service. Again, as I commented in Curate or Be Curated years ago, there is no such thing as ‘neutrality’ when it comes to news, no ‘view from nowhere’.

Twitter needs to be very careful here not to make things work even worse by effectively providing mini editorials of ongoing news stories.


5. Increasing the size of Twitter’s moderation team

In addition to these changes, as we have throughout the election period, we will have teams around the world working to monitor the integrity of the conversation and take action when needed. We have already increased the size and capacity of our teams focused on the US Election and will have the necessary staffing to respond rapidly to issues that may arise on Twitter on Election night and in the days that follow.

A post on the Twitter blog from last year counted 6.2 million tweets during the EU elections last year. The population of countries making up the EU is only slightly larger than that of the USA, but next month’s election is much more controversial.

In this scenario, Twitter cannot afford (or hire) a moderation large enough to moderate this number of tweets in realtime. As a result, they will have rely on heuristics and the vigilance of users reporting tweets. However, because of the ‘filter bubble’ effect, the chances are that users who would be likely to report problematic tweets may never see them.


In conclusion…

If we step back a little and look at the above with some form of objectivity, we see that Twitter has admitted that its algorithmic timeline is an existential threat to the US election. As a result, it is stepping in to remove most elements of it, and replacing it with a somewhat-authoritarian approach which relies on its moderation team.

From my point of view, this is not good enough. It’s too little, too late, especially when the writing has been on the wall for years — certainly the last four years. I’m deeply concerned about social networks’ role in undermining our democratic processes, and I’d call on Twitter to learn from what works well elsewhere.

For example, on the Fediverse, where I spend more time these days instead of Twitter, developers of platforms and administrators of instances have developed features, policies, and procedures that strike a delicate balance between user agency and disinformation. Much of this comes from a federated architecture, something that I’ve pointed out elsewhere as being much more like how humans interact offline.

This post is already too long to rehash things I’ve discussed at length before, but Twitter has already started looking into how it can become a decentralised social network. In the meantime, I’m concerned that these anti-disinformation measures don’t go far enough.

Using Twitter as a lens for some thoughts on launching products

This week, several people have asked me whether I’m ‘nervous’ about the first test of MoodleNet, a new open social media platform for educators, focussed on professional development and open content. We’ve invited 100 people (50 English testers, 50 Spanish) to have a look and give us some feedback over a three-week period starting from next Tuesday.

To answer their question: no, I’m not. That’s not because of arrogance or misplaced optimism, it’s because of something that Baltasar Gracián talks about in The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, a book I read from every morning:

Don’t arouse excessive expectations from the start. Everything initially highly praised is commonly discredited when it subsequently fails to live up to expectation. Reality can never match our expectations, because it’s easy to imagine perfection, and very difficult to achieve it. Imagination weds desire and then conceives things far greater than they actually are… Good beginnings serve to arouse curiosity, not to guarantee the outcome. Things turn out better when the reality exceeds our initial idea and is greater than we anticipated. (Baltasar Gracián)

I think we could sum that up with ‘managing expectations’. It’s kind of the opposite of Silicon Valley hype, and useful when you’re developing a product for the long-term.

Talking of Silicon Valley, let’s have a quick look at what Twitter looked like when it launched (start at 09:05):

They were testing a value proposition, something like: “Do people want to tell the world what they’re up to in text-message sized updates?”

The answer, of course, turned out to be in the affirmative. But it took a while. I joined Twitter in February 2007, a few months after it launched. I loved it and, as I was teaching at the time, ran Twitter workshops for my colleagues. Most of them appreciated my enthusiasm, but didn’t think it would catch on.

Twitter took about five years to go mainstream. Here’s a potted history of that time period from the Buffer blog:

  • July 2006: ‘Twttr’ is available to the public
  • October 2006: Sign up for Twitter without your phone number
  • May 2007: You can block others and Twitter gets a mobile site
  • May 2007: Twitter gets an @replies column
  • August 2007: Twitter Profile Search goes live
  • September 2007: Tracking Twitter alias #Hashtags goes live
  • September 2008: Twitter gets Trending Topics
  • March 2009: Twitter introduces “Suggested Users”
  • October 2009: Twitter launches Twitter Lists
  • November 2009: Twitter unveils the new native RT function
  • March 2010: You can now add your location to your Tweets
  • April 2010: Twitter launches “Promoted Tweets”
  • September 2010: Twitter introduces the “New Twitter”
  • June 2011: Twitter launches its own link shortening service

So let’s just stand back and look at this for a moment. The functionality that we would say was pretty core to Twitter took a good while to roll out. Another interesting fact, not really highlighted in the Buffer post, is that many of these involved Twitter responding to what users were doing or had invented.

For example, people were using ‘RT’ to manually retweet posts way before November 2009. Meanwhile, hashtags were an invention of Chris Messina, and initially rejected by Twitter as too nerdy. Users who like what you’re trying to achieve will help you reach that goal.

Before Twitter became a publicly-traded company in 2013 it was much more focused on the ecosystem it was creating. One of the best things about early Twitter was that there was a huge range of clients you could use to access the service. In fact, the ‘pull-to-refresh‘ functionality that’s in almost every mobile app these days was invented by a third-party Twitter client.

Returning to MoodleNet, the reason it’s taken a year to get to this point is because of all of the preparation we’ve done, and all of the other kinds of testing we’ve done up to this point. So this is just the next step in a long journey.

Our value proposition is: “Do educators want to join communities to curate collections of resources?” The answer might be negative. In that case, we’ll go back to the drawing board. My hunch, though, borne out through tens of hours of conversation and experimentation, is that there’s something in this, and it’s worth pursuing.

All in all, I’m excited about this next step and looking forward to getting user feedback on the fantastic work my team have done.


Image: sketch of early Twitter taken from a 2018 tweet 

On the difference between people-centric and resource-centric social networks

Something Tom Murdock said recently resonated enough with me that I felt the need to write it down in a place that I can reference. Here is as good a place as any!

I’m leading Project MoodleNet, which is currently described as “a new open social media platform for educators, focused on professional development and open content”. Tom mentioned that he saw an important difference between ‘people-centric’ and ‘resource-centric’ social networks.

(Note: it’s been a couple of weeks since that conversation, so anything witty or clever I say in the next few paragraphs should be attributed to him, and anything confusing or stupid should be attributed to me)

I should also point out that I blog about things I’m thinking about here, whereas the official project blog can be found at blog.moodle.net.

What is a resource-centric social network?

A people-centric social network is something like Facebook or LinkedIn. Users have a single identity and want to follow or connect with you as a person. A resource-centric social network is something like Pinterest or Thingiverse where people interact and engage with you through the resources you’re sharing.

I think most people reading this will understand how Facebook and LinkedIn work. Imagine them towards one end of the spectrum, and Pinterest and Thingiverse towards the other. Twitter is an interesting case here, as users can have multiple accounts and follow non-human accounts. I suppose it would probably be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

A quick tour of Thingiverse

I think Project MoodleNet is more of a resource-centric social network. To illustrate that, I want to explore Thingiverse, a wonderful site I came across recently after acquiring a 3D printer. Here’s what the About page says:

MakerBot’s Thingiverse is a thriving design community for discovering, making, and sharing 3D printable things. As the world’s largest 3D printing community, we believe that everyone should be encouraged to create and remix 3D things, no matter their technical expertise or previous experience. In the spirit of maintaining an open platform, all designs are encouraged to be licensed under a Creative Commons license, meaning that anyone can use or alter any design.

So it’s:

  1. A registered trademark
  2. Owned by a company
  3. Focused on makers
  4. Allows the sharing of open content
  5. Encourages remixing

In that sense, it’s a very interesting model for Project MoodleNet.

Let’s look a little more closely. Below you can see the home page. The site is obviously curated by real human beings, as they’ve featured particular designs, and created collections which include designs from different users. There’s a feed of latest activity, the calls to action in the top menu bar make it obvious that this is a living community full of creative people.

Thingiverse home page

The next thing you notice when you click through onto a particular design is that there’s a lot of information here to help orient you. There’s a clear call-to-action below ‘DOWNLOAD ALL FILES’ but also we can see how many times it’s been liked, watched, commented upon, and remixed.

Thingiverse design

Click on the remix button and you get to see those who have remixed the original design in some way. If the design you’re looking at is itself a remix, it also allows you to look at the original, too.

Naturally, you want to know a little bit about the person who created it. Perhaps they’ve created some other things you’d like? Clicking on the user name reveals their Thingiverse profile.

Thingiverse profile

There’s lots of information about the person here: their username, location, Twitter profile, website, short biography. However, the focus is still on their resources. What have they designed? What have they shared?

The last thing to highlight is how Thingiverse deals with openly-licensed resources. When you click to download the files, the first thing that pops up is a windows that tells you in no uncertain terms about the license under which this resource has been made available.

Thingiverse CC licensing

In addition, it encourages you to ‘show some love’ to the designer. You can tip them using money via PayPal, and you can take a photo to ‘document’ your 3D print of their design, and you.

Final thoughts

I’m very impressed with the thought that’s been put into Thingiverse. I don’t know the history of the community, but it feels like something that has responded to users. In turn, I should imagine that when those who are regular users of Thingiverse come to purchase their next 3D printer, Makerbot will be top of their list. It’s a virtuous circle.

So there’s a lot to learn from here that we can apply to Project MoodleNet. I like the way that they make it easy for people new to the community. I love the ease by which you can use the fork-remix-share approach that developers are used to on GitHub, but many educators are still yet to discover. And I adore the way that they encourage users to ‘show some love’ to original resource creators, educating them on how to use openly-licensed content appropriately.

Why I just deleted all 77.5k tweets I’ve sent out over the last 10 years

Earlier this year, when Twitter changed their terms and conditions, I resolved to spend more time on Mastodon, the decentralised social network. In particular, I’ve been hanging out at social.coop, which I co-own with the other users of the instance.

Today, I deleted all 77.5k of my tweets using Cardigan, an open source tool named after the Swedish band The Cardigans (and their 90s hit ‘Erase/Rewind’):

Yes, I said it’s fine before
But I don’t think so no more
I said it’s fine before
I’ve changed my mind, I take it back

Erase and rewind
‘Cause I’ve been changing my mind

Why delete all my tweets? Because I’m sick of feeling like a slow-boiled frog. Twitter have updated their terms and conditions again, and now this service that used to be on the side of liberty is becoming a tool for the oppressor, the data miner, the quick-buck-making venture capitalist.

I’m out. I’ll continue posting links to my work, but that’s it. Consider it an alternative to my RSS feeds.

Deleting my tweets was a pretty simple process: I simply downloaded my Twitter archive and then upload it into Cardigan. This enabled me to delete all my tweets, not just the last 3,200.

The upside of doing this is that I could take my Twitter archive and upload it to a subdomain under my control, in this case twitter.dougbelshaw.com. All of my tweets are preserved in a really nicely-searchable way. Kudos to Twitter for making that so easy.

In addition, I realised that deleting my Twitter ‘likes’ (I’ll always call them ‘favourites’) was probably a good idea — all 31.4k of them. They’re not much use to me, but they can be data mined in some pretty scary ways, if Facebook is anything to go by.

I used Fav Cleaner (note: this service auto-tweets once on your behalf) to delete my Twitter likes/favourites. It’s limited to deleting 3,204 at a time, so I’ve left it running on a pinned tab and am returning to it periodically to set it off again. I may need to use something like Unfav.me as well.

To finally do this feels quite liberating. As a consultant, I often point out to clients when they’re exhibiting tendencies towards the sunk cost fallacy. In this case, I was showing signs myself! Just because using Twitter has been of (huge) value for me in the past, doesn’t mean it will be, or in the same way, in future.


Postscript: at the time of writing, Twitter’s still showing me as having tweeted a grand total of 67 tweets. However, it seems my timeline actually nly features one tweet; something I retweeted back in 2016 — and can’t seem to un-retweet. I think it’s oddly fitting:

Ready to make the jump to? I’m happy to answer your questions, I would love to connect with you on Mastodon. I can be found here: social.coop/@dajbelshaw.

3 reasons I’ll not be returning to Twitter

This month I’ve been spending time away from Twitter in an attempt to explore Mastodon. I’ve greatly enjoyed the experience, discovering new people and ideas, learning lots along the way.

I’ve decided, for three reasons, that Twitter from now on is going to be an ‘endpoint’, somewhere I link to my thoughts and ideas. It’s the way I already use LinkedIn, for example, and the way I used to use Facebook — until I realised that the drawbacks of being on there far outweighed any benefits. This model, for those interested, is known as POSSE: Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere.

There’s three main reasons I came to this decision:

1.  Social networks should be owned by their users

Last week, at Twitter’s 2017 Annual Meeting of Stockholders, there was a proposal to turn the service into a user-owned co-operative. It failed, but these kinds of things are all about the long game. You can find out more about the movement behind it here.

However, it’s already possible to join a social network that’s owned by its users. I’m a member of social.coop, which is an instance of Mastodon, a decentralised, federated approach to social media. I’m paying $3/month and have access to a Loomio group for collective decision-making.

I imagine some people reading this will be rolling their eyes, thinking “this will never scale”. I’d just like to point out a couple of things. First, services backed by venture capital can grow rapidly, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sustainable. Second, because Mastodon is a protocol rather than a centralised service, it can provide communities of practice  within a wider ecosystem. In that sense, it’s a bit like Open Badges.

2. Twitter’s new privacy policy

Coming into effect on 15th June 2017, Twitter is bringing in a new privacy policy that signals the end of their support of Do Not Track. Instead, they have brought in ‘more granular’ privacy settings.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is concerned about this:

Twitter has stated that these granular settings are intended to replace Twitter’s reliance on Do Not Track. However, replacing a standard cross-platform choice with new, complex options buried in the settings is not a fair trade. Although “more granular” privacy settings sound like an improvement, they lose their meaning when they are set to privacy-invasive selections by default. Adding new tracking options that users are opted into by default suggests that Twitter cares more about collecting data than respecting users’ choice.

It’s also worth noting that Twitter talks about privacy in terms of ‘sharing’ data, rather than its collection. They’ll soon be invasively tracking users around the web, just like Facebook. Why? Because they need to hoover up as much data as possible, to sell to advertisers, to increase the value of their stock to shareholders. Welcome to the wonders of surveillance capitalism.

3. Anti-individualism

There’s a wonderful interview with Adam Curtis on Adam Buxton’s podcast, parts of which I’ve found myself re-listening to over the past few days. Curtis discusses many things, but the central narrative is about the problems that come with individualism underpinning our culture.

We’re all expected to express how individual we are, but the way that we do this is through capitalism, meaning that we end up living in an empty, hollow simulacrum, mediated by the market. Guy Debord had it right in The Society of the Spectacle. It also reminds me of this part of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian . “Yes, we’re all individuals.”

Sigh.

So, in my own life, I’m trying to rectify this by advocating for a world that’s more co-operative, more sustainable, and more focused on collective action rather than the glorification of individuals.


To be clear: I’ll get around to replying to Twitter direct messages, but I am no longer looking to engage in conversation either in public or private on that platform. I’ve updated my self-hosted Twitter archive and am considering using the open source Cardigan app to delete my tweets before May 2017 to prevent data-mining.

Image CC BY-NC Miki J.

Why I’m not using Twitter next month

TL;DR I’m spending time experimenting with and exploring Mastodon during the month of May. You can connect with me at mastodon.cloud/@dajbelshaw.

Update: I’m now at social.coop/@dajbelshaw, for reasons I expain here.


Back in 2011, when I’d just discovered Open Badges, I led a semester of learning on the concept. Sometimes it’s not enough to play around the edges; you have to jump in with two feet to understand what something’s about. That immersion confirmed my initial thoughts, and I’ve spent the last six years evangelising and advocating for digital credentials based on that particular open standard.

The same was true back in 2007 when I joined Twitter. I thought that this was something revolutionary, something that could not only change the way that professional development was done in schools (I was a classroom teacher at the time) but literally change the world. Unlike Open Badges, of course, Twitter is backed by a for-profit company that floated on the stock exchange a few years ago. It’s a ‘free’ service that requires on advertising to provide shareholder value.

It was easy to forget all that in the early days, as we were giddy with excitement, connecting with like-minded people around the world. Pre-IPO, Twitter seemed like the good guys, being seen as a key tool in people organising to overthrow repressive regimes. In those days, it was easy to use one of a number of Twitter clients, and to route your traffic around the world to avoid censorship. Now, not so much.

Last week, via Hacker News, I came across 8values, a 60-question quiz in the mould of Political Compass. My results are below:

Libertarian Socialism

While I’m aware that this isn’t the most rigorous of ‘tests’, it did set me off on an interesting path. As you can see at the top right of my results, I came out as favouring Libertarian Socialism. I was surprised, as libertarianism is something I usually explicitly argue against.

I decided to do some digging.

The Wikipedia article for Libertarian Socialism is pretty fascinating and, as you’d expect from that site, sends you off on all kinds of tangents via the numerous links in the text. Given that I had an upcoming transatlantic flight coming up, I decided to make use of Wikipedia’s Book Creator. Within five minutes, I had a 500-page PDF on everything from anarcho-syndicalism to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

To cut a long story short, my current thinking is that Mutualism seems to best describe my thinking. I’m re-reading Proudhon’s What is Property?. He’s a little naive in places, I think, but I like his style.

Anyway, this is all to say that we need to re-decentralise the Web. I wrote a few years ago about the dangers of newsfeeds that are algorithmically-curated by advertising-fuelled multinational tech companies. What we need to do is quickly replace our reliance on the likes of Facebook and Twitter before politicians think that direct digital democracy through these platforms would be a good idea.

Ethical Design

So I’m experimenting with Mastodon. It’s not radically different from Twitter in terms of look and feel, but it’s what’s under the hood that’s important. The above image from Aral Balkan outlines his approach to ‘ethical design’ — an approach ensures things look good, but also respects us as human beings.

Decentralised systems based on open standards are really our only hope against Venture Capital-backed ‘software with shareholders’. After all, any promising new startups that aren’t decentralised tend to get gobbled-up by the supermassive incumbents (see WhatsApp, Instagram). But to get to scale — which is important in this case, not for shareholder value, but for viability and network effects — people have to use these new platforms.

So that’s what I’m doing. During May, a month when my Twitter timeline will be full of UK General Election nonesense, I’m using Mastodon. The only things I’ll be posting to Twitter are links to things I’ve written. If you’d like to join me, head here, choose an ‘instance’ (I’m on mastodon.cloud) and sign up. You can then add me: mastodon.cloud/@dajbelshaw. As in the early days of Twitter, one of the easiest ways to find good people to follow is to find ‘nodes’. I’ve found Anil Dash (@anildash) to a good starting point.

I look forward to seeing you there. It’s a learning experience for me, but I’m happy to answer any questions below!

Header image CC BY Eric Fischer

My #TwitteratiChallenge blog post

Last week, Tim Jefferis was kind enough to tag me in his #TwitteratiChallenge blog post. The rules and guidance for this can be found at the bottom of that post. I’m going to follow them in spirit rather than letter. 😉

Cory Doctorow

1. @doctorow
Writer, blogger, activist. If you want a reply, use email. Blog suggestions here: http://www.boingboing.net/suggest.html 0BC4 700A 06E2 072D 3A77 F8E2 9026 DBBE 1FC2 37AF

I’m not into celebrities and fandom, but I must admit to being in awe of Cory Doctorow. His novels are deeply thought-provoking, he surfaces important stuff through BoingBoing and his Twitter feed, and (perhaps most importantly) inspires me to keep on fighting the good fight for free and open source technologies.

Audrey Watters

2. @audreywatters
writer @hackeducation (http://hackeducation.com ), ed-tech’s Cassandra, author of The Monsters of Education Technology. Elsewhere: http://aud.life

We need more people like Audrey Watters in the world. Indefatigable and unwavering in her critique of the excesses of edtech, she’s a beacon of light and source of strength for many in the community.

Vinay Gupta

3. @leashless
Beyond good taste and evil. Global resilience guru. What do you do after it all goes wrong? And what about the poor, for whom it’s never yet been right?

My brain almost melts every time I get the chance to talk to Vinay Gupta or read his blog. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and gets me thinking about stuff I’d never even considered before.

Josie Fraser

4. @josiefraser
Social & Educational Technologist. Digital literacy, identity & community; staff & organisational development; open education; making change happen.

I’ve known Josie Fraser for around 10 years through shared interests in educational technology and digital literacies. She’s currently Digital Strategy Lead at Leicester City Council but has been involved in so much important work across Europe.

Oliver Quinlan

5. @oliverquinlan
Research tech in schools & write about learning futures. Opinions expressed mine alone. Book ‘The Thinking Teacher’ out now: http://bit.ly/thinkingteacher

Saying that Oliver Quinlan is one of the most reliable and dependable people in my network might sound like I’m damning him with faint praise but, given the level at which he works (Oliver is a multi-talented and award-winning, teacher, researcher, author, and thinker), it’s one of the highest recommendations I can give. His gentle and quiet facade hides a razor-sharp and questioning mind.


Want to join in? Consider yourself tagged! 🙂

My Twitter ads verdict: a waste of time and money

Update: The excellent comments on this post have made me realise that I proved exactly nothing in this experiment due to the poor way I set it up. Thanks all! Will try to do better next time.


I mentioned on Friday that I was going to experiment with Twitter ads for my book The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies. I said I’d report back on my findings.

Well, it’s a pretty stark message: either I’m doing something fundamentally wrong, or they’re a complete waste of time and money.

Here’s my results after spending $50 on three promoted tweets:

Twitter campaign overview

As you can see, not exactly stellar results.

So how did that translate to sales? Remember, I said that, “After Gumroad’s commission and the 10% discount, I need less than 10 additional people to buy my ebook to break even.”

According to my Gumroad statistics, I didn’t even sell one additional copy:

Gumroad customers

As the person who bought my book yesterday bought it at the undiscounted rate, I’m chalking that up as an ‘organic’ sale (i.e. they didn’t purchase it as a result of the advertising).

Happily, sales are going reasonably well anyway. They fluctuate each week, but are never zero. I think I’ll just let things continue as they are and not throw good money after bad. 😉

css.php