Some hard truths about Twitter's health crisis

Some hard truths about Twitter's health crisis
From TechCrunch - March 10, 2018

Its a testament to quite how control freaky and hermetically sealed to criticism the tech industry is that Twitters CEO Jack Dorsey went unscripted in front of his own brand livestreaming servicethis week, inviting users to lob awkward questions at him for the first time ever.

Its also a testament to how much trouble social media is in. As Ive written before, fake news is an existential crisis for platforms whose business model requires them to fence vast quantities of unverified content uploaded by, at best, poorly verified users.

No content, no dice, as it were. But things get a whole lot more complicated when you have to consider what the content actually is; who wrote it; whether its genuine or not; and what its messaging might be doing to your users, to othersand to society at large.

As a major MIT study looking at a decades worth of tweetsand also published this weekunderlines: Information does not spread equally.

More specifically, fact-checked information that has been rated true seems to be less sharable than fact-checked information that has been rated false. Or to put it more plainly: Novel/outrageous content is more viral.

This is entirely unsurprising. As Jonathan Swift put it all the way back in the 1700s: Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it. New research, old truth.

Whats also true is that as social medias major platforms have scaled, so too have the problems blasted through their megaphones zoomed into mainstream view.

Concerns have ballooned. Were now at a structural level, debating societal fundamentals like cohesion, civility, democracy. Even, you could argue, confronting humanity itself. Platform as a term has always had a dehumanizing ring. Perhaps thats their underlying truth too.

Dorsey says the health of conversations on his platform is now the companys number one prioritymore than a decade after he typed that vapid first tweet, just setting up my twttr, when he presumably had zero idea of all the horrible things humans would end up using his technology for.

But its also at least half a decade after warningsthat trolls and bots were running rampant on Twitters platform.

Turns out the future comes at you eventually. Even if you stubbornly refuse to listen as alarm after alarm are being sounded. Neversend to know forwhom the bell tolls; ittollsfor thee, wrote John Donne, meditating on society and the individual, back in 1624.

A #280 assessment of what a buzzcut, bearded and careworn Dorsey now says he sees as Twitters main problem and thus priority boils down to something like this

We know our platform is being used negatively, people are hurting and public conversation is being damaged. But we dont know how to fix it because we dont understand how to measure the individual and societal impacts of our technology. We think more tech can help. Pls help us.

What Twitters crisis tells us is that tech companies are terrible listeners. Although those of us outside the engineering room knew that already.

Its hardly a surprise that techies suck at listening when they sit inside their hermetically sealed pods thinking its both their special gift and libertarian right to control levers that remotely affect other peoples lives while channelling the spice and dollars their way.

So it is a good sign, albeit horribly overdue, to see a nervous and contrite-seeming Dorsey stand in front of the firehose of user opinionfor 50 or so raw, unedited minutes.

Hopefully this performancewhich he said would be repeated regularly, from here on insignals an absolute conversion to reformation. A realization that social media platforms cant engineer around societal responsibility. That listening and understanding is absolutely their day job.

Head-in-the-sand-ism will catch up with you eventually. Just as playing fast and loose finally overtook Ubers founder and landed his company in all sorts of legal hot water.

So how did Dorsey and select members of his safety A-team do in their first awkward questions Periscope?

Fair to middling, is my assessment. Its clear they still dont really know how to fix the mess they are in. Hence Twittersoliciting proposals from the public. But admitting they dont know what to do and reaching out for help is a big and important step.

To put it colloquially, theyve realized thes**t theyre in. And thes**t thats at stake. Hashtag #changeforreal

Dorsey seemed visibly uncomfortable with the Periscope process, which again is testament to how closed a box and operating shop Twitter has been. He hasnt always been CEO but he is a founder so hes absolutely on the hook for that.

And Twitters bunker mentality has clearly compounded its problems in identifying and responding to content issues that first flared on its platform and then raged. Unpicking that wont be easy.

Indeed, he said several times that the changes he wants to happen wont happen overnight. That changing Twitter will require a lot of work.


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