Twitter’s thin blue line: a velvet rope to connect the riff-raff to the elite

The latest update to the social network is simply a helpful little line to make it easier to follow a conversational thread. In reality, it will mean that the clubby little chats of the great and good will be even more difficult to avoid.

How Barack Obama got elected I’ll never know. With rhetoric centred around the repeated use of the word ‘change’ he somehow appealed to the Social Media generation. And if we know one thing about them it’s this; they don’t like change.

You only have to wander into Facebook after one of its thrice-monthly makeovers to know that’s true. The kind of wailing and rending of garments you’ll see after a minor alteration of the network’s news feed hasn’t been witnessed since Moses nearly missed his print deadline for The Book Of Job.

Now — setting aside for a moment the possibility that Syrian hackers have compromised the network in a peculiarly constructive way — Twitter has a social upheaval of its own.

The principal difference between the two leading social networks is that while Facebook is unapologetically a platform for closed friendship groups, Twitter aspires to be The National Conversation.

The latest update to the Twitter web client introduces a helpful little line to make it easier to follow a conversational thread. Hardly groundbreaking stuff.

The thinking behind the (by default) blue line is to promote conversation. To encourage people to butt in to the conversations they see going on around them. To promote tweets that are engendering conversations over random shouts in the darkness. .  In essence, Twitter wants some of Facebook’s action.

But of course the blue line is also a velvet rope. There’s an élite on Twitter as there is everywhere else. And, as they do everywhere else, they all know each other.

Unless you regularly consult Wikipedia you can often forget that an awful lot of politicians, actors and broadsheet columnists — no matter how egalitarian their standpoint, are either descended from someone famous, married to someone famous, or used to fag for someone famous at Eton.

On Twitter, it’s all too obvious that the cool kids all know each other. The national conversation is shot through with a skein of the great and the good chatting about meeting up later at one anothers’ book launches, or commiserating with one another about the hangovers they’re suffering after last night’s première.

Those conversations could be taking place via email, or in direct messages, rather than constituting a virtual Mean Girls lunch table to which the rest of us aren’t invited. But let’s be charitable. Maybe all those cool kids are just too hungover to send emails. There are an awful lot of book launches every week.

Twitter happily tells us that  “great conversations happen on Twitter every day” and that “they’re now easier to find and enjoy.” What they have become, in fact, is harder to avoid. The great school cafeteria of Twitter has been arranged to that we’re all in earshot of the cool kids table, all the time.

There is scope, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, to exploit Twitter’s new conversation lines. For commercial interests to link tweets to give them more conversational ‘weight’ and float them to the top of more timelines.

So, in summation. Ordinary people don’t like the blue lines because they don’t like change of any kind. The cool kids won’t notice the blue lines because they’ve always used Twitter as a conversational medium anyway. And unless Twitter are getting a kickback from the commercial operators that will swoop in to exploit the new opportunity, they won’t derive much benefit from it.

If we were rational about social networking, the blue line would soon become so ubiquitous as to become effectively invisible.

As we’re not, I doubt if it’ll last until the end of the Obama administration.

A still from Twitter's video introducing the update to its web client.

Michael Moran is the television columnist for the Lady magazine and the creator of the literary spoof “100 Books I'll Never Write".

Getty.
Show Hide image

Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile