Ten Years In: Finding Balance to Enjoy Twitter

Last week saw my 10th anniversary of being on Twitter (as @stopsatgreen). That’s a long time, but I’m still there and still active because I still get huge value from it. I don’t want to downplay that, for some people, Twitter became very toxic and compelled them to leave; but for me, no other network has come close to matching the experience it provides.

Over the course of my ten years I’ve developed a few rules that help me continue getting the most from Twitter; keeping my timeline fresh,  interesting, and valuable. I’ve shared them here on the off-chance that they’re useful to you too, dear reader.


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.


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.


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.