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Why Twitter Represents Everything Wrong With America Today - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
February 8th, 2016
09:50 am


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Why Twitter Represents Everything Wrong With America Today

So for the seventh time, Twitter is trying to push its algorithmically-sorted Tweets into users’ timelines – and for the seventh time, Twitter users are angrily yelling, “Having our Tweets in the order they arrive in is a feature!  Stop fucking trying to change it!  Why do you want to change it?”

The reason they want to change it is a large reason why America doesn’t work well any more.

But first, let’s discuss why Twitter’s feed is a critical issue.

If you’re not familiar with how Facebook posts work – and a lot of you are not – Facebook itself decides what posts you see, based on an internal algorithm that scans each post and determines what’s important.  What’s resting at the top of your feed might have been posted three days ago – but it got a lot of comments, or it has buzzwords like “new baby,” or it’s got advertising dollars behind it.

And those algorithms are:

Frequently wrong.  I stopped adding friends on Facebook after the third – the fucking third! – time there was a death in a friend’s family, and Facebook’s algorithm decided it wasn’t important.  And my friends, who were consumed by the death of their mother and/or husband, naturally assumed that I knew because I was their friend on Facebook.  Which led to multitudes of awkward conversations when I met them in person and I said, brightly, “How ya doing?” and they went, “Well, it’s been hard,” and I asked, “Why? What happened?”

Subtly Biased. Hey.  Are you liberal?  Well, you’re gonna be more liberal on Facebook, because that algorithm is going to pick up on what you like, and it’s going to deposit more liberal news posts in your feed, and you’ll come to believe that the world is way more liberal than it is because Facebook is quietly sanitizing what you want to see.

Smothering Stories of Genuine Interest.  Ferguson became a national news story not because any news outlet wanted to pick up on it – they ignored it.  But people on Twitter kept posting about it, and because Twitter posts show up in chronological order, if you arrived soon after someone posted on Ferguson, you saw every post.  Eventually, enough people chained up interest that CNN and FOX news were forced to cover it.  Whereas on Facebook, which decided for you what you’d like, Ferguson waited for weeks before it started to be marked as “of interest,” and even then it only showed it to you if it decided you wanted to know.

Twitter wanting to move to an algorithmically-decided ranking means that it decides what you need to see.  And stories like Ferguson will be suppressed – not out of any Illuminati-style pressure, but because algorithms are crap at spotting trends with small data, which means if Ferguson started out small in an algorithmically-determined Twitter, it would very likely stay small.  When was the last time you heard of a news story breaking on Facebook that someone didn’t post on Facebook?

And every Twitter user I know wants chronological order.  That’s why we show up.  It’s messy, and it’s chaotic, but we consider “not having an algorithm decide what we see” to be actually one of Twitter’s greatest strengths…

And Twitter keeps ignoring what we want and keeps trotting out feelers to see if they foist this shitty concept on us.  (They’ve backed off this latest time, claiming that ha ha, they never meant to replace chronological order, but that’s what they said before – and yet once again there were reports that they wanted to roll it out.  There’s beta users who are seeing it.  For a company that doesn’t want to use it, they’re sure putting a lot of work into testing algorithms.)

Now, you may be asking, “Why does Twitter want to alienate its core user base?”  And the answer is simple:

They don’t want their user base.

They want Facebook’s.

The problem is that Twitter has a devoted user base, but it’s not growing enough.  There’s a lot of people who try Twitter, decide it’s not for them, and wander away.  There’s also like a billion people on the Internet, and not all of them want to use Twitter – a service which is, essentially, a global IRC chat.

Now, in a sane market, that would be enough.  People would go, “Well, Twitter has millions of deeply engaged users, so how do we optimize this experience for them?”  And they’d figured out ways to make Twitter better for the folks who use it, and determine better ways to make cash off a loyal user base, and make a decent profit.

Wall Street does not want decent profits.

Wall Street needs magnificent profits.

And that is a comparatively recent development.  There was a time not so long ago (well, the 1970s) where a good business could be run with modest growths, and that was considered to be a worthy investment.  There were lots of boring markets that just made constant, steady cash – and more importantly, new businesses could be designed to make boring, steady cash.

The point was not that every business had to engage in a tumorously-rapid expansion to grab all the marketshare – though the ones who could were hot tickets – but that back then, Wall Street understood that some businesses were just not designed for continual, explosive growth.

They don’t now.  Particularly in the tech sector.  If you’re not expanding, you’re dying.

So Twitter has continually spend its capital in attempts to satisfy users it does not have.

Which isn’t entirely bad – little changes like turning the “Favorite” (which used to mean anything from “Save this link to read later” to “Like” to “I acknowledge you made this reply”) into a heart makes Twitter’s complex interface less confusing for newbies.

But it does mean that Twitter is constantly asking itself the question, “How can we beat Facebook?”  And you can’t, with Twitter’s core market.  Twitter is designed as an alternative to Facebook – and Facebook is meant for small groups of friends and family to interact with, whereas Twitter is more global.

If Twitter acquired Facebook’s user base, it would lose Twitter’s.

Yet that’s what Wall Street demands, and that’s why Twitter is flailing both on Wall Street and in the public’s eye – its whole financial success is being judged by the question of “Well, how big is this going to get? Is it going to beat Facebook? Then it sucks.”

Twitter’s user base is angry that Twitter is ignoring them, and Wall Street is mad that Twitter isn’t ignoring its user base enough.

Which is a problem with America.  The new and rapacious Wall Street designed in the “Greed is good” 80s-era punishes markets that might be profitable, but not explosive.  And as such, we’re continually propelled forward in this cancerous cycle of “How do we grow?  How do we grow?” – even with markets that might be more profitable if they stopped focusing on growth and instead focused on satisfying a small but rabid client base.

In a sane economy, Twitter could pause and say, “Okay, we’ve got all these people who love us – so our priorities should be a) to figure out how to make a good profit from these folks, and b) make the people who love us love us more.”  (The two are not inevitably linked – users would love you most if there were no ads involved, but users are often very stupid people who get angry at your attempts to draw a salary.)

But because Wall Street demands SWELL AND EXPAND, what we get from Twitter is this muddled confusion of “Okay, yeah, our users want better anti-abuse tools” (which is critical because, as this Tweet explains, Twitter is the only social network where “being successful” means “you get abused”) and yet they’re pouring resources into “Stuff that people who don’t like Twitter might like.”

Which is something that makes me feel sad for Twitter’s people.  In a better world, they’d be focused on “What do Twitter users enjoy about us?” And they’d understand that question really well, and make a product suited for a comparatively stable user base.

Instead, we get Twitter programmers who are shocked by what happens on Twitter when a Tweet goes viral.

And I think Twitter’s not alone. Lots of America is shaped by this relentless Wall Street command that you must expand and be profitable now.  Your infrastructure? Doesn’t matter.  Your R&D? Fuck that, did you make a profit this quarter?  Your long-term plans for steady growth? Consumed in this blaze of GIMME CASH IMMEDIATELY.  Your boring lumber business? Well, will you sell wood to ten billion people? NOT INTERESTED.

Personally, I think America would be a lot better if Wall Street was less full of greedy cancerous fuckwits willing to destroy companies so long as they get a paycheck today, and more populated with people who understood that businesses have different needs, and some unsexy businesses can make steady profits without funding yachts filled with cocaine-encrusted hookers.

Until then?

We get Twitter.  Spasming in confusion, not doing well, beholden to two masters.

Slowly dying.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/523151.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.

(28 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 03:09 pm (UTC)
It's particularly dumb because what I always tell my clients is "see where your competition is failing to make money. That's your business."

Where facebook is failing is that they consistently deliver the wrong ads to the wrong people (their only major success is they've become good at marketing baby and wedding stuff - but even then it was a major grocery chain (I think Target but can't remember) who figured that algorithm out and sold it to Facebook.

Instead of changing the feed order they should be doing research so that targeted marketing tweets that you will actually be interested in show up on your feed when you are interested in them.

Then they could grow by charging more for advertising.
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 04:12 pm (UTC)
It's particularly dumb because what I always tell my clients is "see where your competition is failing to make money. That's your business."

That is spectacularly good advice.
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 04:31 pm (UTC)
That's why they keep hiring me!

Date:February 8th, 2016 05:10 pm (UTC)

Or as I have said before:

"Stop badly copying functionality you don't understand in an attempt to mimic the success of someone else. Clone degradation is real, and users aren't that kind of stupid."

[User Picture]
Date:February 9th, 2016 11:26 am (UTC)
Facebook currently want to sell me...

Divorce lawyers.
Fertility clinics.

I really do wonder how many women want BOTH a divorce lawyer AND an IVF clinic. Probably not zero women, but probably not all that many women either.

(I'm not even married, FB knows this, or at least knows I told them this! Maybe trying to sell me wedding tat would work better? although I'm also not planning on marrying)

The only place I've seen really good targeted ads is ravelry, because it's a *knitting site* and they advertise *knitting stuff*... I often *want knitting stuff* and actively browse their adverts looking for nice knitting stuff.
[User Picture]
From:Chris Pederson
Date:February 9th, 2016 03:18 pm (UTC)
"you know, I'm sick of this guy. I'm going to throw him out and have a kid. Someone elses kid."
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 04:10 pm (UTC)
The model didn't work for the Persian empire and it didn't work for the yeast in the bread dough I wasn't able to get back to in time. But I am certain it will be different for modern corporations because something something Adam Smith Ayn Rand.

I have a feeling tending one's own vine and fig tree is the wisest course here. Sigh.
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 04:23 pm (UTC)
The baffling thing to me is that more than a few of us Facebook users don't like their stupid algorithms and would prefer chronological, so I'm not sure who the hell Twitter thinks actually wants what Facebook delivers.
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 07:15 pm (UTC)
EXACTLY. Facebook not being chronological is DUMB and aggravating. It even wouldn't be so bad if it kept my feed in order, but occasionally it'll catapult something I've already seen back to the top, and then I'm like "what the fuck is going on, this isn't the order this was in?" and then rage.
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 08:54 pm (UTC)
Well, a lot of people do like the Facebook experience. But yeah, Facebook wants it gone, too.
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 05:13 pm (UTC)
I don't understand why it couldn't be offered as an option. Either as separate pages for "chronological" and "interesting from the last few days of your feed" and "trending" etc. Or as a "click here to see top tweets you missed". That would seem to work about equally well for everyone who wants that, and not violently alienate people who don't.

Right now, twitter has the "while you were away" thing and the "click for more" thing, which *might* be interesting, but they always come up when I'm TRYING to read the tweets I actually have. If they came up AFTER I had run out of stuff to read, I'd be a lot more interested in them...

Likewise, on FB, randomly showing me SOME "friend commented on this" stuff is interesting. But I hate what it DOESN'T show you, and that the same few things dominate your feed.

I don't think those are completely bad. I think lots of people don't want to think about it and do find it helpful that the stuff you're fairly likely to want to see is at the top of your feed. But the fact it's always foisted on people whether they want it or not makes me embrace the cynicism, that it must be, to smuggle in advertising...
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 08:54 pm (UTC)
I too presume it's advertising.
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 06:52 pm (UTC)

Without disagreeing your main points

All of which I thoroughly cheer, I will say that Twitter is no IRC.

Like, I suspect, you, I'm one of those fogeys who found IRC sometime shortly after the demise of BBSes and thought of it as a sort-of "real time Usenet". Tweets aren't that.

If you've not seen it, I highly recommend Slack, which is a nice and elegant re-creation of IRC's best parts in a Web/mobile form, focused on distributed-team collaboration. I use Slack for work things, for gaming things, and for social things, and it's got exactly the benefits that IRC used to have before EFNet fell apart under the weight of hacks/attacks/bots and suchlike.
Date:February 8th, 2016 07:48 pm (UTC)
Option 1: Twitter becomes more like Facebook.

Option 2: Twitter becomes more like Livejournal.

(Maybe there is an Option 3: Twitter hires Bart, but I do not think that is on their radar.)
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 11:29 pm (UTC)
Option 3: Twitter stays Twitter. Spots the functionality that its users create, and makes that easier (RTs, Quoting, etc. have all been built in already).
Date:February 8th, 2016 10:53 pm (UTC)
I remember a theatre group, just starting, where the guy in charge seemed more worried about people who might be out there, who might join, than about dealing w/ the people who were there.

I remember a D&D game where the GM was bugged about the people who didn't want to join, and neglected those of us who were his players.

I'm sure you know of countless more examples. Try to please everybody, and you please nobody... the grass is always greener...

Spock: After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.

[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 11:28 pm (UTC)
Blogging this, with comparisons to New Coke and the idea that Worldcon should become just like DragonCon.
[User Picture]
Date:February 8th, 2016 11:47 pm (UTC)
If Twitter wants Facebook's userbase, it needs to make it easy to make friends-only posts. The current choice between making everything in your account friends-only and making everything in your account readable to the world is insane.

Perforce, I only post strictly professional stuff on Twitter because I don't want 6 billion people knowing my personal business without so much as a subpoena or a security compromise.
[User Picture]
Date:February 9th, 2016 03:48 am (UTC)
"Fiduciary responsibility" is what will kill America.

Not that making money for the shareholders is bad, but if it's a company's only concern, they're eventually going to screw over their stakeholders (which include customers) and that never ends well.
[User Picture]
Date:February 9th, 2016 04:00 am (UTC)
You could search and replace "Twitter" (which I almost never look at) with "Tumblr" (which I spend a lot of time on) and the essay would still be exactly right.

Tumblr users regularly froth with rage when Tumblr "fixes" things that we love because they think they're broken, and ambushes us with "improvements" that we loathe to the very core of our being because it's NOT WHAT TUMBLR IS ABOUT FOR US. Plus, the Tumblr Powers-That-Be are utterly uncommunicative (save the occasional condescending assurance that they have our best interests in mind, and the deliberate sabotaging of features we love is purely temporary while they prepare The Next Great Thing to make Tumblr More Like Facebook (and more profitable).

Apparently, Tumblr was never intended as a destination site. It was supposed to function as a backend for putting content onto other sites, and their plans to monetize this fell through because nobody uses it the way they'd expected. And instead of figuring out how to cater to the vast crowd of users who like Tumblr as it is, they're hellbent on bending us to their will--and the end result will be, as with LiveJournal, a gradual exodus that eventually reaches critical mass and the whole thing turns into another internet ghost town.
[User Picture]
Date:February 9th, 2016 03:27 pm (UTC)
Yeah. I'm rather disheartened that about 10% of my Tumblr feed has now turned into unblockable adverts.
[User Picture]
From:Chris Pederson
Date:February 9th, 2016 03:27 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:February 9th, 2016 05:18 am (UTC)
I'm in sympathy with your overall point, but it's not clear that there's a version of Twitter that's profitable at this size in the long term.
[User Picture]
From:Chris Pederson
Date:February 9th, 2016 03:21 pm (UTC)
are they losing money? Tumblr is.
[User Picture]
Date:February 9th, 2016 04:31 pm (UTC)
there was a death in a friend’s family, and Facebook’s algorithm decided it wasn’t important

This is one of the negative consequences of Facebook making the lightweight means of interaction the "like". People don't want to "like" a tragedy, and acquaintences often feel shy about commenting about a personal tragedy at all, and not saying anything is an easy out when the communication is impersonal and the poster doesn't have reason to expect any specific acquaintence has seen the post. From my experience with Facebook, I wouldn't expect that their algorithm does much analysis of post text, it seems to be mostly about counting (and counting things about?) likes and comments. Of course, if they did more analysis of posts' text in choosing what to show users, that would have its own problems.

Edited at 2016-02-09 05:48 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:February 14th, 2016 11:01 am (UTC)
Meyerweb (dot com) had a great post about this awhile back. I'm in my rubbish phone so I can't link directly, but I think you'd enjoy it.

(And I got marked as spam, sorry! )

[User Picture]
Date:February 12th, 2016 04:37 am (UTC)
I was hoping at this beginning of this post that you were going to post about the thing that I noticed that's wrong with the world of today. It's related but not the same.

It's money.

Money is *supposed* to drive efforts into making things better in a way that benefits both individuals and society, if you listen to a free market advocate.

But take, for example, Google search. It's really good. But you know what makes it worse? Paid ads. And you know where the money incentive is? To put ads. Virtually *everyone* would be better off with a Google without ads, provided you take the money out of the equation. The infrastructure requirements to transmit search results go down. The man-hours invested in constructing ads are saved. The man-hours invested in monitoring, filtering, selling, implementing the infrastructure behind, billing for, etc. etc. ads all get saved. Everyone who uses the search gets a better experience.

Unfortunately, we don't have any kind of a system for distributing effort towards making things *actually better*, only a system for making things *more profitable*, and when it comes to any kind of entertainment or informational services, that mostly is drawn to a point of tension-balance between monetization and being decent enough that people will still want it.

It's insane how much human work is put into trying to make things only *tolerably* worse. Nobody should be working to make things worse at all!
[User Picture]
Date:February 12th, 2016 11:57 pm (UTC)
Howdy - this is a great piece of commentary. I couldn't agree more with you if I tried. I wanted to take a second just to mention how much I hate the Facebook algorithm and how every time I switch my wall to chronological order, after a few day, Facebook helpfully switches it back to the "what the fuck ever" order they want me to see. It drives me crazy. I would leave Twitter immediately if it switched permanently to that model. Nobody needs that.
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