Twitter kills Twitter

I got hooked on Twitter in July 2009. I’ve remained extremely online since then. It was never about the platform itself. It was always about the people — those who I interacted with and those who wrote the third-party clients that made the service usable. That Twitter the service became the success it did was despite Twitter the company, not because of it.

I’ve often wondered if anyone at Twitter used Twitter. Third-party clients innovated and drove improvements. Twitter made changes no one asked for. In 2012, Twitter changed rules around the API, which caused many third-party developers to abandon the platform. By that point, the first-party tooling was good enough (thanks, in part, to the acquisition of a few key third parties). But still, it was a loss for the ecosystem.

Earlier this week, Twitter went further and gave a one-week notice that free API access is ending. This likely means the end for many integrations. It will almost certainly be the death knell for many of the fun and useful bots that make being on Twitter a better experience.

There’s finally no doubt that the person in charge of Twitter actually uses the service and it turns out he’s a fuckwit. The larger services already (I assume) have paid API access. That’s what you do when you’re running a business. So basically, Elon is just killing off the hobbyists. You remember them; they’re the ones who made Twitter Twitter in the first place. If it’s a shakedown for money (and given the debt Twitter is saddled with by its fuckwit-in-chief, that seems likely), I doubt it will be very effective.

That said, I’m not abandoning Twitter yet. There are still too many people that I don’t want to leave behind. But it’s easy to see a gradual decline until we reach a tipping point. Will the last one out please put up the Fail Whale?

Don’t make new tools fit the same hole as the old tools

I forgot what prompted me to have this thought three and a half years ago, but it seems fitting for the moment.

One of the worst things you can do when replacing a tool is to try to make it work just like the old one. If the old and new tools were meant to be exactly the same, they wouldn’t be different tools.

Change is hard but necessary. You know what else is hard? Trying to contort your old workflow to work with the new tool. Replacing the tool is an opportunity to improve your processes. If nothing else, it prevents you from fighting the tool.

This holds true even if you’re writing the tool yourself. If you’re doing the work to write a new tool (or rewrite an old one), take the opportunity to re-think how you work. What assumptions have you carried forward that are no longer valid? What new ways of working have you learned since you first adopted the old tool?

I’m seeing this play out on Mastodon as people used to Twitter try to adjust. They expect certain things based on their use of Twitter. And while Mastodon has a lot in common with Twitter, they’re not the same. Some things may change as Mastodon grows. And some of the Mastodon experience probably should be more like Twitter, even if it isn’t. But if you make the switch, think about why you think it should work the way you want.

Prepare the lifeboats?

When do I leave Twitter? That’s a very good question and I don’t have a very good answer for it. But last night I decided to go ahead and create a Mastodon account just in case. It’s been less than two months since I wrote “Mastodon won’t save us“. I stand by everything I wrote there. But as Elon Musk continues to corncob at an accelerating pace, there may not be a Twitter to cling to much longer.

Where are my people?

Someone on Mastodon objected to my use of the word “lifeboat”. But that’s what it is. I care about Mastodon as a technology exactly as much as I care about Twitter: none cares. The important part is the social aspect. I ran my accounts through the Movetodon tool. Of the 2708 accounts I follow on Twitter, it found 380 Mastodon accounts. I’ve manually added 19 others. Most of them are my tech friends.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my tech friends. But what about the ~2300 others? My timeline gets a lot less interesting if 85% of the people I follow disappear.

Will I use it?

I know myself well enough to know that I crave the interactions of social media. Because I try to associate myself with kind people, my replies are almost universally soothing to my overwhelming sense of insufficiency. So even if Twitter survives, I’ll probably end up active on Mastodon without meaning to be. That’s how I roll.

One thing I’ve already noticed, though, is that I’ve skipped on posting a few things already this morning. I wasn’t sure if I should post to Twitter or Mastodon, so decided not to post at all. I have long believed that cross-posting to various social media sites is anti-social and I have no desire to maintain parallel streams of thought. I guess we’ll have to see how this plays out.

Twitter blew

Last night, Alex Heath reported that Elon Musk wants to raise the price of Twitter Blue and require it for verification. It’s possible that this decision won’t backfire spectacularly, but I have concerns.

Misunderstood feature

At its core, this decision fundamentally misunderstands verification. First, it’s less a benefit for the verified user than it is for the rest of the users. It’s essentially a trust mechanism: this person is who they say they are. Verification means users can more easily determine if something was said by a politician or a clever impersonator.

Of course, misunderstanding verification is not unique to Elon Musk. Twitter has always been a company that doesn’t quite understand its product. Under previous leadership, Twitter has revoked the verified status of users who have repeatedly been bad actors on the platform. This signals that verification is some sort of approval, rather than identification.

No doubt some people will choose to pay the monthly fee in order to retain their blue checkmark. But for a lot of smaller celebrities, local journalists and politicians, and the like, the $20 per month fee doesn’t seem worthwhile. There’s a value mismatch, too: verification is a one-time activity; tying it to a monthly subscription makes no sense. (It will also be interesting to see how large companies handle this. A $20/month fee is rounding error to large companies. Will they see it as worthwhile to set that up in their accounting system or will they require the social media manager to expense it?)

Show me the money

The price increase is another matter. Twitter Blue’s feature set is marginally interesting to me. I’ve given some thought to paying for it in the past at the $5 price point. At $20, it makes absolutely no sense for me. At $20, you’re more expensive than Netflix, Disney+, and several other streaming services. Does Musk think that Twitter Blue offers a Netflix level of value over the free Twitter tier?

Maybe he plans to reach his goal of having half of Twitter’s revenue come from subscriptions by destroying the ad market instead. It’s hard to see this move as anything but “I’m going to stick it to all of those liberal blue check elitists.” Quadrupling the price of a subscription and extorting your most active users is some galaxy brain business shit, I guess.

Who wants to work for this guy?

Heath’s article also says that Musk gave the team until November 7 to deliver this or else they’re fired. There’s nothing like swooping in, making a stupid demand, and tying employment to a tight delivery timeline to chase employees away. Of course, Musk has said he wants to reduce the staff at Twitter, so this might be considered a feature. But the people most likely to leave are the high performers who can easily get a job elsewhere. Seems like those are the folks you’d most want to keep.

There’s also the stories about how Musk brought in Tesla engineers to review code. “Software engineering is software engineering,” supporters say. Bullshit. Talented software engineers can look at unfamiliar code and figure out what it does, yes. But car software and social media sites are not the same. They have different considerations. Any sufficiently old code base has a lot of history that makes seemingly bad choices actually be the best choice, unless you plan on starting over from scratch.

As I was scrolling in the middle of the night because my body is dumb and didn’t want to sleep, I saw a tweet from someone who just got the full self-driving beta for their Tesla. It reminded me of how detached Elon Musk’s timelines are from reality.

Why do I care?

I feel sorry for the people who work at Twitter. Their jobs got a lot more unpleasant on Friday and there’s not much they can do about it. More selfishly, I don’t want Twitter to implode. I’ve been able to make friends over the years with people whose interests barely overlap my own. My network is full of weather, technology, sports, English professors, locals of various pursuits, and other total strangers that I’m lucky to have found. If Twitter collapses, not everyone will run to the same place. Some will move to Mastodon or other Twitter-like services popping up. Others seem to be heading for Instagram. Some will probably just abandon social media all together.

I don’t care if Elon Musk succeeds or not. But I want Twitter to succeed.

Mastodon won’t save us

By the end of this week, Twitter will (maybe?) be owned by Elon Musk. And as much as the past leadership hasn’t understood the site, the future doesn’t understand it even more. Some users are publicly contemplating leaving the site, perhaps much in the same way that people say they’ll move to Canada after an election. In any case, people are talking about Mastodon a lot more than they have in a while.

I’m not convinced that Mastodon is the answer. Social media success isn’t about being technically or morally better; it’s about the network. Almost everyone I’d interact with on Mastodon is already on Twitter. Where’s the incentive to move? I get to maintain two parallel accounts instead? It’s a Catch-22 that helps the big players stay entrenched. Will the average person get mad enough at Twitter to switch to something else? I’m not betting on that.

If people do switch, the decentralized nature of Mastodon is an anti-feature for the average person. There’s no one Mastodon service like there is with Twitter. How does the average person pick an instance? How do small instance maintainers keep going?

In some ways, Mastodon is more like email than Twitter. The federated nature makes moderation and safety more complex. Detecting ban evasion is hard enough on a single server, never mind dozens of servers. Despite its ubiquity, no one loves email and spam continues to be a fact of life.

Centralization is inevitable-ish, at least for a successful service. At which point, we’ve just shifted the problem.

Twitter’s future

So Elon Musk is planning on buying Twitter. I say “planning” here because the deal hasn’t closed. But let’s assume it happens. What will it mean?

Not a Musk fan

I’ll be blunt: Elon Musk is a charlatan who gets a lot more credit than he deserves. I don’t doubt he’s a smart person, but being the richest person on the planet has allowed him to engage in unrestrained buffoonery. Whatever his areas of expertise, they clearly don’t extend to understanding tunnels. The best thing he could do would be to leave Twitter alone, but you don’t spend $44 billion to not play with you new toy.

But free speech!

No. Elon Musk doesn’t believe in free speech. He canceled someone’s Tesla order for saying mean things. “Free speech” arguments are almost never about anything other than “I should be allowed to say what I want without consequences.”

Free speech, as envisioned by absolutists, is only free for those with power. If your free speech is used to harass others into silence, the platform does not promote free speech. I’m fine with letting the Nazis and democracy subverters go off to any of the other Twitter-like sites they’ve set up.

So what next?

The key question is “to the degree they left, will the Nazis and democracy subverters come back to Twitter?” I can’t say. For now, I’m not planning to leave Twitter. If it becomes intolerable, I’ll go. To where? Good question! Mastodon holds no appeal to me for a variety of reasons, but maybe I’ll move there at some point. Maybe I’ll just drop that form of social media from my life.

It seems more likely to me that Musk will discover that running a social media site is less fun than criticizing a social media site and get bored. He does have two other companies to run already. Three if you take The Boring Company seriously. While he certainly could do damage, I hope that it remains the shitty hellsite we’ve come to hate. After all, Twitter has mostly succeeded in spite of itself.

On Jono Bacon’s discussion of Reddit karma

Last week, Jono Bacon published a YouTube video discussing the karma system used by Reddit. It’s worth 28 minutes of your time if you’re thinking about a reputation system for your community. I don’t have any disagreements, but there are a few “yes, and”s that popped up as I watched it.

What’s karma for?

A fundamental problem with karma is that it applies to posts/comments, not to accounts. Yes, Reddit displays a net karma score on account profiles, but it doesn’t do anything with it. A large number of upvotes will move a post or comment toward the top. A large number of downvotes will hide a comment behind a “wow, do you really want to see this crap?” (my words) link. But apart from removing a posting frequency speedbump for new accounts, the account’s karma doesn’t actually mean much.

Karma is non-specific

Another big issue with Reddit karma is that it’s the same across the entire site. Jono talked about using karma as a metric of credibility. If you narrowly define “credibility” as “knows what the community likes”, then that works. But I might earn a bazillion points for my insightful open source posts. When I go to post in an small engine repair subreddit, my karma comes along with me.

Just because I can successfully participate in one subreddit, that doesn’t mean I can in another. And it’s certainly not a measure of expertise on a topic. Jono alludes to this by talking about how karma doesn’t distinguish between funny and helpful, for example.

Brigading

You can’t buy karma. That’s one of the benefits of Reddit karma. But you can buy accounts to apply karma. Whether you pay money to a bot farm or just wield your influence on another platform, you can drive upvotes or downvotes to an account of your choosing. Since karma is mostly meaningless at the account level, the direct harm of this is fairly small. But brigading is always a concern in online communities.

Okay, so then what?

Reddit karma has its downsides. But it is very simple, which is a huge benefit. I tend to favor the more account-centric systems like Discourse trust levels and StackExchange reputation. Sites like ArsTechnica have an up/down vote systems with an optional tag to explain why you’re giving the vote. If Reddit’s karma was per-subreddit, it would be more useful as a measure of credibility.

Zillow’s failure isn’t AI, it’s hubris

Zillow’s recent exit from the house-flipping arena was big news recently. In business news, the plummeting stock price and looming massive layoff made headlines. In tech circles, the talk was about artificial intelligence, and how Zillow’s algorithms failed them. And while I love me some AI criticism, I don’t think that’s what’s at play here.

Other so-called “iBuyers” haven’t suffered the same fate as Zillow. In fact, they vastly out-performed Zillow from the reporting I heard. Now maybe the competitors aren’t as AI-reliant as Zillow and that’s why. But I think a more likely cause is one we see time and time again: smart people believing themselves too much.

Being smart isn’t a singular value. Domain and context play big roles. And yet we often see people who are very smart speak confidently on topics they know nothing about. (And yes, this post may be an example of that. I’d counter that this post isn’t really about Zillow, it’s about over-confidence, a subject that have a lot of experience with.) Zillow is really good at being a search engine for houses. It’s okay at estimating the value of houses. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to being good at flipping houses.

I’m sure there are ways the algorithm failed, too. But as in many cases, it’s not a problem with AI as a technology, but how the AI is used. The lesson here, as in every AI failure, should be that we have to be a lot more careful with the decisions we trust to computers.

Using Element as an IRC client

Like many who work in open source communities, IRC is a key part of my daily life. Its simplicity has made it a mainstay. But the lack of richness also makes it unattractive to many newcomers. As a result, newer chat protocols are gaining traction. Matrix is one of those. I first created a Matrix account to participate in the Fedora Social Hour. But since Matrix.org is bridged to Freenode, I thought I’d give Element (a popular Matrix client) a try as an IRC client, too.

I’ve been using Element almost exclusively for the last few months. Here’s what I think of it.

Pros

The biggest pro for me is also the most surprising. I like getting IRC notifications on my phone. Despite being bad at it (as you may have read last week), I’m a big fan of putting work aside when I’m done with work. But I’m also an anxious person who constantly worries about what’s going on when I’m not around. It’s not that I think the place will fall apart because I’m not there. I just worry that it happens to be falling apart when I’m not there.

Getting mobile notifications means I can look, see that everything is fine (or at least not on fire enough that I need to jump in and help), and then go back to what I’m doing. But it also means I can engage with conversations if I choose to without having to sit at my computer all day. As someone who has previously had to learn and re-learn not to have work email alert on the phone, I’m surprised at my reaction to having chat notifications on my phone.

Speaking of notifications, I like the ability to set per-room notification settings. I can set different levels of notification for each channel and those settings reflect across all devices. This isn’t unique to Element, but it’s a nice feature nonetheless. In fact, I wish it were even richer. Ideally, I’d like to have my mobile notifications be more restrictive than my desktop notifications. Some channels I want to see notifications for when I’m at my desk, but don’t care enough to see them when I’m away.

I also really like the fact that I can have one fewer app open. Generally, I have Element, Signal, Slack, and Telegram, plus Google Chat all active. Not running a standalone IRC client saves a little bit of system resources and also lets me find the thing that dinged at me a little quicker.

Cons

By far the biggest drawback, and the reason I still use Konversation sometimes, is the mishandling of multi-line copy/paste. Element sends it as a single multi-line message, which appears on the IRC side as “bcotton has sent a long message: <url>”. When running an IRC meeting, I often have reason to paste several lines at once. I’d like them to be sent as individual lines so that IRC clients (and particularly our MeetBot implementation), see them.

The Matrix<->IRC bridge is also laggy sometimes. Every so often, something gets stuck and messages don’t go through for up to a few minutes. This is not how instant messaging is supposed to work and is particularly troublesome in meetings.

Overall

Generally, using Element for IRC has been a net positive. I’m looking forward to more of the chats I use becoming Matrix-native so I don’t have to worry about the IRC side as much. I’d also like the few chats I have on Facebook Messenger and Slack to move to Matrix. But that’s not a windmill I’m willing to tilt at for now. In the meantime, I’ll keep using Element for most of my IRC need,s, but I’m not quite ready to uninstall Konversation.

Why newsletters are email not RSS

Some friends were recently discussing newsletters and one raised the question of why newsletters are done (largely) as email instead of blog posts shared via RSS. I’m going to answer that question in this post. Some of the answers are my own reasoning for sending Newsletter Fiasco as an email. Other answers are what I know or reasonably assume are the motivations for other newsletter senders. And, yes, many newsletters are also available via RSS, even if that’s not the intended distribution mechanism.

Email is universal

Approximately everyone who might want to read your newsletter has an email address. For all its shortcomings, email is the best example of decentralized, standards-driven digital communication. RSS, especially post-Google-Reader tends to skew nerdy. Many of my tech enthusiast friends use RSS readers of some kind. Most of my other friends don’t. Social media platforms have supplanted RSS for a lot of people. If you’re distributing via RSS, you’ve already narrowed your potential audience quite a bit.

Email can wait

I won’t pretend that my usage of RSS is generalizable to all RSS users, but here’s how I use RSS. Mostly, I use the Feedly widget in my browser to tell me when I have unread items. A few times a day, I scan through the unread items and open the ones that I want to read. Then I mark the rest as read. I may not read the open tabs right away, but I generally do it in short order. RSS, then, is an “I’ll read it now or I’ll read it never” proposition. And the longer I go between checking my feeds, the lower the percentage of articles I’ll read.

On the other hand, I might leave a newsletter unread in my email inbox for a few days. This is particularly true for The Sunday Long Read, which is full of great articles that probably require more than a few minutes to read. Sometimes I’ll let a couple of them pile up before I have a chance to sit down and look at them. That doesn’t work well with how I consume RSS.

Email can be forwarded

Forwarding is a key part of the email experience. This is bad when it’s an unhinged conspiracy from a relative (although I only get those via Facebook Messenger these days), but good when you want to share a newsletter you liked. And because it’s universal you can share it with anyone easily (as opposed to sharing on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and … ).

Email feels more personal and direct

Readers understand that the newsletter isn’t written directly to them in particular. But because it comes to their inbox, it can feel more personal. Plus, many newsletter platforms allow for personalization. You can greet all your readers by their name. Or give them stats about how close they are to earning the next swag item by sharing their unique referral code with friends.

Email can be tracked

As a newsletter reader, you probably don’t love this one. But as a newsletter writer, it can be incredibly valuable. A lot of people who write newsletters are doing it in service of a #brand, either their personal brand or a professional brand. This means it’s important to know not only how many people read the content, but who. And while this may feel a little icky, I argue that it’s way less icky than web cookie tracking. It’s a compromise level of icky.

For Newsletter Fiasco, I don’t look at the stats. I have no idea what my open and click rates are. I have never looked to see who is clicking what links. Let’s be honest, I started my newsletter because I wanted to be cool like the other people who had newsletters. That anyone reads it is always a welcome surprise.

But when I worked in marketing, it was important to know who was clicking what links. If they were current customers, it was just nice to see they liked us enough to pay us and also read our newsletter. But for potential customers, seeing what items from our news roundup interested them helped our sales team make the pitch that mattered to them specifically. If they only ever clicked articles about GCP, why waste time telling them about our AWS-specific features? If nobody ever clicked the links about job schedulers, we’d stop putting them in the newsletter.

Even unsubscribes can give you useful information. Many unsubscribe pages offer an optional one-question survey: why are you unsubscribing? If someone stops visiting your blog, all you know is that they’re not visiting anymore. Well, you know that the views are down, assuming the person who left isn’t offset by a new reader. That churn number can be informative, too.

This is what a “newsletter” is

There’s probably some amount of “this is how it’s always been” here, too. Newsletters were a thing you printed and sent to people in the analog era, so that’s what they are in the digital era, too. A newsletter distributed via blog is called a blog. In that sense, the name “newsletter” is more about the distribution mechanism than the content. A good example of this is Jim Grey’s weekly “Recommended Reading” blog post. The content could easily be a newsletter, except it’s not because it’s a blog post.

Are these good reasons?

I leave that up to you, Dear Reader. I won’t claim that any of these reasons are particularly good or bad. They’re just the reasons the person producing the newsletter would use email instead of a blog.