How farmers in Myanmar shape the future of the web

The Atlantic pub­lished The Face­­book-Lov­ing Farm­ers of Myan­mar this week. It’s a fan­tas­ti­cal­ly inter­est­ing write-up by Craig Mod of ethno­graph­ic research he under­took in the South­east-Asian coun­try. What makes that mar­ket so par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing is that Myanmar’s net­work was until recent­ly arti­fi­cial­ly capped and con­trolled by the rul­ing mil­i­tary jun­ta, but a vast num­ber of peo­ple have sud­den­ly come online as the price of a SIM card plum­met­ed:

Mobile SIM cards in Myan­mar have his­tor­i­cal­ly been pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive. In 2014, the cost of a SIM card dropped from about $2,000 USD to $200 USD and then once again, to $1.50 USD.

In a coun­try of 53 mil­lion peo­ple, only 12% had access to cell net­works in 2014. By this year, the government’s plan is to have 74% online. That’s a huge influx of users, and large­ly in rur­al areas. The phones of this new wave of net­worked farm­ing users are com­mon­ly import­ed from Chi­nese man­u­fac­tur­ers, often bought sec­ond-hand. The biggest imped­i­ment to using the inter­net is the cost of data:

They feel each megabyte. For about 10 U.S. cents you can pur­chase 25MB of data. If you buy in bulk (although almost nobody does) you can get 2GB of data for 11,900 Myan­mar Kyat or about $9.20 USD. Most farm­ers grab dataon their scratch cards in 1,000 or 3,000 or 5,000 Kyat chunks. How long it lasts depends on the user. For some 3,000 Kyats gets them through the month. For oth­ers, it lasts only a few days.

What the research dis­cov­ers is that every­one is on Facebook—and often noth­ing else, except per­haps a mes­sag­ing app. The rea­son has lit­tle to do with the social graph, and more with that data restric­tion:

Face­book has a com­pelling advan­tage over oth­er news apps or even Twit­ter: The con­tent of many posts and news items live inside Face­book itself. There are exter­nal links, but most of the arti­cle sum­maries and pho­tos are self con­tained. As Face­book con­tin­ues to ramp up their Instant Articles—special ver­sions of web arti­cles that are lean­er, load more quick­ly, and are Face­book optimized—the amount of con­tent that lives in Face­book will only increase. For those who are data sen­si­tive, this is a clear virtue.

I wrote recent­ly about Twitter’s planned move to allow 10,000 char­ac­ters in tweets, quot­ing Will Oremus’s arti­cle Twit­ter Isn’t Rais­ing the Char­ac­ter Lim­it. It’s Becom­ing a Walled Gar­den. and its con­tention that:

If I’m right about what’s real­ly going on here, this move will not fun­da­men­tal­ly alter how Twit­ter looks or feels, nor how peo­ple use it. Rather, it will change where online con­tent is host­ed, who con­trols it, and who is in a posi­tion to mon­e­tize it.

I’m not naïve enough to think there’s def­i­nite­ly not an ele­ment of con­trol involved, but my orig­i­nal response was “it’s prob­a­bly more com­pli­cat­ed than that”, and I still think that way. To me this is not nec­es­sar­i­ly about monetising—not yet, at least—but more about being rel­e­vant. Twit­ter are tak­ing a look at the emerg­ing mar­ket and see­ing them­selves with no place in it. Right now, it’s not even a com­pe­ti­tion.

The oth­er com­pa­ny that stands to lose big from this is Google—the open web pow­ers pret­ty much every­thing it does, so los­ing out to Face­book on the next bil­lion online users would be dev­as­tat­ing to its busi­ness. Hence they’re push­ing Accel­er­at­ed Mobile Pages (AMP), a strict and opti­mised sub­set of HTML aimed at pub­lish­ing sto­ries with­out lega­cy adver­tis­ing and track­ing cruft. AMP is set to launch next month, with Twit­ter on board as a part­ner.

Why employ a strict sub­set of HTML rather than get­ting pub­lish­ers to clean up their acts and pro­duce bet­ter-opti­mised pages? Time. Although per­for­mance is a hot top­ic in web devel­op­ment cir­cles, web pages con­tin­ue to get heav­ier. It will take more time to cor­rect that, and the rapid growth of mar­kets like Myan­mar shows that time is an ill-afford­ed lux­u­ry.

Werner Herzog, Virtual Reality and Telling Stories

I’d say that Wern­er Her­zog is one of the most cre­ative thinkers alive today, and I love to hear his con­sid­ered opin­ions on pret­ty much any sub­ject. For exam­ple, chick­ens. True to form, this inter­view on the sub­ject of vir­tu­al real­i­ty is fas­ci­nat­ing.

I am con­vinced that this is not going to be an exten­sion of cin­e­ma or 3-D cin­e­ma or video games. It is some­thing new, dif­fer­ent, and not expe­ri­enced yet.

Find­ing a new sto­ry­telling tech­nique will be inte­gral to the suc­cess of VR. Pixar’s Ed Cat­mull also spoke about this recent­ly:

It’s not sto­ry­telling. The fact that you’ve changed the tech­nol­o­gy, and peo­ple are excit­ed about it, doesn’t change the under­ly­ing dif­fi­cul­ty of the com­pelling nar­ra­tive sto­ry. Just like books aren’t the same things as movies.

But Herzog’s real insight comes when he talks about where we are with VR today:

Nor­mal­ly, in the his­to­ry of cul­ture, we have new sto­ries and nar­ra­tions and then we start to devel­op a tool. Or we have visions of won­drous new architecture—like, let’s say, the muse­um in Bil­bao, or the opera house in Sydney—and tech­nol­o­gy makes it pos­si­ble to ful­fill these dreams. So you have the con­tent first, and then the tech­nol­o­gy fol­lows suit. In this case, we do have a tech­nol­o­gy, but we don’t have any clear idea how to fill it with con­tent.

There’s also a clas­sic piece of Her­zo­gian dia­log:

The Pruss­ian war the­o­reti­cian Clause­witz, in Napoleon­ic times, famous­ly said, “Some­times war dreams of itself.” Does vir­tu­al real­i­ty dream of itself? Do we dream or express and artic­u­late our dreams in vir­tu­al real­i­ty?

The inter­view is worth read­ing in it’s entire­ty, and leaves me real­ly keen to see his next film, Lo and Behold, where he con­sid­ers the inter­net.

Twitter, Good Faith, Skepticism, and Open-Mindedness

Yes, this is anoth­er piece about Twit­ter. But it’s also not real­ly about Twit­ter.

Jack Dorsey all but con­firmed a report that Twit­ter are going to allow up to 10,000 char­ac­ters in tweets (like­ly as a kind of media item attach­ment):

We’ve spent a lot of time observ­ing what peo­ple are doing on Twit­ter, and we see them tak­ing screen­shots instead of text and tweet­ing it. Instead, what if that text… was actu­al­ly text.Text that could be searched. Text that could be high­light­ed. That’s more util­i­ty and pow­er.

I wrote a piece say­ing I thought it was a pret­ty good idea. Sur­pris­ing­ly, not every­one agreed with me; for exam­ple, @chiller tweet­ed this:

Things no @twitter user wants:
— Moments
— Non chrono­log­i­cal tweets
— Tweets from peo­ple we don’t fol­low
— Pro­mot­ed bs.
— More than 140 chars

I have a few quib­bles with that, not least that I do want more than 140 chars (iron­i­cal­ly, the author could have used the full word ‘char­ac­ters’ if more were avail­able). But that tweet has 6,800 retweets at the time of writ­ing, so per­haps I’m in the minor­i­ty.

Will Ore­mus wrote a piece for Slate say­ing that Twit­ter are mak­ing this change just because they want to keep peo­ple on the plat­form in a ‘walled gar­den’:

What’s real­ly chang­ing here, then, is not the length of the tweet. It’s where that link at the bot­tom takes you when you click on it—or, rather, where it doesn’t take you. Instead of fun­nel­ing traf­fic to blogs, news sites, and oth­er sites around the Web, the “read more” but­ton will keep you play­ing in Twitter’s own gar­den.

Who should we believe? Jack, when he says this is just stan­dar­d­is­ing user behav­iour? Will, when he says that Twit­ter are not doing this for users but as a land grab? Or @chiller, when they say that users don’t want this at all?

I don’t know. I sus­pect there might be a lit­tle bit of truth in all of those posi­tions.

Per­haps that’s fence-sit­t­ing. How­ev­er, there are two things that I think are impor­tant to remem­ber when we’re talk­ing about sit­u­a­tions like this: Cen­ny­dd Bowles’ plea for good faith, It’s Not What You Think; and Carl Sagan’s expla­na­tion of good sci­ence, The Bur­den of Skep­ti­cism:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquis­ite bal­ance between two con­flict­ing needs: the most skep­ti­cal scruti­ny of all hypothe­ses that are served up to us and at the same time a great open­ness to new ideas. Obvi­ous­ly those two modes of thought are in some ten­sion. But if you are able to exer­cise only one of these modes, which ever one it is, you’re in deep trou­ble.

Twitter Beyond 140 Characters

re/code today report­ed that Twit­ter is plan­ning to extend its char­ac­ter lim­it from the (in)famous 140, to a pos­si­ble 10,000. Quite a few peo­ple have react­ed neg­a­tive­ly to this but I think that, as long as the imple­men­ta­tion is well han­dled, extend­ing the lim­it is a good idea—because Twit­ter is about more than 140 char­ac­ters.

Peo­ple con­fuse arbi­trary lim­its on social networks—Twitter’s 140 char­ac­ter lim­it, Instagram’s square aspect ratio and lim­it­ed fil­ters, to take two promi­nent examples—with their core asset, which is the net­work itself.

Eugene Wei wrote this back in Sep­tem­ber 2015, in his arti­cle The Network’s The Thing, when Insta­gram were under­go­ing a sim­i­lar back­lash after announc­ing they would extend pho­to for­mats beyond the square.

I get frus­trat­ed with Twit­ter the prod­uct, but I love Twit­ter the ser­vice. Last year there were a num­ber of good arti­cles writ­ten by peo­ple in the same state as me, includ­ing Chris Sac­ca in What Twit­ter Can Be, and Dustin Cur­tis in Fix­ing Twit­ter. This lat­ter piece is espe­cial­ly harsh:

Twit­ter has fucked up its plat­form. Twit­ter has turned into a place where famous peo­ple and news orga­ni­za­tions broad­cast text. That’s it. Noth­ing great is Built On Twit­ter, even though it should be the most pow­er­ful real­time com­mu­ni­ca­tions plat­form on Earth.

About a year and a half ago I became quite hacked off with Twit­ter, and began to con­sid­er what I would want from an alter­na­tive sys­tem. My ini­tial notes includ­ed an increase to 250 char­ac­ters, allow­ing sim­ple mark­down, and remov­ing @names and #hash­tags from the final count. It went fur­ther with grouped mes­sages that could only be retweet­ed as a whole, not indi­vid­u­al­ly. Fur­ther, less con­sid­ered ideas includ­ed a five sec­ond ‘cool­ing off peri­od’ before post­ing, show­ing edits and dele­tions, and a trust­wor­thi­ness met­ric.

You can see my rough con­cept in this slide deck. I’d toyed with the idea of turn­ing it into a prod­uct, but gave up on that as I realised that it was real­ly just a wish­list. But I still think some of the con­sid­ered fea­tures have mer­it.

I think Twit­ter needs to change, and that the first step should be to stop count­ing @names, URLs and uploaded media in the char­ac­ter lim­it. There are only 140 char­ac­ters to begin with, let us have all of them! After that, upping the lim­it (to, let’s say, 200) and allow­ing fur­ther text to be attached, like media is cur­rent­ly. More char­ac­ters means few­er mis­un­der­stand­ings; as Scott Jen­son not­ed when I moot­ed this:

So many twit­ter ‘fights’ are from over­ly terse mes­sages. 200 isn’t a cure all but it’s a good step in the right direc­tion.