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.