Twitter, Listening to Users, and Murder

I saw this car­toon gain a few thou­sand retweets on Twit­ter. In it, a Twit­ter exec­u­tive asks three col­leagues how they should grow the ser­vice. One col­league says “Algo­rithms”; anoth­er, “Moments”; a third says “Lis­ten to users”. This third response angers the exec­u­tive, to the point that he throws the man who sug­gest­ed it out of a win­dow (it’s at least a sec­ond floor win­dow, so this is pre­sum­ably mur­der).

What I infer from this car­toon is that the author believes that Twit­ter doesn’t lis­ten to its users, but should.

So what do Twit­ter users want? The #RIPTwit­ter hash­tag1 reveals a few com­mon demands.

One is that Twit­ter needs an edit but­ton. That opens the door to so much poten­tial abuse that I can’t believe it’s seri­ous­ly being pro­posed, let alone con­sid­ered:

If you get angry at peo­ple who retweet big­otry, abuse of mar­ket­ing mate­r­i­al, just imag­ine how you’ll feel when you find out you’re the one retweet­ing it.

Anoth­er is that Twit­ter needs to con­cen­trate on stop­ping abuse. Bri­an­na Wu, who has more rea­son than most to want an end to Twit­ter abuse, says that this posi­tion is non­sense:

As some­one that works with Twit­ter fre­quent­ly on harass­ment, I feel unique­ly qual­i­fied to say… [this] is bull­shit. Twitter’s harass­ment out­come is improv­ing. I have doc­u­ment­ed, sta­tis­ti­cal proof it’s improv­ing.

So giv­en that two of the most pop­u­lar user requests are rub­bish, and many vocal Twit­ter users seem to real­ly just want to pre­serve the sta­tus quo, and that Twit­ter growth con­tin­ues to stall, my take on the car­toon is that the exec­u­tive was right to get angry at the per­son who sug­gest­ed they just lis­ten to users.

Although I don’t con­done mur­der.

Yes, I write about Twit­ter quite a lot. That’s because it’s impor­tant to me, I use it fre­quent­ly, every day. I want to see it suc­ceed, and I want to see it improve. And, as M.G. Siegler notes in Tem­pest in a Tweet­pot:

Change is always scary — espe­cial­ly on the inter­net. But time goes on, we move on, and every­one is often hap­pi­er as a result.

1 Iron­i­cal­ly, Twit­ter search uses a non-lin­ear algo­rithm, and is bet­ter for it.

The Victorian computer pioneers ahead of their time.

I’m read­ing Syd­ney Padua’s The Thrilling Adven­tures of Lovelace and Bab­bage. It’s a fun alter­nate his­to­ry, told in comics, of the work of Charles Bab­bage and Ada, Count­ess of Lovelace—between them, the pre­cur­sors of (respec­tive­ly) auto­mat­ed com­put­ing and com­put­er pro­gram­ming (for the unfa­mil­iar, Steven Wolfram’s Untan­gling the Tale of Ada Lovelace puts their work and rela­tion­ship into per­spec­tive).

The sto­ries them­selves are charm­ing, but the real high­lights of the book for me are the exten­sive­ly researched foot­notes and end­notes. In them, I learned that Bab­bage, at the Great Exhi­bi­tion of 1862, met and con­versed with George Boole, a logi­cian famous for cre­at­ing what we know today as Boolean logic—the three oper­a­tions AND, OR and NOT, that pow­er mod­ern dig­i­tal sys­tems. Why is this meet­ing so impor­tant? As one bystander wrote:

As Boole had dis­cov­ered that means of rea­son­ing might be con­duct­ed by a math­e­mat­i­cal process, and Bab­bage had invent­ed a machine for the per­for­mance of math­e­mat­i­cal work, the two great men togeth­er seemed to have tak­en steps towards the con­struc­tion of that great prodi­gy, a Think­ing Machine.

Boole’s ideas led, almost a cen­tu­ry lat­er, to the cre­ation of log­ic gates, crit­i­cal to dig­i­tal sys­tems. Log­ic gates need a way to retain state, and ear­ly ones used valves, or vac­u­um tubes. These were devel­oped from the pio­neer­ing work of Michael Fara­day, sci­en­tist of electromagnetism—and friend of Bab­bage.

It’s incred­i­ble to think that Lovelace, Bab­bage, Fara­day, and Boole were con­tem­po­raries; the devel­op­ers of the engine, pro­grams, pow­er and log­ic of mod­ern com­put­ers were all con­nect­ed in the mid-18th cen­tu­ry, but too far ahead of their time to see their con­cepts real­ized. Faraday’s valves could have enabled Boole’s log­ic gates, which could have made Babbage’s machine sim­pler and more afford­able, which could have seen Lovelace’s pro­grams be more than the­o­ret­i­cal. But it would be almost anoth­er 100 years before tech­nol­o­gy caught up to their ideas.

Conversation, Sport and Reductionism

Tim Rogers’ arti­cle, “the eleven most bor­ing con­ver­sa­tions i can’t stop over­hear­ing”, begins inno­cent­ly enough as a minor rant about tedious dis­cus­sions of hot sauce, but grad­u­al­ly becomes an impas­sioned dis­course about tol­er­ance and under­stand­ing, through the lens of every­day con­ver­sa­tion. It’s real­ly good. His final item cov­ers peo­ple who make a very pub­lic point of say­ing they don’t care about sport:

Instead of let­ting me know what you don’t care about, why don’t you let me know what you do care about? If I can’t con­vince you that any­one can like sports and that maybe you just need to think about sports dif­fer­ent­ly, why don’t you just not bring up a con­ver­sa­tion top­ic for the sole rea­son of say­ing it doesn’t inter­est you?

This made me think of two things: first, the clas­sic The Onion arti­cle, Area Man Con­stant­ly Men­tion­ing He Doesn’t Own A Tele­vi­sion. Sec­ond, the peo­ple who say about foot­ball “it’s just a bunch of mil­lion­aires kick­ing a leather sphere around a field!” (or one of the many vari­a­tions there­of).

Well, yes. It’s that. And reli­gion is just a bunch of peo­ple going to an old build­ing and singing songs to an imag­i­nary friend. And birth­day par­ties are just peo­ple giv­ing each oth­er things they prob­a­bly could have got for them­selves and saved a lot of both­er. And cin­e­­ma-going is just a bunch of peo­ple sit­ting in a dark room and watch­ing pro­ject­ed images of oth­er peo­ple pre­tend­ing to be some­one else.

Any human social activ­i­ty that is stripped of its accrued mean­ing will— almost with­out exception—appear ridicu­lous. It’s cul­tur­al reduc­tion­ism, and the prac­tice of it doesn’t mean you’re incred­i­bly smart and supe­ri­or, but rather bor­ing and per­haps a bit smug. This quote (from the arti­cle Reduc­tion­ism Under­mines Both Sci­ence and Cul­ture) puts it well:

Reduc­tion­is­tic think­ing leaves lit­tle room for vari­ety, cul­tur­al tra­di­tions, liv­ing urban envi­ron­ments, or reli­gion, thus reduc­ing our world­view to a ster­ile min­i­mal­ism bereft of sev­er­al of the most glo­ri­ous achieve­ments of evolved human civ­i­liza­tion.