Study finds even time travellers aren't using Google+ (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Bing)

How would we know if time travellers have visited our time period? By looking for tweets, of course.

In the early years of the last decade there was a trend of people posting on internet forums claiming to be time travellers from the future. The most famous of these was John Titor, a name used by someone through 2000 and 2001, claiming that they were visiting from the year 2036.

Titor’s predictions ranged from the geopolitical to the scientific. He would share scans of the schematics for his time machine - installed inside a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette, no less - and claimed that 2004 would see a worldwide nuclear war that would reduce the United States to civil war.

We can be pretty sure Titor wasn’t a time traveller. His claim that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics was correct (and that, therefore, if something doesn’t happen in one timeline, it has to have happened in at least one other) is a convenient get-out clause for his incorrect predictions, many of which reflect the major events and scandals of the time like mad cow disease. He completely misses 9/11 and the war on terror, too, which is a pretty big omission.

How, though, can we be sure that there wasn’t a real John Titor out there, leaving a trail of predictive crumbs on some small message board in a corner of the web?

Physicists Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson from Michigan Technological University have a neat paper called, suitably enough, “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers”, and it proposes three methods for seeking out evidence of of time travellers on the web. Spoiler: they don’t find anything. But it’s still an interesting idea to consider.

In August 2013, Nemiroff and Wilson searched for posts made between January 2006 and September 2013 that mentioned either or both of two terms: “Pope Francis” and “Comet ISON”. These were chosen because they’re very unique terms - Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first pope to take the name Francis, and Comet ISON is the only comet to have that particular name - and are therefore unlikely to have been mentioned by chance before they were coined (in March 2013 and September 2012, respectively).

There were three ways to see if anyone had let slip those terms before they should have. The first was a simple search using Google, Bing, Google+, Facebook, and Twitter, and it actually turned up a result - a blog post where someone talked about a future “Pope Francis”. “Butbut upon close inspection and consideration,” the authors wrote, “that blog post was deemed overtly speculative and not prescient.”

Second was to dig into what people had been searching for on search engines like Google during that time period. “A time traveller might have been trying to collect historical information that did not survive into the future, or might have searched for a prescient term because they erroneously thought that a given event had already occurred, or searched to see whether a given event was yet to occur,” Nemiroff and Wilson write. Google Trends doesn’t show anything for either search term, and neither Bing nor Yahoo! offer that kind of detail.

The researchers even get access to Nasa’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website stats, and have a dig around to see if anyone ended up landing on the homepage thanks to searching for Comet ISON. Still nothing.

The third (and final) method was interactive, asking time travellers to go back in time and reveal themselves by tweeting or emailing one of two phrases - #ICanChangeThePast2 or #ICannotChangeThePast2 - on or before August 2013. The two phrases were chosen because neither hashtag had ever been used before this study, and the researchers hoped that any time traveller who obliged would clear up a fundamental question about how time travel works.

But, of course, they did a search for the hashtags before revealing the request in September 2013, and inevitably nobody seemed to have travelled back in time to tweet or email.

What can we conclude from this? “Although the negative results reported here may indicate that time travelers from the future are not among us and cannot communicate with us over the modern day Internet,” the researchers write, “they are by no means proof.” There are all kinds of reasons why there might not be evidence left behind by time travellers, from the physical impossibility of changing the past to them simply being very good at covering their tracks. It wasn’t a comprehensive search either - all we know is that time travellers don’t use Twitter or Google Plus if they come back.

“This search might be considered the most sensitive and comprehensive search yet for time travel from the future,” the researchers write. The truth may be out there, but requires further investigation.

It's a clock, flying through time. (Image: Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Lol enforcement: meet the man policing online joke theft

A story of revenge, retweets, and Kale Salad. 

A man walks into a bar and he tells a joke. The man next to him laughs – and then he tells the same joke. The man next to him, in turn, repeats the joke. That bar’s name is Twitter.

If you’ve been on the social network for more than five minutes, you’ll notice that joke theft is rampant on the site. Search, for example, for a popular tweet this week (“did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything” – 153,000 retweets) and you’ll see it has been copied 53 times in the last three days.

One instance of plagiarism, however, is unlike the others. Its perpetrator is the meme account @dory and its quick Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V has over 3,500 retweets. This account frequently copies the viral posts of Twitter users and passes them off – word for word – as its own. Many similar accounts do the same, including @CWGirl and @FatJew, and many make money by promoting advertising messages to their large number of followers. Twitter joke theft, then, is profitable.

In 2015, Twitter promised to clamp down on the unchecked plagiarism on its site. “This Tweet from [user] has been withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder,” read a message meant to replace stolen jokes on the site. It’s likely a message you’ve never seen.

Dissatisfied with this solution, one man took it upon himself to fight the thieves. 

“I'm a like happy internet kind of guy,” says Samir Mezrahi, a 34-year-old from New York who runs the Twitter account @KaleSalad. For the last six months, Mezrahi has used the account to source and retweet the original writers of Twitter jokes. Starting with a few hundred followers at the end of December 2016, Mezrahi had jumped to 50,000 followers by January 2017. Over 82,000 people now follow his account.  

“I've always been a big fan of like viral tweets and great tweets,” explains Mezrahi, over the sound of his children watching cartoons in the background. “A lot of people were fed up with the meme accounts so it’s just like a good opportunity to reward creators and people.”

Samir Mezrahi, owner of @KaleSalad

I had expected Mezrahi to be a teen. In actual fact he is a father of three and an ex-Buzzfeed employee, who speaks in a calm monotone, yet is enthusiastic about sharing the best content on Twitter. Though at first sourcing original tweets for Kale Salad was hard work, people now approach Mezrahi for help.

“People still reach out to me looking for vindication and just that kind of, I don’t know, that kind of acknowledgement that they were the originals. Because all so often the meme accounts are much larger and their tweets do better than the stolen tweet.”

But just why does having a tweet stolen suck so much? In the grand scheme of things, does it matter? Did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything?

Meryl O’Rourke is a comedian and writer who tweets at @MerylORourke, and now has a copyright symbol (©) after her Twitter name. In the past she has had her jokes stolen and reposted, unattributed, on Facebook and Twitter and hopes this symbol will go some way to protecting her work.

“It’s hard to explain how it felt... as a struggling writer you’re always waiting for anything that looks like recognition as it could lead to your break,” she explains. “When your work gains momentum you feel like your opportunity ran off without you.

“Twitter is a test of a writer’s skill. To spend time choosing exactly the right words to convey your meaning with no nuance or explanation, and ensure popularity and a chuckle, in the space of only 140 characters – that’s hard work.”

However, Mezrahi has found not everyone is bothered by their tweets being stolen. I found the same man I reached out to with a stolen tweet who said he didn’t want to speak to me because it felt too “first world problems” to complain. Writers like O’Rourke are naturally more annoyed than random teenagers, who Mezrahi says are normally actually pleased about the theft.

“If you go to [a teenager’s] timeline it’s always the same thing. They’re replying to all their friends saying like ‘I’m famous’, they’re retweeting the meme accounts saying like ‘I did it’… they don’t mind as much it seems. It’s kind of like a badge of honour to them.”

Sometimes, people even ask Kale Salad to unretweet their posts. College students with scholarships, in particular, might not actually want to go viral – or some viral tweets may accidentally include personal information. On the whole, however, people are grateful for his work.

Yet the Kale Salad account does have unintended consequences. Mezrahi has now been blocked by the major meme accounts that frequently steal jokes, meaning he had to create alternate accounts to view their content. But just because he can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t see him – and he has noticed that these accounts now actually come to his profile to steal jokes he has retweeted, in a strange role-reversal.

“There are definitely times when they're picking up things that I just retweeted, like I know they're like looking at me too,” he says. “It feels like vindicated or validated that they come to me.”

Mezrahi now works in social media on a freelance basis, but would be open to making Kale Salad profitable. Earlier this year he set up an account on Patreon – a site that allows fans to pay their favourite creators. Some people didn’t approve of this, tweeting to say he is “just retweeting tweets”. So far, Mezrahi has three patrons who pay him $50 (£39) a month.

“I mean I spend a certain amount of time on this and I think it’s a pretty good service, so I've been thinking about monetisation and thought that might be a route,” he explains. He believes he is providing an important service by “amplifying” creators, and he didn’t want to make money in less transparent ways, such as by posting sponsored advertisements on his account. Yet although many online love Kale Salad, they don’t, as of yet, want to pay him.

“Twitter should buy my account because I’m doing a good thing that people like every day,” he muses.

Many might still be sceptical of the value of a joke vigilante. For those whose jokes aren’t their bread or butter, tweet theft may seem like a very minimal problem. And although it arguably is, it’s still incredibly annoying. Writing in Playboy, Rob Fee explains it best:

“How upsetting is it when you tell a joke quietly in a group of friends, then someone else says it louder and gets a huge laugh? Now imagine your friend following you every day listening for more jokes because people started throwing money at him every time he repeated what you said. Also, that friend quit his job because he made enough to live comfortably by telling your jokes louder than you can. Odds are, you’d quickly decide to find new friends.”

For now, then, Kale Salad will continue his work as the unpaid internet police. “As long as people like the service, I don’t mind doing it. If that's a year or two years or what we'll see how the account goes,” he says.

“Twitter is fun and I like the fun days on the internet and I like to help contribute to that.

“The internet is for fun and not all the sadness that’s often there.”

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

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