Twitter's new advertising tool will turn it into a dystopian nightmare

...just like it did to Facebook.

It begins harmlessly enough. You're chatting to a friend, a neighbour perhaps, over the garden fence. The conversation turns to her upcoming wedding. What would she like for a present?

Suddenly a giant box of toasters falls from the sky, landing with a crunch between you. You can no longer see your friend. You start to scramble over the debris, the crushed cat, to find her - is she ok? - but then something small and hard hits you right in the eye. You pick it up: it's a diamond ring. Then another hits you in the back of the head. You're under attack!

You start to run, leaping over fences and through conservatories, but you know you're being chased. Hunted. A guy pops out from behind a tree with a megawatt smile: "Looking to buy some trainers?"

"Get away!" you scream, desperately weaving round him.

"Get away from it all!" a voice from nowhere booms in your ear.

You jump. Where the hell is it coming from? Is it IN YOUR HEAD? You hear it again, ingratiating now, soft, a warm current in the frosty air. 

"A Thompson holiday is only a click away."

And so it begins. Twitter is getting a new API, or “application-programming interface”, a technology which will make it easier for advertisers to reach the right customers. In other words Twitter is getting what Facebook got back in 2010. Advertisers will be able to access information you release in the course of social interaction, and use it to sell you things.

This makes sense for Twitter, for now. It has a great product, (after all, all decisions have hitherto be made with customer experience in mind) and now it wants to make some proper money.

Here's the FT on the financial benefits of the move:

A similar technology launched by Facebook in 2010 helped that social network reach more than $3bn in revenues the following year, with analysts estimating the system currently generates roughly 60 per cent of the company’s revenues.

eMarketer estimates that with the new venture Twitter's revenue will grow 90 per cent this year to $545m, and that  it will earn over than $800m next year in global ad revenue.

But what of the product itself? Twitter spokespeople insist the user experience will be uninterrupted "in the short term" - users may not see that many more ads - but that's not the whole point. The really damaging aspect of the new advertising development, I'd argue, is that it'll allow ad companies to "target" their marketing.

"Because we have a robust listening solution and engagement solution, we can listen to what people are saying [on Twitter about a brand] and engage with them and take any of their tweets and promote them," s Salesforce Marketing Cloud's  Michael Lazerow told ADweek.

But social media sites are a great deal about trust - you are downloading a large amount of subtle personal information (you can't help it, you're socialising) - and it's an uneasy feeling that cynical sharks are circling, trying to make money out of it.

You get too much of this on twitter anyway. Tabloid journalists haunt the edges, looking for someone famous to make a a false step which they can use out of context. Now imagine what would happen if everyone's witterings were that lucrative.

But we don't really have to imagine - we have Facebook. Since its 2010 marketing drive the site has been haemorraging users (it lost more than $50bn after last year's stockmarket crash), and those still on it squirrel away that valuable personal information, using it mostly to arrange social events via private messaging.

So what today's Twitter news really means is that another great social networking site has peaked and is on the way down. Plus ça change.

Looks so innocent. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.