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

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“Stinking Googles should be killed”: why 4chan is using a search engine as a racist slur

Users of the anonymous forum are targeting Google after the company introduced a programme for censoring abusive language.

Contains examples of racist language and memes.

“You were born a Google, and you are going to die a Google.”

Despite the lack of obscenity and profanity in this sentence, you have probably realised it was intended to be offensive. It is just one of hundreds of similar messages posted by the users of 4chan’s Pol board – an anonymous forum where people go to be politically incorrect. But they haven’t suddenly seen the error of their ways about using the n-word to demean their fellow human beings – instead they are trying to make the word “Google” itself become a racist slur.

In an undertaking known as “Operation Google”, some 4chan users are resisting Google’s latest artificial intelligence program, Conversation AI, by swapping smears for the names of Google products. Conversation AI aims to spot and flag offensive language online, with the eventual possibility that it could automatically delete abusive comments. The famously outspoken forum 4chan, and the similar website 8chan, didn’t like this, and began their campaign which sees them refer to “Jews” as “Skypes”, Muslims as “Skittles”, and black people as “Googles”.

If it weren’t for the utterly abhorrent racism – which includes users conflating Google’s chat tool “Hangouts” with pictures of lynched African-Americans – it would be a genius idea. The group aims to force Google to censor its own name, making its AI redundant. Yet some have acknowledged this might not ultimately work – as the AI will be able to use contextual clues to filter out when “Google” is used positively or pejoratively – and their ultimate aim is now simply to make “Google” a racist slur as revenge.


Posters from 4chan

“If you're posting anything on social media, just casually replace n****rs/blacks with googles. Act as if it's already a thing,” wrote one anonymous user. “Ignore the company, just focus on the word. Casually is the important word here – don't force it. In a month or two, Google will find themselves running a company which is effectively called ‘n****r’. And their entire brand is built on that name, so they can't just change it.”

There is no doubt that Conversation AI is questionable to anyone who values free speech. Although most people desire a nicer internet, it is hard to agree that this should be achieved by blocking out large swathes of people, and putting the power to do so in the hands of one company. Additionally, algorithms can’t yet accurately detect sarcasm and humour, so false-positives are highly likely when a bot tries to identify whether something is offensive. Indeed, Wired journalist Andy Greenberg tested Conversation AI out and discovered it gave “I shit you not” 98 out of 100 on its personal attack scale.

Yet these 4chan users have made it impossible to agree with their fight against Google by combining it with their racism. Google scores the word “moron” 99 out of 100 on its offensiveness scale. Had protestors decided to replace this – or possibly even more offensive words like “bitch” or “motherfucker” – with “Google”, pretty much everyone would be on board.

Some 4chan users are aware of this – and indeed it is important not to consider the site a unanimous entity. “You're just making yourselves look like idiots and ruining any legitimate effort to actually do this properly,” wrote one user, while some discussed their concerns that “normies” – ie. normal people – would never join in. Other 4chan users are against Operation Google as they see it as self-censorship, or simply just stupid.


Memes from 4chan

But anyone who disregards these efforts as the work of morons (or should that be Bings?) clearly does not understand the power of 4chan. The site brought down Microsoft’s AI Tay in a single day, brought the Unicode swastika (卐) to the top of Google’s trends list in 2008, hacked Sarah Palin’s email account, and leaked a large number of celebrity nudes in 2014. If the Ten Commandments were rewritten for the modern age and Moses took to Mount Sinai to wave two 16GB Tablets in the air, then the number one rule would be short and sweet: Thou shalt not mess with 4chan.

It is unclear yet how Google will respond to the attack, and whether this will ultimately affect the AI. Yet despite what ten years of Disney conditioning taught us as children, the world isn’t split into goodies and baddies. While 4chan’s methods are deplorable, their aim of questioning whether one company should have the power to censor the internet is not.

Google also hit headlines this week for its new “YouTube Heroes” program, a system that sees YouTube users rewarded with points when they flag offensive videos. It’s not hard to see how this kind of crowdsourced censorship is undesirable, particularly again as the chance for things to be incorrectly flagged is huge. A few weeks ago, popular YouTubers also hit back at censorship that saw them lose their advertising money from the site, leading #YouTubeIsOverParty to trend on Twitter. Perhaps ultimately, 4chan didn't need to go on a campaign to damage Google's name. It might already have been doing a good enough job of that itself.

Google has been contacted for comment.

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