Twitter's founders launch two new services. What are they, and do they have a hope?

Medium and Branch could be third (and fourth) time lucky for Stone and Williams.

Ev Williams and Biz Stone, the co-founders of Blogger (now owned by Google) and Twitter, have launched not one, but two follow-up projects, Medium and Branch.

The two men will be staying on as directors of Twitter, which poses a problem for them commercially – how do they use their expertise to carry on the string of hits, without cannibalising their previous business? One of the Twitter's cofounders, Jack Dorsey, decided to abandon the social media sector entirely, instead attacking two monopolies at once with Square, a platform which allows anyone to accept credit card payments with just an iPhone or iPad.

And with their audacious move to launch two start-ups at the same time, Stone and Williams have that problem doubled. Will people really use Twitter, Medium and Branch at the same time? That's the plan.

What are they?

First things first: what exactly are the new platforms? It's always going to be tricky to describe these things until usage patterns have built up around them organically. You inevitably find yourself resorting to analogies with existing services, which can be far from perfect: I remember, in 2007, attempting to describe Twitter to someone as "like Facebook status updates but without the rest of Facebook". Needless to say, I did not convince them to sign up.

Stone and Williams seem to have a firmer idea of what a mature Branch and Medium will look like than they did with Twitter, however. The latter famously was heavily driven by its users, with conventions like hashtags, retweets and @-mentions invented on-the-fly, and then incorporated into the architecture of the site later on. The way people use it today bears little resemblance to the way they did five years ago.

Medium is a very image-centric platform for content grouped around specific themes. The idea is that users create certain "collections", which are grouped around a theme. Sometimes, these collections are closed, but they can be open to extra contributions. Williams explains (on Medium, of course):

Collections give people context and structure to publish their own stories, photos, and ideas. By default, the highest-rated posts show up at the top, helping people get the most out of their time in this world of infinite information.

Together, the contributions of many add up to create compelling and useful experiences. You may be inspired to post one time or several times a day—either way is okay. If you’re more ambitious, you might create a collection of your own.

Collections exist on topics like editorials, things people have made, nostalgic photos and crazy stories, while the site has a voting function which, ideally, ensures that interesting contributions to those collections float to the top.

Although the design is focused around images, and reminiscent of Pinterest in its gridded layout, posts can be all text, and can indeed be quite weighty. In terms of the (small-m) medium, Medium looks to be encouraging a similar approach to Tumblr (although with much more high-brow content, ideally). Lots of images, some text, and a few links out. The idea is that the individual posts become something more when the group as a whole takes over.

Branch is far more about the conversation as a whole. At its heart lies a question and answer format similar to Quora, another Silicon Valley darling. Users start conversations with an opening post, and can then invite others to join in. The chats are readable by anyone, but only invited users can contribute - but, importantly, anyone can click on any post to "branch" it into its own thread.

Topics being discussed at the moment include today's changes to Twitter's platform, TEDx, an offshoot from the popular TED conferences, and Obama's re-election prospects.

It's easier to describe than Medium, but that's partially because it's a far simpler service. It knows what it wants to be, but there's far less chance for users to discover.

How do they work with Twitter?

If it wasn't clear before that these sites need to work with Twitter, rather than against it, the company today announced changes to the way they deal with third-party apps and services which appear to be a precursor to banning many of them from the network entirely.

Branch is most explicit about how it would mesh with Twitter. It sees itself as a way to take those long, unwieldy five- or six-participant conversations off-site to somewhere where arguments can be developed in a bit more length. As seen in this discussion, it even encourages you to embed tweets to begin the chat.

Medium targets itself at a different sector. It still links to Twitter - right now, the only way to sign up for an account is to use your Twitter account, for instance - but there are few explicit connections between the two services. Its target is different, lying somewhere between Tumblr and Pinterest. The most interesting claim the founders make about it is that it will not require massive engagement to get noticed on - which is a problem with both those sites. If everything works as stated, then a first post could become the most "interesting" one on the most-read board. In this, as with its voting mechanic, Matter actually bears more than a passing resemblance to Reddit. Submit cool things, get up-votes, and be read by the crowd, all of which is fragmented over boards which anyone can create.

Reddit, of course, co-exists admirably with Twitter, so there should be no problem there.

When I wrote on Twitter's API changes, I argued that even worse than the ill-thought out rules being strictly applied is if they aren't strictly applied – if, as there are indications, Twitter gives "good" sites an easier ride.

Sadly, Branch just adds to that notion. While the site will doubtless play well with Twitter, it breaks several of the company's design guidelines (soon to become design requirements). Tweets are displayed without retweet, reply, or favourite buttons, names are displayed without the username next to them, and the Twitter logo is not always displayed in the top right corner. Despite this, something tells me it will not have its API access revoked.

Do they have a hope?

The real question, of course, is whether these things can grow beyond the initial hype. Are they filling niches that need to be filled? Can they encourage users to switch from competing services? And will they work as they scale?

Of the two, Branch is the one which has the more obvious chance of success. It is easy to imagine people saying "let's take this to Branch" when a conversation on Twitter gets out of hand, and the integration between the two services makes that something even the least technologically-minded user can do. Obviously the "featured branches" view of the site would gradually fade into the background as it grew, just as you can't get a whole site feed for Twitter anymore, but this is to be expected; as Dalton Cadwell argued, the global feed is useful for avoiding anti-network effects (where a site gets less useful the more people are on it; compare, for example, Yahoo! Answers and Quora) in a growing site, but useless once something reaches critical mass.

Medium is a different beast entirely. Its problem is getting people to use it. Is it a Tumblr replacement? Pinterest? How should you get content into, and out, of it? Is it for ephemeral posts, or will it have a working archive?

Yet if it does work out – if people do start sharing wonderful things, and telling each other "nice work!" (the equivalent of an up-vote, to use the Reddit analogy) – then Medium has a chance of being, not just a useful addendum to other social networks, but a hub in its own right. Reddit has 35 million users, and an incredibly engaged community. Who wouldn't want a piece of that?

 

Medium and Branch.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.