Monday 7 November, 2022

Spoiler alert

This edition is largely about Twitter, a platform which has recently been bought by Elon Musk, a tech billionaire who is two parts genius and one part fruitcake (and in some ways also a slightly pathetic figure because of his childish craving for attention). Since my guess is that many readers probably don’t use Twitter and therefore regard its future as nothing to do with them, this may seem an outrageous indulgence on my part. But bear with me: what happens to Twitter matters to all of us — those of us who live in democracies anyway — because it has become, de facto part of the critical infrastructure of our public sphere. A search for “twitter” and “public sphere” on Google Scholar, effectively the world’s biggest scholarly citation-index, turns up 130,000 academic articles. And democracies need a functioning public sphere if they are to endure.

Let me explain…

In a recent Observer OpEd piece I said that having Musk responsible for an important part of the world’s public sphere could turn out to be “like entrusting a delicate clock to a monkey”. I meant it, because Musk has over time talked a lot of nonsense about “free speech”. And now he’s the richest media baron in the world.

On the other hand, though, his stewardship of two high-tech corporations (Tesla and SpaceX) confirms that he’s also very smart — which suggests that the predictions that he will destroy Twitter are overblown. He paid a fortune for the company and is in hock to banks for a lot of money, so he will try to transform it from a chronically unprofitable company into a money-spinning giant. The real question, then, is: how will that new media giant impact on the public sphere?

An obvious question — given that Twitter is a niche platform — why does its future matter? After all, a PEW survey recently found that only 23% of US adults use it — compared with the 81% who use YouTube , the 69% who use Facebook and the 40% who are on Instagram.

To understand why Twitter matters you have to think of our information environment as a media ecosystem, not a marketplace. I’ve been banging on about this for many years — there’s even a whole chapter on it in one of my books. An ecosystem is a system in which many species exist, interacting and competing with one another for food and energy. One of the important types of interaction is symbiosis — “any type of a close and long-term biological interaction between two different biological organisms, be it mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitic.”

In our media ecosystem, one critical symbiotic relationship is that between Twitter and mainstream media. You or I may not be interested in, or on, Twitter, but every journalist on the planet is obsessed with it — which is why what happens on Twitter finds it way into the output of every major news organisation in the world. It’s what enabled Donald Trump, for example, to dominate the news agenda in the US for five whole years. This symbiosis is what justifies my contention that Twitter is part of the critical infrastructure of our public sphere. And it explains why it’s worth paying attention to what Musk does with it.

Quote of the Day

”I withdraw in disappointment, as just one moment in a slow, gentle “weening from the things of this earth”, to adapt a phrase from Mary Shelley. The things of this earth, really, are a bunch of shit, which Twitter just concentrates into a dense fecal supplement. My system finally revolted against these years of heavy intake at the moment when my friend Agnes Callard got mobbed for something so stupid I can’t even bring myself to describe it.

  • Philosopher Justin E.H. Smith on deleting his Twitter account.

(Agnes Callard’s ordeal by Twitter-mob is chronicled in this Buzzfeed story.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Petzold: Minuet No. 1 in G Major | Lang Lang


Short and unutterably sweet.

(It was originally and incorrectly attributed to Bach as BWV Anh. 114)

Long Read of the Day

Twitter Is Our Future

Long and perceptive blog post by James Fallows who, over several decades, has been one of the most perceptive observers of our media ecosystem. (I’ve been citing his book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy for more years than I care to remember.) So his views on the future of Twitter are worth reading.

He views Twitter as a bellwether for two reasons:

One is that Elon Musk’s attempted destruction of Twitter, be it reckless or intentional, is worth seeing as a speeded-up version of what is happening in other parts of the media. Twitter is an outlier, and so is Musk. But because of the incredible haste of this process, the dismantling of Twitter is usefully clarifying about changes for the media as a whole.

The other is that there are “many” possible replacements for parts of the positive functions Twitter has offered. But there is no one clear, obvious, easily available, broadly comparable other place to go. It’s not like saying, “Oh, just get an Android” if you’re unhappy with Apple or iPhones. It’s more like saying: “We’re building a dam, so everyone has to move out of this town before the water gets too deep. Good luck staying in touch after each of you settles someplace else.”

Twitter is only 16 years old, so its own story demonstrates how rapidly new communities can emerge. My point is that Musk is forcing people to go through that process of search, reconnection, and reinvention. He says he is reconceiving online discussion with whatever he has in mind for Twitter. The real entrepreneurial effect may come from the wave of Musk-era Twitter exiles and refugees, among employees and users alike.

Do read the whole thing.

Options for refugees fleeing a Muskovitic Twitter

Dave Winer (whom God Preserve) has — as usual — been thinking creatively about options.

I’ve been asked by a number of people what to do, based on the assumption Twitter is imploding.#

  • It’s not yet imploding. Everything seems to work, as before. #
  • I’d back up the list of people you follow, and people who follow you. How to do this? Someone should figure it out and write a simple howto.#
  • I wouldn’t expect mastodon to be able to handle anything remotely like the load Twitter is handling for years. In the meantime, someone should write a Busy Developers Guide to peering with Mastodon, so we can get started on making the vision really work at scale.#
  • If we wanted a smooth transition we should have planned for a great diaspora. Years ago. But nothing like that happened.#
  • I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Blue Sky.#
  • What is possible, in a few months, if we start working on it now, are mini-twitters, like lifeboats, where a small circle of friends gets together to share stuff within the group. But this won’t be free. But it won’t be that expensive either. Far less than say $8 per month. #

Twitter isn’t a ‘product’ but something much more complex

In his weekly newsletter, Azeem Azhar makes some interesting observations about Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. On the idea of Twitter as infrastructure, for example, he writes,

there are certain services that go beyond simply dollar-and-cents, and end up having more systemic importance. Societies have recognised this. Look at the rules around the banking system. We recognise it within telecoms. It may be that Twitter has aspects of its operation that are more systemic (more like core telecoms or banking) than they are like Candy Crush or the Superbowl. The European Union through the Digital Services Act recognises this. America’s ACCESS Bill will attempt the same. Twitter is not a product like a dust bin, vacuum cleaner or high-end car.

He also highlights an aspect of this controversy that few people seem to be addressing (though I’m sure the geek in Musk is thinking about it) — that Twitter as it exists is a complex system (which is not the same as a complicated one) and that intervening in such systems can produce counter-intuitive and sometimes catastrophic outcomes. Azhar cites Joe Bak-Colman’s reflections on Musk’s vision of Twitter as a ‘Hive Mind’ — i.e. “a collective, cybernetic super-intelligence” because it consists of “billions of bi-directional interactions per day.” In other words, a complex system. Bak-Colman followed this up with an interesting Twitter thread on the difficulties of intervening in such systems.

The most delightful reference I know of in this area is “Ecology for Bankers” by Robert May, Simon Levin and George Sukihara — published in Nature in 2008, just when another complex system was going belly-up.

Machine-learning systems are problematic. That’s why tech bosses call them ‘AI’

Yesterday’s Observer column:

One of the most useful texts for anyone covering the tech industry is George Orwell’s celebrated essay, “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell’s focus in the essay was on political use of the language to, as he put it, “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. But the analysis can also be applied to the ways in which contemporary corporations bend the language to distract attention from the sordid realities of what they are up to.

The tech industry has been particularly adept at this kind of linguistic engineering. “Sharing”, for example, is clicking on a link to leave a data trail that can be used to refine the profile the company maintains about you. You give your “consent” to a one-sided proposition: agree to these terms or get lost. Content is “moderated”, not censored. Advertisers “reach out” to you with unsolicited messages. Employees who are fired are “let go”. Defective products are “recalled”. And so on.

At the moment, the most pernicious euphemism in the dictionary of double-speak is AI, which over the last two or three years has become ubiquitous…

Do read the whole thing.

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