"For most people, Twitter feels lonely." Photo: Twitter (edited).
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Are you one of Twitter's millions of ghost users? This could be why

Over two thirds of Twitter users are inactive. Could a swathe of new features bring them back to life? 

An 8,500-word piece on the future of Twitter did the rounds on Twitter last week. In it, Chris Sacca, venture capitalist and major, er, Twitter investor, listed ways the site could lift itself out of its financial trough, and begin building up users again. 

If you think this is already starting to sound like an inpenetrable story about a site trapped in its own bubble, you're not alone. Twitter, founded in 2006, now has somewhere in the region of 250 million active accounts - this is the figure Twitter execs will quote if you ask about their engagement levels. But they're far less likely to mention the fact that there are actually one billion registered users on the site.

Over two-thirds of the platform, therefore, is a desert, populated by silent voyeurs and faceless eggs. Over 40 per cent of accounts have never tweeted. This ocean of tumbleweed is, needless to say, far from Twitter's original vision of open, democratised discussion and community.

Somewhere buried in Sacca's thousands of words (don't worry, we'll only be looking at 21 of them here) is a pretty astute list of the site's major failings. Here it is:

1.  For most people, Twitter is too hard to use.

2.  For most people, Tweeting is scary.

3.  For most people, Twitter feels lonely.

The key phrase here is, as you might have guessed, "for most people". Twitter's problem is that its core users - a tiny minority, and mainly working in the media - use Twitter all the time, and have few problems with its format; while most users don't engage at all. Casual users, who might log on once a day, clearly see little for them in the site's fast-moving timelines and lack of curation. 

These three problems may have, in turn, led to Twitter's stalling user growth, and its failure to match its valuation after going public (the company also lost around $600m over the last four quarters). And it could well be a recognition of them which has led the company to start altering its simple premise over the past few years. 

This month, change has shifted up a gear. CEO Dick Costolo announced this week that he will step down on 1 July, while more key changes to direct messaging and the way users can manage blocked accounts have also been announced. All tie in with one or more of Sacca's criticisms above. 

First, DMs. While Sacca doesn't tackle this feature in his post, it seems that from Twitter's point of view, messaging represents a key way to engage less confident users. This is largely because public tweets are hard to write, and can be scary to release into the world. They require practice in stuffing thoughts into a character limit, plus confidence that you've nailed the platform's tone. Their ephemeral nature - zipping past on well-populated timelines within seconds - means new users are unlikely to get kickback in the form of favourites or retweets. Those without friends or colleagues on the site are, in short, likely to feel like they're talking into the wind. @POTUS may be on Twitter, but he certainly isn't listening to you.

Group DMs, introduced back in January, now allow you to interact with a community on a smaller and more private scale. They remove in-jokes from others' timelines, and represent perhaps the first major ackowledgement that, as the compay noted in its release about the move“you might prefer to read (or watch) Tweets but converse about them privately”. Last week's  increase of the DM character limit to 10,000, meanwhile, will alleviate the anxiety of saying the right thing in 140 keystrokes. 

Then, of course, there's the more rational fear of being attacked for saying something in such a public forum, either with justification or without. Twitter has a troubled history of dealing with harassment and trolls, largely because it's difficult to say how involved moderators should be on a platform that sees itself as a kind of Wild West of the web, with little focus on privacy and moderation. (This attitude comes at a cost, of course - a Sunday Mirror investigation revealed that paedophile rings have used groups of of lcoked Twitter accounts to share images and messages.)

The new blocked lists feature allows communities who are targeted by specific groups of people to protect themselves en masse. Any user can export their list of blocked accounts, and others can download this directly. Third party apps, such as the "BlockBot", have attempted something similar - but, unsurprisingly, BlockBot's blocked list turned out to be motivated by its creators' ideology, and included users with no history of harassment. If you’re directly downloading an individual user's blocked list, on the other hand, you'll be fully aware that it's subjective. Of course, this new tool doesn't do much to stop trolls from harassing others, and it doesn't force them off the site. But, once again, the move emphasises the community aspect of the platform.

Twitter has suggested even more changes are afoot, including a less chronology-focused main timeline, teased with a recent "while you were away" feature. Yesterday, they announced that videos and gifs will now autoplay on the platform, moving the focus away from text-based tweets and potentially making timelines more entertaining (and, one assumes, data-guzzling).  

So less scary, difficult, and lonely - but will the measures work? It all depends on whether the company can offer inactive users enough to engage them, without annoying core users by mutating itself beyond recognition. 

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

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

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