"For most people, Twitter feels lonely." Photo: Twitter (edited).
Show Hide image

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 comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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