No, Twitter — healthy conversation can’t be engineered

No, Twitter — healthy conversation can’t be engineered

For starters, it didn’t ask anyone for advice (Zuckerberg’s listening tour of the U.S. doesn’t count because he didn’t specify as clearly as Dorsey what he was looking for). Twitter, faced with a 14 percent decline in time spent and a decrease in attention share to 0.8 percent from 1.1 percent over the same period — and consequently described by Pivotal Research Group as a “niche platform” — needs to do something that will draw people to it, not repel them. If there’s a transparently developed, openly discussed set of measurements to determine the “health of the conversation” on Twitter or any other social network, the networks could, instead of grappling with macro-problems like “fake news” or “harassment,” break down their responses into micro-actions designed to move the metrics. “Social engineering” is a term for the low-tech manipulation of people into doing something they didn’t plan to do — like revealing their personal data or perhaps blowing up publicly so they can be shamed. Trolls are good at social engineering. A brief look at the responses to Dorsey’s thread (“You’re lying,” “‘This is not who we are’ translates to ‘This is EXACTLY who we are’,” “I’d tell you what I really think of you but you’d kick me off”) is enough to see what sort of conversational space Twitter is. Metrics? I’m sure they can be designed to show these comments are 77 percent “healthy” — and, for the next Dorsey thread, to show an improvement to 79 percent. It’s a bitter pill for the networks’ engineer founders, who tend to think technology and data can fix any problem, but a solution can only be found by putting people in the same environment that exists in face-to-face conversation or in the “legacy” news media — one that makes outbursts and lying legally and socially costly. Follow him on Twitter: @Bershidsky

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Facebook’s self-regulatory contortions in the wake of fake news and trolling scandals have gone on, with little visible effect, for months. Now Twitter founder and Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey has announced his company is going to try a different tack — but Dorsey’s approach is arguably even more far-fetched than his Facebook peer Mark Zuckerberg’s: It’s an attempt to view Twitter’s social mess as an engineering problem.

In a Twitter thread on Thursday, Dorsey admitted that Twitter has been home to “abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns and increasingly divisive echo chambers” and that it’s not proud of how it has dealt with them. So it would try to find a “holistic” solution through attempting to “measure the ‘health’ of conversation on Twitter.” The metrics, designed in collaboration with outside experts, would presumably help redesign the service so that all the bad stuff would be gone without the need for censorship.

That’s not how Facebook chose to handle a similar problem. For starters, it didn’t ask anyone for advice (Zuckerberg’s listening tour of the U.S. doesn’t count because he didn’t specify as clearly as Dorsey what he was looking for). Facebook just devised some possible solutions such as working with fact-checkers to identify fake news and focusing on content from friends rather than publishers; it even experimented with putting publisher content in a separate newsfeed — a test it has just ended because users apparently didn’t want two feeds. It has also volunteered to reveal more information about who bought political ads.

It’s not clear whether these moves have done anything to fix the problems: I still have my tens of thousands of fake “subscribers” who showed up after I was active in the 2011 protests in Moscow and, as far as I’ve seen, questionable content from highly partisan sources is also still there. All that has happened is that, according to a recent analysis of Nielsen data by equity research company Pivotal Research Group, time spent by users on Facebook was down 4 percent year-on-year in November, 2017, and its share of user attention was down to 16.7 percent from 18.2 percent a year earlier.

Twitter, faced with a 14 percent decline in time spent and a decrease in attention share to 0.8 percent from 1.1 percent over the same period — and consequently described by Pivotal Research Group as a “niche platform” — needs to…

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