Twitter: Something Rotten

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

The scandal around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and misuse of personal data is now old news, updated only by Mark Zuckerberg’s recent “mea-culpa-but-no-real-answers” appearance at the European Parliament – and by the advent of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which one would think will pose a stark challenge to Facebook’s entire business model (and legal challenges from NGOs against the Internet giants, based upon GDPR, are already filed).

I’m basically not involved with Facebook. Rather, it’s no secret that EuroSavant has for some time revolved mostly around Twitter. And it’s not anything about my personal data on Twitter that I am particularly worried about. It’s something else, namely the timeline.

It’s by now well-known how Facebook applies massive computing-power to manipulate a user’s timeline (called there the news feed) to keep people hooked. When it comes to Twitter, for too long I believed (rather naively) that there was no such manipulation, that the Twitter timeline was a simple “fire hose” of tweets aggregated from accounts one chose to follow.

It’s hardly that anymore. The first step away from “firehose” was the “In case you missed it” feature: manipulation to pluck individual tweets (chosen via AI to be of particular interest to the account-holder) out of their place in the timeline to be displayed again in a special section under that title. The significance here was less any utility from the new feature itself, than representing the first overt (i.e. that users were allowed to know about) concession to tweet-flow manipulation. Since then, it’s become clear that things have gone much further, to the point of what we might term the “Facebooking” of the Twitter timeline.

I know this is not just me: even famed journalist Elizabeth Drew has noticed something odd is going on:


But speaking of me, I’ve become frustrated by the increasing time/effort it now takes to find the sort of tweet-material I need, namely news-pieces worth passing on – whether in by tweet or a blogpost – with a bit of translation and commentary. Ms. Drew’s key objection is quite basic: “let us see tweets by people we’ve chosen to follow.” Too often that does not happen anymore.

“Oh? So what does one see instead on the timeline?” you might well ask. Tweets from people to whom I do not subscribe, for one thing, but which have been retweeted by people to whom I do. Fine, since by retweeting a given twitterer in effect broadcasts that tweet as his own, you can argue that there should be no objection to that when it is from someone I follow. But what about seeing a tweet solely due to it having been “liked” by someone whom I follow? For example, @Slatefr liked this Beach Boys tweet from @jmpottier, that’s supposed to have something to do with me??


No, “liking” is something different; and it’s nothing I ever asked for. Even worse: Receiving a tweet from someone whom I do not follow solely on the basis that he is followed by someone I do! Sometimes the apologetic message even states that not just someone you follow follows this guy, but many others as well! I don’t care: quit constipating my timeline! I’ve told Twitter what I am interested in, in effect, by the choices I’ve made about whom to follow!


Again, this really degrades Twitter’s usefulness for EuroSavant, namely finding interesting foreign-language articles – and not dealing with distraction through tenuously related fluff used by Twitter in its constant quest to increase “user involvement,” measured by numbers of followers. For it’s a public company now, folks, and has been for a while! Gotta show ever-rising metrics to Wall Street!

Back to Basics

Let’s recall what should be the Twitter fundamentals: You and I and everyone signed up to regularly receive the tweets of other tweeps in whom we are interested. But more and more, as Ms. Drew points out, that simply does not happen: tweets from those you follow are not put on your timeline, while all sorts of tempting, extraneous, AI-created garbage is.

You know how you can counteract that? By making a separate list of the Twitter-handles of those you follow (perhaps on an Excel sheet) and then cutting-and-pasting each handle in turn up into the URL, pasting it just after the “http://www.twitter.com/,” and then Return to go in sequence to each user directly! That’s what I increasingly do when I get tired of cutting through the crap displayed on my regular timeline.

That’s also what you could do, dear reader, to ensure you do not miss any tweet emanating from @EuroSavant! OK, I can’t ask you to do that, only to be aware that you surely have missed some of mine, even when your timing was otherwise right to catch them, all due to the Twitter algorithm trying to “broaden your horizons” via exposure to other tweets of quite evanescent relevance. And yes, I see the value of exposure to new things, to let serendipity bloom – but how about if we limit that to retweets from those I have chosen to follow?

I know, I’m shouting into a void here: Twitter will do what it feels it needs to do to satisfy its shareholders, not its users. And “timeline abuse” has hardly penetrated into the current controversy encircling the on-line giants. Like Facebook, Twitter is a worldwide monopoly, riding a powerful network effect, for the communication service it provides. But increasingly there is something rotten there at the core.

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