Twitter interactions are not a polling mechanism

Way back in the day, clever Brands tried to conduct Twitter polls by saying “retweet for the first choice and favorite (now like) for the second choice.” This was obviously very prone to bias. The first choice’s fans will spread the poll, so virality favors the first option. But it was also the best choice available, other than linking to an external poll site (which means a much lower interaction rate).

Then Twitter introduced native polls. Now you can post a question with up to four answers. It even makes a nice bar chart of the results. Twitter interactions are not a polling mechanism, so why are you using them?!

The answer lies in the word “interaction”. Social media interactions are a way for Brands to measure the success of their social media efforts. Conducting polls via interactions instead of the native polling mechanism are a cheap way to drive up interactions. It’s a good indication that you’re not interested in the answers. People who want actual answers can use polls.

This concludes today’s episode of “Old man yells at cloud”.

Twitter’s public roadmap: I’ll believe it when I see it

Full disclosure: I own a small number of shares in Twitter.

Trello is a very important tool in my workflow, so I read their blog for tips and news. I started reading a recent post by Leah Rider and everything was fine until I saw this:

As one of the most dialed-in companies to the pulse of the people, Twitter…

I’m sorry, what? Twitter is notoriously bad at knowing what people want, be they users (an edit button and less harassment), developers (the ability to develop apps), or investors (I’d settle for breaking even at this point). Twitter may be where the pulse of the people is expressed, but that doesn’t mean the company has a clue.

The post goes on to say

Through a simple public Trello board, Twitter is redefining their relationship with the developer community and setting a precedent for other platforms.

If Twitter wants to define a relationship with the developer community, they could start by having one. The only reason I maintain a Twitter client is because Twitter drove away the original developer. Twitter’s rise was due in part to the ecosystem of great (and not-so-great) third-party applications. Twitter was a platform that people could build off of.

That’s no longer the case. Many features are not available via the API. Polls and GIF searches are two that come right to mind. It takes more than a public Trello board to have a community. And the Trello board isn’t even impressive. It is publicly visible, but not editable. What’s worse, the last update was almost a month ago. The last activity before that was over two months ago.

So if Twitter is ready to develop a robust third-party app ecosystem again, that’s great. It can only benefit the platform. But you’ll forgive me if I wait to see some evidence before I believe it.

Does anyone at Twitter use Twitter?

Full disclosure: I own a small number of shares of Twitter.

Earlier this month, Twitter announced deals to bring more live content to the platform. Bloomberg will provide an original stream 24/7 and many other sources will generate technology, news, sports, and other content. Which makes me wonder if anyone at Twitter actually uses Twitter.

There’s something to be said for telling your users what they want instead of letting them tell you. It worked well for Apple, and of course there’s the famous Henry Ford quote about a faster horse. But this doesn’t seem like a product vision so much as grasping for something that might turn around the stock price. Twitter is a great place for near real time conversations about breaking news and live events, but is it the place to watch those? I’m not convinced.

It’s worth noting that Snap is working on similar deals for Snapchat. Snap is coming off a disappointing earnings report (its first since going public) that saw a 25% drop in stock price. Snap is facing a lot of pressure from Instagram, which is adding features that look very similar to Snapchat’s with the added bonus of being a Facebook property.

Facebook has been strong in user-generated live content, but they don’t seem to be that interested in pursuing Content. Given the success of Facebook, this is either a glaring oversight or a wise decision that other social networks might want to take a lesson from.

But getting back to Twitter, I recently joined the “Twitter Insiders” community. They asked for feedback on a potential new threading feature last week. It’s basically native tweetstorms. One of the survey questions asked what I’d call such a feature. I said “Medium”.

Twitter doesn’t need read receipts

Not content to leave the potentially user-hostile decisions to Apple, Twitter announced last week that they were adding read receipts (among other features) to direct messages. Annoyingly, this is an opt-out feature. Twitter is once again adding a feature no one wants while ignoring the real problems of abuse on the platform.

I’m no product management expert, but I know there are times when you listen to your users and times when you don’t. “I want this thing” is a good time to not listen to your users. That’s not to say you ignore their wishes entirely, but you can build a product that people like even if they don’t realize that’s what they want at the time. Apple has had a fair amount of success with this approach.

“This thing is a problem” is absolutely something you listen to your users about. Particularly when prominent people end up abandoning the product. While Twitter has given lip service to the harassment problem, it does not appear to have taken any meaningful steps to address it. In fact, the read receipts can bolster harassment.

Before the addition of read receipts, harassers would have to guess if a direct message was read or not. With read receipts on, there’s the immediate satisfaction of knowing your message got through. Even setting harassment aside, read receipts just reinforce the cultural demand for immediacy. I’m fairly connected digitally, but I don’t see a benefit to read receipts. I’ll probably respond to a message quickly, but if I don’t then that’s my decision. I don’t need the platform insinuating that I’m ignoring someone when I’m really just trying to keep my children from tearing the house apart.

Instructions for disabling read receipts came out almost as quickly as the announcement.

Full disclosure: I own a small number of Twitter shares.

Twitter’s abuse problem

I’ve been an avid Twitter user for years. I’ve developed great friendships, made professional connections, learned, laughed, and generally had a good time. Of course, I also happen to be a relatively-anonymous white male, which means my direct exposure to abuse is fairly limited. I can’t say the same for some of my friends. Last week’s BuzzFeed article calling Twitter “a honeypot for assholes” didn’t seem all that shocking to me.

Twitter, of course, denied it in the most “that article is totally wrong, but we won’t tell you why because it’s actually spot on” way possible:

In response to today’s BuzzFeed story on safety, we were contacted just last night for comment and obviously had not seen any part of the story until we read it today. We feel there are inaccuracies in the details and unfair portrayals but rather than go back and forth with BuzzFeed, we are going to continue our work on making Twitter a safer place. There is a lot of work to do but please know we are committed, focused, and will have updates to share soon.

To it’s credit, Twitter has publicly admitted that it’s solution to harassment is woefully inadequate. It’s in a tough spot: balancing free expression and harassment prevention is not an easy task. Some have suggested the increased rollout of Verified status would help, but that’s harmful to some the people best served by anonymous free expression. I get that Twitter does not want to be in the business of moderating speech.

It’s important to distinguish speech, though, so I’m going to invent a word. There’s offensive speech and then there’s assaultive speech. Offensive speech might offend people or it might offend governments. Great social reform and obnoxious threadshitting both fall into this category. This is the free speech that we all argue for. Assaultive speech is less justifiable. It’s not merely being insulting, but it’s the aggressive attempt to squash someone’s participation.

I like to think of it as the difference between letting a person speak and forcing the audience to listen. I could write “Jack Dorsey sucks” on this blog every day and while it would be offensive, it is (and should be) protected. Even posting that on Twitter would fall into this category. If instead I tweeted “@jack you suck” every day, that’s still offensive but now it’s assaultive, too.

This, of course, is a in the context of a comany deciding what it will and won’t allow on its platform, not in the context of what should be legally permissible. And don’t mistake my position for “you can never say something mean to someone.” It’s more along the lines of “you can’t force someone to listen to you say mean things.” Blocks and mutes are woefully ineffective, especially against targeted attacks. It’s trivially easy to create a new Twitter account (and I have made several on a lark just because I could). But if the legal system can have Anti-SLAPP laws to prevent censorship-by-lawsuit, Twitter should be able to come up with a system of Anti-STAPP rules.

One suggestion I heard (I believe it was on a recent episode of “This Week in Tech”, but I don’t recall for sure) was the idea of a “jury of peers.” Instead of having Twitter staff review all of the harassment, spam, etc. complains, select some number of users to give it a first pass. Even if just a few hundred active accounts a day are selected for “jury duty”, this gives a scalable mechanism for actually looking at complaints and encouraging community norms.

Maybe this is a terrible idea, it’s clear that Twitter needs to do something effective if it wants to continue to attract (and retain!) users.

Full disclosure: I own a small number of shares of Twitter stock. It’s not going well for me.

Further defense of 140 characters

Last fall, when rumors began swirling that Twitter was looking at increasing the 140 character limit on tweets, I wrote a defense of the 140 character constraint. Last week, Re/Code and others reported that the limit change may come in March and that it could be as large as 10,000 characters.

Everything I wrote back in October still holds true. 140 characters, now that SMS is no longer a primary method of interacting with Twitter, is probably to small. But 10,000 is too large. The first four paragraphs of this post are 1,244 characters. Can you imagine a timeline full of that (or more)?

It’s not just “oh noes! They are changing a thing!”, which is a common reaction whenever Facebook changes anything. Twitter has made a lot of changes that I think are great: retweets (yes, kids, retweets used to be a manual process that often required editing the tweet in order to be able to fit “MT @name” in front of it), quoted tweets, embedded images, polls (even though there’s a lot to be improved on there), and 10k character direct messages.

In this case, the short limit is what makes Twitter. As my friend Zachary Baiel said “The medium is the message. The character limit of Twitter defines itself. Otherwise, it’s a stream of blogs.”

Twitter emphasized four characteristics in its IPO filing (thanks to Karen Demerly for bringing this to my attention):

  • Public
  • Real Time
  • Conversational
  • Distributed

10,000 characters does not seem very real time (it takes a while to type that out and longer to read a lot of them) and certainly not conversational (perhaps more a series of short speeches). There’s been some talk of the UI presenting a “read more” kind of option, and as a co-maintainer of a Twitter client, I’m inclined to resist having to make changes to my application.

But more than just laziness, I think 10k is actively harmful. Whenever a new feature is announced, the biggest complaint I see is “why aren’t you addressing abuse instead?” I get it, abuse is a hard subject to deal with, particularly on an unmoderated medium such as Twitter. One way that abuse happens is that abusers get their followers to dogpile the mentions of the target. Imagine how many targets you could include in 10,000 characters.

More innocuously (even though I find it super annoying), is the phenomenon of “I took a picture of some weather, let me tag all of the meteorologists in my market so that they’ll see it any maybe retweet me or put it on the news broadcast.” Those people will certainly make use of the extra characters, but it will add nothing to the conversation, only make it worse.

I get it, Twitter stock is plummeting. (Full disclosure: I own a few shares and expect to get quite the tax write-off from them.) There’s a lot of pressure to improve revenue, user engagement, and (most importantly to the people applying the pressure) the stock price. But this change will just make the user experience worse, and that doesn’t seem to be a reasonable way for Twitter to turn itself around.

I’m hoping that 10,000 is just a trial balloon. Nobody seems committed to making that the final number, so hopefully when the feature lands, it’s more reasonable. Or not. Will I stop using Twitter if the character limit changes to 10,000? Not right away. Maybe I will at some point, though.

By the way, this entire post (including this line), checks in at 3,398 characters.

Reporting severe weather via social media

It feels weird writing a post about sever weather in mid-December, but here we are. Over the weekend, storm chaser Dick McGowan tried to report a tornado to the NWS office in Amarillo, Texas. His report was dismissed with “There is no storm where you are located. This is NOT a valid report.” The only problem was that there was a tornado.

Weather Twitter was awash in discussion of the exchange on Saturday night. A lot of it was critical, but some was cautionary. The latter is where I want to focus. If you follow me on Twitter, it will not surprise you to hear that I’m a big fan of social media. And I think it’s been beneficial to severe weather operations. Not only does it make public reporting easier, but it allows forecasters to directly reach the public with visually-rich information in a way not previously possible.

But social media has limitations, too. Facebook’s algorithms make it nearly useless for disseminating time-sensitive information (e.g. warnings), and the selective filtering means that a large portion of the audience won’t get the message anyway. Twitter is much better for real-time posting, but is severely constrained by the 140 character limit.  In both cases, NWS meteorologists are experts on weather, not social media (though there are efforts to improve social media training for forecasters), and there’s not necessarily going to be someone keeping a close eye on incoming social media.

I don’t know all of the details of Saturday night’s event. From one picture I saw, it looked like the storm in question looked pretty weak on radar. There were also several possible places Dick could have been looking and it didn’t look he made which direction he was looking clear. At the root, this is a failure to communicate.

As I said above, I’m a big fan of social media. If I need to get in touch with someone, social media is my first choice. I frequently make low-priority weather reports to the NWS via Twitter. For high-priority reports (basically anything that meets severe criteria or that presents an immediate threat to life), I still prefer to make a phone call. Phone calls are less parallelizable, but they’re lower-latency and higher-bandwidth than Tweets. The ability for a forecaster to ask for a clarification and get an answer quickly is critical.

If you do make a severe weather report via Twitter, I strongly encourage enabling location on the Tweet. An accurate location can make a big difference. As with all miscommunications, we must strive to be clear in how we talk to others, particularly in textual form.

In defense of 140 characters

Re/Code reported Tuesday on rumors that Twitter is planning to change its hallmark 140-character limit. It appears that there are no firm plans, but there are a variety of ways this could change. The rise of the smartphone has diminished the importance of being able to fit a tweet into a single SMS message (at least in developed Western countries).

I’ve certainly been frustrated by the limit  at times. There have been thoughts left untwote because I couldn’t find a way to squeeze them into 140 characters. But I’ve also learned how to make my thoughts more concise. The need to edit forces me to consider what I’m saying and reduces the rash responses that I often give people in my head.

Is 140 characters the magic number? Probably not, but the immediacy that tweets provide probably offsets value that longer tweets would add. At some point, Twitter becomes Tumblr, and there’s already a Tumblr.

The experts say Twitter is looking to improve user and revenue numbers. I’m probably wrong, but I don’t see these changes being all that beneficial to either of those. Curbing abusive behavior and making quality content easier to find would go a lot further.

In the meantime, I’ll keep taking up whatever space Twitter gives me and hope it’s not too much.

Student speech rights

To continue the legal theme from a few days ago (with the addition of some “old news is so exciting!”), a high school in Kansas suspended the senior class president for comments he made on Twitter. What did he say? ““Heights U” is equivalent to WSU’s football team“. WSU’s football team doesn’t exist. That’s it. For that, the school deemed his initial tweet and responses were disruptive to the school.

It’s not clear to me if the Heights High School is acting in accordance with legal precedent (their decision is certainly unjust, but that’s another matter). The Supreme Court has affirmed and re-affirmed restrictions on the free speech rights of students. Bethel School District v. Fraser, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, and Morse v. Frederick have all served to limit what students can say.

In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court protected non-disruptive political speech, with the disruption being the critical factor. In Bethel, Hazelwood, and Morse the speech in question was part of a school-sanctioned activity even if the activity was not on school grounds (as in Morse). It would be a great stretch to consider Mr. Teague’s Twitter account to be a school-sanctioned activity, as it appears to be his personal account. To my knowledge, no Supreme Court ruling has ever addressed a school’s ability to restrict speech that occurs outside of school events.

Arguably, the concept of in loco parentis could be used to support the ability of schools to respond to behavior that happens outside the school. I don’t agree with this, but it would be interesting to see how this argument played out in the courts. In the meantime, I expect that this may end up being discussed in court rooms for years to come. If no suit is filed, it should at least be used as an exercise in high school government classes across the country.