A note on Twitter’s latest feature

Twit­ter made a change to their algo­rith­mic time­line recent­ly, and have start­ed show­ing tweets from strangers, that are liked by the peo­ple you fol­low. I don’t know why, or what ben­e­fit they offer, or even what cri­te­ria is used; I pre­sumed at first that they’re show­ing tweets that have a good num­ber of replies, retweets, or likes, in an effort to sur­face qual­i­ty con­ver­sa­tions.

Good morning everyone. Grape soda is an abomination

But there are many which are replies to spe­cif­ic tweets, telling me noth­ing about the con­ver­sa­tion or con­text they were used in. (Note that I’m not crit­i­cis­ing the tweets them­selves, just why Twit­ter thinks they’re valu­able enough to show me.)

Some are so wild­ly out of con­text as to appear non­sen­si­cal, kind of like lines from a Dadaist poem.

Some are quite reveal­ing of the tweeter’s psy­che.

A few seem so per­son­al that, although they’ve been post­ed on a pub­lic chan­nel, the tweet­er may not have thought they’d be seen by a wider audi­ence.

But what it seems to mas­sive­ly over-index for is peo­ple lik­ing tweets that have thanked them or praised them.

To be fair, they’re not all total­ly with­out some amuse­ment val­ue; every now and then you get some­thing that’s fun­ny because of the con­text in which it appears.

But most­ly, they’re of lit­tle to no worth. There are occa­sion­al — once, maybe twice, a week — inter­est­ing or use­ful tweets that get sur­faced, but they’re heav­i­ly in the minor­i­ty. I can see what Twit­ter are try­ing to do with this fea­ture, but at the moment it’s just unwel­come noise in my time­line.

Any­way, I don’t like to sim­ply crit­i­cise with­out being con­struc­tive, so I’d like to offer a solu­tion to fix it. Here’s a mock­up of a sim­ple tog­gle to let peo­ple choose whether or not they want to see these tweets:

You’re wel­come, Twit­ter.

Trends in digital media for 2017

Alright, stand back every­one: I’m about to have some opin­ions about tech­nol­o­gy in 2017. Because obvi­ous­ly there’s been a short­age of those.

As part of my Tech­nol­o­gist role at +rehab­stu­dio I put togeth­er inter­nal brief­in­gs about dig­i­tal media, con­sumer tech­nol­o­gy, where the dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing indus­try could go in the near future, and what we should be com­mu­ni­cat­ing to our clients. Not try­ing to make pre­dic­tions, but to fol­low trends.

This arti­cle is based on my lat­est brief­ing. It’s some­what informed, pur­pose­ly skimpy on detail, and very incom­plete: I have some thoughts on adver­tis­ing and pub­lish­ing that I can’t quite dis­til yet, and machine learn­ing is a vast sur­face that I can bare­ly scratch.

If for noth­ing more than press cov­er­age, 2016 was the year of mes­sag­ing, and the explo­sion of the mes­sag­ing bot. The biggest play­er in the game, Facebook’s Mes­sen­ger, launched their bot plat­form in April, and by Novem­ber some 33,000 bots had been released. Recent tools added to the plat­form include embed­ded web­views, HTML5 games, and in-app pay­ments.

The first six months of bots were large­ly the ‘fart app’ stage, but there are signs that brands and ser­vices are final­ly start­ing to see the real oppor­tu­ni­ties in mes­sag­ing: remov­ing fric­tion from their users’ inter­ac­tions with them. Fric­tion in app man­age­ment and UI com­plex­i­ty, for exam­ple.

The same removal of fric­tion is also a key dri­ver behind the growth of home assis­tants and voice inter­ac­tion, like Alexa. Remov­ing the UI abstrac­tion between users and tasks is a clear trend. As an illus­tra­tion, com­pare two user flows for watch­ing Stranger Things on Net­flix on your TV; first using a smart­phone:

  1. Unlock phone.
  2. Find and open Net­flix app.
  3. Press the ‘cast’ but­ton.
  4. Find ‘Stranger Things’.
  5. Play.

Now using Google Home:

  1. OK Google, play Stranger Things from Net­flix on My TV.”

Home assis­tants make the smart home eas­i­er to man­age. No more sep­a­rate apps for Wemo, Hue, Nest, etc; a sin­gle voice inter­face (per­haps glued togeth­er with a cloud ser­vice like IFTT) con­trols all the dif­fer­ent devices in your home.

Mes­sag­ing and voice are vis­i­ble aspects of the trend towards the inter­face on demand:

The app only appears in a par­tic­u­lar con­text when nec­es­sary and in the for­mat which is most con­ve­nient for the user.

While native mobile apps are still a growth area, it’s becom­ing much hard­er to get users to down­load and engage with apps out­side of a small pop­u­lar core. This is espe­cial­ly true for retail, where con­sumers are more omniv­o­rous and like to browse wide­ly.

Improve­ments in the capa­bil­i­ties of web apps (espe­cial­ly on Chrome for Android) sug­gest an alter­na­tive to native apps in some cas­es. This has been demon­strat­ed by the suc­cess of new web apps from major retail brands like Flip­kart and Ali Baba in devel­op­ing economies where an offi­cial app store may not be avail­able, or net­work costs may make app down­loads unde­sir­able.

Web apps require no instal­la­tion, avoid­ing the app store prob­lem. They’re start­ing to get impor­tant fea­tures like push noti­fi­ca­tions and pay­ment APIs. And mes­sag­ing plat­forms, with their large installed user base, pro­vide the web with a social and dis­tri­b­u­tion lay­er that the brows­er nev­er did:

Mes­sag­ing apps and social net­works [are] wrap­pers for the mobile web. They’re actu­al­ly browsers… [and] give us the social con­text and con­nec­tions we crave, some­thing tra­di­tion­al browsers do not.

So it may be that for some brands, a web­site opti­mised for per­for­mance, engage­ment, and shar­ing, along with a decent mes­sag­ing and social strat­e­gy, will offer a bet­ter invest­ment than native apps and app store mar­ket­ing. Patag­o­nia already closed their native app. Gart­ner pre­dict that some 20% of brands will fol­low by 2019:

Many brands are find­ing that their mobile apps are not pay­ing off.

The most impor­tant app on your phone could be the cam­era, which will be increas­ing­ly impor­tant this year. First, by reveal­ing the ‘dark mat­ter’ of the inter­net: images, video and sound. So much of this data is uploaded every day, but with­out the seman­tic val­ue of text, it’s mean­ing is lost to non-humans — like search engines, for exam­ple. But machine learn­ing is becom­ing very good at under­stand­ing the con­tent of this opaque data, mean­ing the role of the cam­era changes:

It’s not real­ly a cam­era, tak­ing pic­tures; it’s an eye, that can see.

It can see faces, land­marks, logos, objects; hear back­ground chat and music. That’s under­stand­ing con­text, loca­tion, pur­chase his­to­ry, and behav­iour, with­out being explic­it­ly told any­thing. This is why Face­book, through Mes­sen­ger and Insta­gram, are furi­ous­ly copy­ing Snapchat’s best fea­tures: they want their young audi­ence and the data they bring.

Will it be intru­sive? Yes. Will it hap­pen? Yes. I’ve tried to avoid mak­ing hard pre­dic­tions in this piece, but I am as con­fi­dent as I can be that our image and video his­to­ry will be used for mar­ket­ing data.

Cam­eras will also be impor­tant in alter­ing the images that are shown to the users. Aug­ment­ed real­i­ty is an excit­ing tech­nol­o­gy, although good-enough ded­i­cat­ed hard­ware is still a while away. But there’s a def­i­nite mar­ket drift in that direc­tion, and lead­ing it is Snapchat: they’re stealth­ily intro­duc­ing AR through mod­i­fy­ing the base lay­er of reality—first, by alter­ing faces using their lens­es. This isn’t friv­o­lous; it’s expand­ing the range of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, like emo­ji do for text.

If peo­ple are talk­ing in pic­tures, they need those pic­tures to be capa­ble of express­ing the whole range of human emo­tion.

Recent Snapchat lens­es have start­ed alter­ing voic­es, and your envi­ron­ment. They’ve recent­ly bought a com­pa­ny that spe­cialis­es in adding 3D objects into real envi­ron­ments. With Spec­ta­cles they’re not only remov­ing fric­tion from the process of tak­ing a pho­to, they’re pro­to­typ­ing hard­ware at scale. This is the road to AR. Snap Inc. want to be the cam­era com­pa­ny — not in the way that Nikon was, but in the way that Face­book is the social com­pa­ny.

The com­pan­ion to an aug­ment­ed real­i­ty is a vir­tu­al one, but I don’t believe we’ll see VR going main­stream in 2017—and I say that as a pro­po­nent. It’s sta­t­ic, iso­lat­ing, and it requires peo­ple to form a new behav­iour. It’s inter­est­ing to see cre­ators exper­i­ment with the form, and I’ve no doubt that we’ll see some very inter­est­ing expe­ri­ences launched this year. But domes­tic sales aren’t huge, and high-end units are too expen­sive, and low-end not quite up to scratch yet. Still think it will be big for gamers, though.

I have more. A lot more. But I think it will all be bet­ter explained in a series of sub­se­quent blog posts, so I’ll aim to do that. In the mean­time, would love to hear your thoughts, argu­ments, objec­tions, and con­clu­sions.

My Favourite Books I Read in 2016

I tend to have at least two books on the go at any one time: one fic­tion, one non-fic­tion. I read fic­tion when I go to bed, since I read some­where that fic­tion encour­ages present-state atten­tion, which makes you feel sleepy. It works for me. I gen­er­al­ly read non-fic­tion (or, more often, Pock­et arti­cles) when I’m com­mut­ing.

My Goodreads Year in Review tells me I read 33 books last year. These are the high­lights.

The best book I read was John Hig­gs’ Stranger Than We Can Imag­ine, an attempt to explain the 20th cen­tu­ry through phi­los­o­phy, art and sci­ence, rather than geopol­i­tics. I wrote a post about it which you can read if you want more detail; but if you’re will­ing to take my word, it comes with a strong rec­om­men­da­tion from me.

The Inevitable, by Wired founder Kevin Kel­ly, looks at tech­nolo­gies which will shape the near future. Not spe­cif­ic imple­men­ta­tions, but more gen­er­al trends: shar­ing, remix­ing, track­ing, etc. If you keep up to date on tech trends some of this can seem like it’s just rein­forc­ing what you already know; even so there are enough inter­est­ing points of view and insights to make this a good and com­pelling read.

Time Trav­el, by James Gle­ick, is an exhaus­tive (and occa­sion­al­ly exhaust­ing) explo­ration of its sub­ject in fic­tion, phi­los­o­phy, and physics. I didn’t enjoy it as much as his pre­vi­ous book, The Infor­ma­tion, but it’s still worth your time.

Andrew Hosken’s Empire of Fear is a his­to­ry and inves­ti­ga­tion of the so-called Islam­ic State (as the BBC put it). It real­ly helped me bet­ter under­stand the com­pli­cat­ed sit­u­a­tion in the Mid­dle East, and the shame­ful deci­sions by for­eign pow­ers that made it all hap­pen.

You Could Do Some­thing Amaz­ing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat), by Andrew Han­k­in­son, is a semi-fic­tion­alised first-per­son account (it uses real dia­log, social ser­vices doc­u­ments, and police reports) of the last days of the man hunt­ed by police in 2010. Phe­nom­e­nal true-crime writ­ing.

In comics, Stef­fen Kverneland’s Munch is both an incred­i­ble biog­ra­phy of the Nor­we­gian artist and his rela­tion­ship with the author August Strind­berg, and a fourth-wall-break­ing sto­ry of how the book was writ­ten. And that bare­ly scratch­es the sur­face. It appar­ent­ly took sev­en years to cre­ate, and that’s appar­ent in the breadth and detail.

Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus, by Chester Brown, retells (with copi­ous foot­notes and ref­er­ence) Bible sto­ries that fea­ture pros­ti­tutes. It’s part of the author’s ongo­ing attempts to con­tex­tu­alise and jus­ti­fy his own use of paid sex, and is quite fas­ci­nat­ing.

The nov­el I enjoyed most was Don Winslow’s The Car­tel, a sto­ry of the drug wars in South and Cen­tral Amer­i­c­as (and sequel to The Pow­er of the Dog). It’s a robust thriller that only occa­sion­al­ly slips into cliche.

Final­ly, Beast, by Paul Kingsnorth, and Pig Iron, by Ben­jamin Myers, are very dif­fer­ent sto­ries but both are first-per­son, and use the lan­guage of the nar­ra­tor, and their land­scape and envi­ron­ment, to cre­ate a feel­ing of deep immer­sion. Both authors are poets, which shows.

I’ve got three books on the go right now which didn’t quite make it into this roundup, and anoth­er ten in my to-read list. Excit­ing and daunt­ing.

Making Nature: how we see animals

A vis­it to the Well­come Col­lec­tion this week, for the exhi­bi­tion Mak­ing Nature. It explores human inter­ac­tion with ani­mals; how we clas­si­fy them, dis­play them, observe them, and change them. From Wal­ter Potter’s taxi­dermy tableaux, to tigers in Man­hat­tan apart­ments, to BioS­teel™ goats that lac­tate spi­der silk, it’s a well-curat­ed, thought­ful, and even­tu­al­ly unset­tling expe­ri­ence.

It starts with Lin­naeus’ tax­onomies, the desire to impose order on the nat­ur­al world. Per­haps well-inten­tioned, but his racist human stereo­types (‘indo­lent and capri­cious Africans’) indi­cate that order is as much about opin­ion as fact.

Mak­ing Nature shows how our view of ani­mals changed from asset to resource to com­mod­i­ty, to enter­tain­ment and dec­o­ra­tion. This obser­va­tion struck me:

Humans soon dis­cov­ered they could train cap­tive birds to sing songs that may not attract mates in the wild, but would cap­ti­vate human lis­ten­ers.

The song­bird became a pro­gram­ma­ble musi­cal device.

Per­haps the sad­dest part of the exhib­it was the video instal­la­tion The Great Silence, by artists Allo­ra & Calzadil­la with author Ted Chi­ang. It con­trasts shots of two loca­tions in Puer­to Rico—the Areci­bo obser­va­to­ry for mon­i­tor­ing sig­nals of alien life, and a sanc­tu­ary for endan­gered parrots—simultaneously with Chiang’s epony­mous short sto­ry, writ­ten from the point of view of one of those par­rots.

Humans have lived along­side par­rots for thou­sands of years, and only recent­ly have they con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we might be intel­li­gent.

But par­rots are more sim­i­lar to humans than any extrater­res­tri­al species will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can look us in the eye. How do they expect to rec­og­nize an alien intel­li­gence if all they can do is eaves­drop from a hun­dred light years away?

The exhi­bi­tion is, like every­thing in the Well­come Col­lec­tion, free to vis­it. It runs until 21st May, and is the first in a year-long series explor­ing our rela­tion­ship with nature.