Can Twitter Be Salvaged?

Twitter’s very popular, but the way it reduces communication to a series of hastily crafted, artificially truncated blurbs produces dystopian quantities of toxic and fallacious discourse. Quality Twitter is a website which attempts to provide a better experience. It presents Twitter threads with a Medium-style reading experience. (A Twitter thread is a series of tweets which are all written by the same author and have been linked together by that author.) Individual, non-thread tweets as well as all comments are excluded. Threads are displayed as if they were “long read” style articles. Popular topics or hashtags are featured on the homepage like a news site, so the user can browse through multiple “articles” on the topic he’s interested in.

The theory behind this is that Tweet threads tend to be the highest quality content on Twitter, with single tweets and comments generally containing most of the knee-jerk trash. (A casual scan of recent Twitter threads found this to be true, though a lot of threads are still garbage, and many feel disjointed when you read them because they weren’t composed as a single piece of prose.)

Quality Mastodon might work too, if Mastodon supports threads, but Twitter has more content.

This idea is similar to, but they differ in a few ways:

1. TRA requires opt-in, they only “unroll” a thread if someone requests it. Opt-in is irrelevant to my idea; as far as I know, presenting any Tweet thread in this format is compliant with the Twitter ToS. The focus of Quality Twitter is to expose the best content for popular topics or hashtags, so Quality Twitter would instead monitor those hashtags and add new threads as they emerge.

2. TRA has a poor discovery, browsing and reading experience. You can only discover threads by searching for hashtags. They don’t give you any hints as to which hashtags might be interesting to search for. The thread browsing and reading experience is mediocre. URLs are not SEO friendly. Overall, the site doesn’t feel like a destination. This is all pretty easy stuff to fix so it probably just isn’t the focus of the small team behind TRA.

Would Quality Twitter work as a business? Maybe, but I’m not sure it’s a slam dunk. The content would be better than Twitter, but worse than Medium. The only means of revenue generation I can think of are ads and subscriptions, and traditional publications struggle to make ends meet online through these methods. The presentation of the content might be more satisfying than Twitter itself, but it would definitely be less addictive. Still, there might be a lot of people who would like to read the more thoughtful content posted to Twitter and avoid the rest, and the idea isn’t capital intensive (the engineering is pretty simple and not much else to the product). Dependency on Twitter is an obvious liability but could perhaps be mitigated by introducing other sources of content (any textual social media would be a candidate for inclusion).

This points to a deeper problem: in the world we live in today, billions of dollars are being poured into software which hijacks our lizard brains in order to maximize profits for its owner, even when this isn’t in the best interest of the user. Examples include most popular social media as well as play-to-win/lootbox video games, which compulsive addicts spend tens of thousands of dollars on. These products are the Frosted Flakes of software, you don’t eat it because it’s healthy, you eat it because your brain is hooked on sugar. Most people who use this software don’t know any better or are using it for the same reasons we all get addicted to something: we crave a distraction to dull the pain of existence. Have we ever found a way to counteract the lure of tobacco, alcohol, drugs or gambling?

My initial answer to this question was no, all we’ve come up with is regulating these things to limit the damage they cause in excess. But I realized we actually do have another trick up our collective sleeve, which is to substitute something that’s equally addictive, but less harmful. This is a big part of vaping is so popular, it’s equally addictive to smoking, but probably less deadly, so the switch makes sense to both the lizard limbic system and the rational prefrontal cortex. Sure enough, a lot of people are making this switch. I have to think more about this.

Cliffs notes on wearing a mask for coronavirus

I’ll explain whether you should wear a mask for the novel coronavirus and why the debate has been complicated.

The short answer is yes, make or buy a reusable cloth mask, wash it and wear it regularly.

  • Wearing a mask properly reduces your risk of contracting COVID-19. Crucially, if you already have the disease, it decreases the change you will spread the coronavirus to other people.
  • For the purpose of preventing COVID-19, any brand new mask is probably better than no mask, since it’s primarily spread through liquid droplets.
  • Wearing masks properly includes not touching anything other than the ear straps, and changing to a new mask regularly. Use of the mask degrades its effectiveness.
  • The outcome of wearing a mask improperly is neither well studied nor well understood, it may help, hurt, or have no effect in different circumstances.
  • Wearing a mask is not a substitute for social distancing, which includes maintaining 6 feet of distance from other people at all times.
  • The supply of masks is limited and as a result health care workers in many places don’t have enough masks to use them properly. If health care workers become infected it can lead to a catastrophic outcome because they easily become super-spreaders.
  • Advice from various authorities to not wear a mask made sense because the supply is limited and it needs to be reserved for health care workers.
  • Advice to make your own mask, wear and wash it regularly also makes sense because while we don’t know much about this approach, it’s probably better than nothing.

Any questions?

What I think about Instagram

Came across this piece titled All Fitness Influencers are Full of Shit.

Fitness influencing is a microcosm representative of the bigger picture on Instagram. Instagram is a medium that’s tailor made for advertising. It’s visually sumptuous, low information density, one-to-many communication. Surfing Instagram doesn’t engage the higher brain functions. It doesn’t make you think. Engagement is sentiment driven.

Marketers love a medium like that, since they’re usually looking to tap into some kind of primal emotion. So while it started out as a place for sharing selfies and vacation photos, Instagram has increasingly attracted people with marketing-oriented brains and goals. The “influencer” trend is now in full swing, and influencers are basically just people who are doing marketing for one product or another, making careers and businesses out of it. And because IG is such a great medium for this, in a lot of areas like fitness, most of the posts you come across nowadays are turning out to be sponsored, commercial submarine content.

That’s what I got from the article, and it’s a great point, as multiple influencers actually say in the article, Instagram is a great place to make posts that have commercial intent, but those same influencers don’t even use social media or surf Instagram, they just post the ads they’re paid to post and get on with their work day.

Instagram is basically becoming cable TV. One-way, minimal interactivity, people constantly pushing advertisements at you. All that’s changed is some guy in a suit now assigns $X of his annual marketing budget to some roided up IG influencer instead of to conventional media, and then gets on with his work day.

Facebook should consider doing what responsible journalistic outlets do, which is require that all sponsored content be clearly labeled as such. Advertising requires clear disclosure. In fact if they don’t do a better job at this, then in a few years we might see the FTC getting involved and reviewing whether influencers are complying with endorsement guidelines, and whether those guidelines are up to date and relevant in the social media era.

I’d love it if there was some platform where spending money actually reduces your reach, that’s a platform I would use, specifically because it’d be a terrible tool for marketers. Most of the platforms I enjoy, like Hacker News, Reddit, Mastodon and SDF, are resilient against marketer intrusion in one way or another.

Netflix pulled the plug on a feature designed to get kids addicted to Netflix

Any metric or KPI is going to get gamed in harmful ways if it’s prioritized too highly. So the answer is to use A/B testing to make sure you’re not regressing on the goals of a design change, and judiciously, to validate whether your change is moving things in the right direction.
But beyond that you have to do the hard slog of mastering the discipline of UX, real, human-centric design, and accept that not everything important is measurable.

We have plenty of examples of how doing real UX instead of playing a numbers game can differentiate your business, Apple has applied this philosophy consistently over many years.

The root of the problem is a “fuck you, market share at all costs” culture that has come to permeate Silicon Valley. And you can argue (somewhat cynically) that this philosophy makes sense in a blue ocean where you have no competition and just need to gobble up people and turn them into cash before someone else does. But I think going forward this mentality may actually become a liability as more humane alternatives to heavily despised products emerge. Many of the current crop of giants seem to have forgotten that a company’s most valuable asset is always its brand.

On monopolies

Winners in the tech industry turn into giants via vertical integration and predatory pricing. They keep adding stuff related to the segment they first won in. They keep making stuff cheap or free to undercut competitors.

There are many examples of this and we have two big examples in the US of anti-trust regulators stepping in and hobbling the giant: IBM in the 60s/70s and Microsoft in the 90s/00s. In both cases the government forced the giant to change its behavior and the industry eventually experienced a new wave of small firms that filled the void, competed, and innovated.

Notably in both cases the giant also got off relatively easy in the end (no breakup). And both are successful companies to this day. But they were tied up in court long enough to lose their ability to squelch competitors and dominate new markets.

Now you could argue this was not fair to IBM or to Microsoft (in the future, to Google?). In both cases you’d be right. I’d argue you don’t have to be fair to the winner especially once he starts playing dirty tricks to keep others down. You be fair to the little guys and you get tough on the big guys, that’s the foundation for both a healthy market and a healthy society.

You could also argue that making things free is good for consumers. You’d be right again, except in the case where the freebies are designed to kill off competition and stagnate the product category (Internet Explorer being a classic case where Microsoft bundled it, gave it away for free, then stopped improving it for years).

We have 50 years of precedents and the people at the DOJ know their history. I suspect it’s just a matter of political winds and timing before Alphabet has to follow in IBM and Microsoft’s footsteps.

Social discussion vs social soundbiting

The centralization of social media is a problem, but I think maybe we’re dealing with an even deeper problem. I joined Mastodon, the potential is clear, and there is already an early adopter audience sharing content I find more interesting than Twitter/FB.

But it only took me a few days to realize that I wasn’t thrilled with Mastodon’s content either, and I realized why: it’s all still short-form.

The best and most enlightening discussions I’ve had are usually slow, drawn-out exchanges of a few hundreds of words per message.

And the Internet has had a thing for this very early on, it’s mailing lists. Well-curated mailing lists and newsgroups (almost the same thing) were long a mainstay of the Internet’s best communities. Unfortunately they are not webby and they have declined in popularity over time.

I think there is another reason the discourse is all short-form these days. Short-form is easier on a phone. No one writes a couple hundred words of their best thoughts from their phone. Almost universally if you look at the content we post from our phones, most of it is lightweight, low intellectual value, not a product of critical thinking. It is either a straight up bad idea (Elon Musk style career-ending pedo and stock tweets) or it is low value stuff (share a news article, food photo #120,315,838,284,942).

It’s very bad for our public discourse to be so heavily influenced by throwaway content.

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message. Maybe we are all producing crap because we spend so much time on devices that are crappy at authoring. (On the other hand, radio, a medium where you can’t reply at all, produced Hitler — by moving to a medium where you can make shitty replies, have we moved forward or backward?)

I don’t know of many social media platforms which promote thought-provoking discourse (and I’m not really talking about 3,000 word Medium-style longreads which no one can possibly respond to in full). I always go back to Hacker News as my favorite one and I think they are successful in large part due to having a narrow focus and strict, pro-intellectual moderation.

The history of web self-publishing from a certain angle.

About 20 years ago something new arose on the Web, it was called web logging, or ‘blogging. People would write long and thoughtful articles about their interests.

And a few years later we got RSS, which was a way of syndicating the content of your blog. Other people could read it in whatever app they preferred.

And a few years after that, Google (back when they still had “do no evil” in their mission statement) invented Google Reader, which was an easy way to scoop up and read the content from your favorite blogs. The combination of using Google Reader to follow the RSS feeds of your favorite blogs created a complete and compelling ecosystem around high quality, independent publishing.

In the mid-2000s a few other publishing services came into being, and a few big winners emerged — notably Facebook and Twitter. These services were very different from the old blogging ecosystem. They were centrally controlled and their design encouraged people to spend many hours consuming bite-size, throwaway content because that was the best way to sell more ads. Google entered this category with Google+ in 2011, and shortly thereafter discontinued Reader. Reader could be seen as a competitor to G+ and it never made much money.

The old blogging and syndication scene never really recovered from the death of Reader, it is still used and appreciated by many today, but it’s Facebook, Twitter and (kind of) Google who shape the world zeitgeist. A zeitgeist in which we grapple with fake news, elections rigged by foreign powers, privacy relegated to a past age. Congressional hearings and EU regulations to keep these monsters at bay.

One wonders if the world itself might be a very different place today, had Google shown some vision and doubled down on something like Reader. Doubled down on promoting thoughtful, independent content instead of A/B optimizing for maximum engagement with advertising.

Maybe economics dictated that the world of today was inevitable, maybe not. But from Mastodon to Medium, most new publishing tools are seeking a cure for an industry that is quite clearly sick. One wonders.

What is the future of Mastodon?

TL;DR it will grow. Twitter/FB will remain the largest players but become increasingly censored and uninteresting; clusters of Mastodon instances which don’t federate with each other, as well as other services, will absorb the resulting exodus. 2023 is a future where social is fragmented.

If you look at the adoption pattern and growth rate of Mastodon, it has around 1.5M users, the majority of which have arrived via three big waves.

The first wave was people with left wing identities who were tired of being harassed on mainstream platforms like Twitter.

The second wave was Japanese lolicon enthusiasts (without diving too deep down this rabbit hole, lolicon is a popular but weird and nerdy thing to be into in Japan).

The third wave was sex workers in response to SESTA/FOSTA eliminating platforms they used in the past.

All these waves set up their own instances, and they don’t communicate much with the other waves.

If you look at what these waves all have in common (aside from using the software), there’s just one thing. They were all posting stuff that didn’t fit in on a mainstream platform. In the first case it was due to harassment, in the second it was embarrassment, in the third it was legality.

The users are already bifurcating the network, admins routinely share blocklists of sites that they don’t want included in their version of the fediverse. Being able to block instances and people you don’t like is one of Mastodon’s killer features.

I don’t think it will become the next outrage machine, people will just block and bifurcate. I do think users will keep setting up Mastodon instances in waves similar to the first three. I’d be surprised if Mastodon ever powered a better version of the commons we currently have on FB, Twitter etc. [1] The feature Mastodon added to federation (and that made it more popular than similar software) is the ability to not federate with people who are different from you.

[1] The “fediverse” at large has some potential to do this if it receives mass adoption. Think of a scenario like WordPress integrating federation features into the Core. This would bring federation to the mainstream.

What’s the difference between antifragility and resiliency?

The concept of antifragility is frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted, partly because Taleb contradicts himself when defining it and partly because most people haven’t actually read his book. Taleb defines resiliency as being suffering adversity and remaining the same. Antifragility builds upon resiliency; when an antifragile system suffers adversity it actually responds by improving itself.

The simplest path to resiliency is redundancy, for double the cost you can acquire two of everything and if the first one fails or runs out you have a replacement ready to go. This principle can be applied to many things. You can train two employees to do the same thing in case one quits. You can buy two rolls of toilet paper so you don’t have to run to the store with poopy pants. You can date two people at once in case one of them turns out to be a sociopath.

Antifragility manifests most commonly as a system of resilient competing entities. A free market is a generic example. If the price of oil spikes the guys who sell gas heaters ramp up production and can even benefit from economies of scale. Applying this concept on a personal level is tricky. Taleb cites an options contract as an application of antifragility. He uses the example of the philosopher Thales who optioned an olive press. In a year with a poor harvest he didn’t exercise the option and his sunk cost was low. In a year with a good harvest he exercised it and made a lot of money. No matter what happens in the world of olives, Thales wins.

Broadly speaking you can apply optionality in your personal life by not making assumptions about the future, and keeping your options open. Keep your fixed expenses low and save your money for investing when prices drop. Build skills that are transferable to other jobs/industries. Get a prenup before you get married. And so on. These opportunities are harder to spot and define than resiliency/redundancy. But I think Taleb would argue they’re the difference between survival and success.

Leaked Emails Show Google Expected Lucrative Military Drone AI Work to Grow Exponentially

I submit:

  • If you’re American, you should support Google developing technology for the US military.
  • If you’re human, you should support a foreign policy that only considers military action as a last resort.
  • If you’re human, you should support early, aggressive, global regulation of the military applications of AI and drones. We made this mistake with nuclear. We leveled Hiroshima, we leveled Nagasaki, we fueled decades of animosity between the Soviets and the West that still plagues the world today. We need to do better next time. The biggest abuser might be the US again but it could just as easily be China.
  • If you’re human, you should support regulation that forbids Google from using your personal for military applications without your express and informed consent.

Substitute Google for any other tech giant’s name.