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.