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Would the internet be a better place without Twitter?

The social network is struggling to find a buyer.

For those of us with what could probably be described as an unhealthy addiction to Twitter, life without the social network seems almost unthinkable. Where would we get our news? Where would we meet new people? Where, importantly, would we so easily be able to remain unchallenged in a perfect echo chamber of our own views?

Perhaps unfortunately, the wider world may not find it so easy to see the inherent value in the site. Despite hyped up reports of a bidding war to buy Twitter, two of the prospective buyers, Google and Disney, have pulled out. This leaves just one remaining buyer, Salesforce, who aren’t even guaranteed to buy the company at all.

It’s led to a fall in Twitter shares of almost a fifth – the latest in a string of financial bad news for the site.

In the last three months of 2015, Twitter had a net loss of £62m – which is, granted, a slight improvement from the year before, when it lost £86m in the same time frame. The losses don’t square with expenditure, either – in 2015, Twitter’s expenses increased by £408m, a 52% increase from 2014.

Finances aside, the value of Twitter as a product seems to be questionable, too. User growth has massively stalled, and the last time it released figures for monthly active users it had failed to grow for the first time in the company’s history.

Compare this to the significant growth that rival social networks have been experiencing – Instagram’s massive increase in users, Snapchat’s 100m daily users, Facebook’s billion monthly users – and it’s obvious that Twitter has a serious problem.

If you use the site regularly, it’s easy to see why. When Jack Dorsey was reappointed CEO he said that changes to the platform were merely an attempt to “make Twitter more Twitter-y”. Users didn’t quite agree; when Twitter suggested that timelines would become algorithmic rather than chronological, the hashtag “#RIPTwitter” trended for days.

Other amends came to the site, too: “favourites” were replaced with “hearts” to the chagrin of many, and Dorsey suggested that the 140 character brevity so key to the appeal of Twitter could be replaced by a significantly larger 10,000 character limit on tweets.

These may be fairly superficial changes – who really cares if a fave is now a heart? But they didn’t endear the site to prolific users and they certainly did nothing to encourage new signups.

This superficiality was also particularly galling when you consider some of the day to day issues people experience on Twitter – in particular, the prevalence of harassment against minority groups.

Right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was recently banned from the site for encouraging his fans to troll Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones — who received a torrent of racist and misogynistic tweets.

What was particularly appalling about the incident wasn’t just the way a woman’s privacy and autonomy was violated, nor the violently gendered and racialised abuse that she received. It was also the fact that, for many of us, it wasn’t really surprising at all.

The scale of the attack was unprecedented, and the racialised element particularly shocking. But many Twitter users – women, people from the LGBTQI community, people of colour – recognised in it their daily experience of the site. Ask almost anyone from a minority group whether they’ve received online abuse and the answer is highly likely to be yes.

Twitter might have banned Yiannopoulos but appalling harassment remains on the site, despite being reported, and accounts that send personalised, targeted and continuous abuse are hard for moderators to weed out.

It’s not like it doesn’t have the tools, either – videos that infringe copyright are removed almost immediately. Abuse is not.

Companies like Disney, Google and Salesforce are obviously unlikely to care as much about harassment and abuse as they are the dismal financial performance the company is experiencing. But the two are linked.

Twitter is a company, and of course some of its attention is going to be focused on its financial goals and progress. But it’s also a product used by millions of people, and it has a responsibility to balance its brand partnerships and promotions and financial growth with proactive steps to protect those people. If Twitter isn’t careful it won’t just lose its financial backers – it will lose all of its users, too. 

 

Emily Reynolds is a freelance journalist and author who lives in Berlin.

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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.