Twitter and context collapse

Returning to a theme I’ve explored previously, I recently encountered two pieces about Twitter and context:

Justine Sacco is good at her job, and how I came to peace with her
Forced context collapse or the right to hide in plain sight

The two pieces explore different aspects of the theme, but both of them are partially about what I’ve previously called notability (see more thoughts on this in part II). Notability makes the likelihood of context collapse — things you do or say in one social context (where you might have many meaning cues) percolating out to others (where you often don’t) — much higher.

Twitter makes content produced by millions of different people both publicly-available (if not publicly-owned) and accessible (there’s that notion of accessibility again). Reporters then pick and choose from that content to create stories. Sometimes they create scandal sensations like Biddle did with Sacco. He was able to do that because he didn’t have any context for what she wrote, and without context, it could be read as being horrible. Almost all of us, from time to time, say things that can be read this way (as the author of the article later found out, when he did it). Sometimes we say them in the safety of a context that doesn’t collapse easily.

Sometimes we forget, and we say them in a medium where context collapses are easy. As Tressie’s piece points out, whether journalists have a legal or moral right to take advantage of this — either to do quality reporting, as I’m sure many of them do, or to create scandals or quick-and-easy thinkpieces or funny articles/listicles (ala Buzzfeed) is a somewhat complex question. One of the things that Tressie’s piece seems to be asking, to me, is whether journalists have the moral right to make someone notable, either at all, or because of something they did or said on Twitter. Do we have the right to hide in plain sight? We have difficulty having good conversations about this because of the slipperiness of the language around it, the issue I tried to address when writing my posts, and an issue that Tressie also raises in her tripartite division of the question: legal authority, moral authority, and economic responsibility.

Notability is an interesting part of that area of inquiry, because journalists often make people notable (although of course a lot of the time they merely write about people who are already notable). But usually in the past, you had some idea that you were about to become notable, because they wrote a story about you or about an issue you were highly involved in, interviewed you or at least asked you to review it…all those things journalists usually do when they do stories about or heavily involving people. Even so, sudden notability in the era of the Internet can have effects people don’t anticipate. But what if you have no idea you’re about to become notable? I wouldn’t be too surprised if my Twitter feed contains things I wouldn’t really want broadcast to the world, in spite of the fact that technically speaking I did broadcast them to the world. The context of people who read my Twitter feed is small (425 accounts right now, according to my widget) and it’s biased toward people I personally know, and who therefore have some idea of what I’m like, and what kinds of things I’m likely to say and think. People who can guess whether I’m being ironic.

To quote Tressie:

I sign up for Twitter assuming the ability to hide in plain sight when my amplification power is roughly equal to a few million other non-descript [sic] content producers. Media amplification changes that assumption and can do so without my express permission.

When I’m unnotable, my content being both publicly-available and easily accessible doesn’t matter. If I suddenly become notable, it does. If I make myself notable or embark on an activity likely to make me notable, that’s one thing — I have the chance to consider the possibility of context collapse before I experience it. If someone else does it for me, using their power they strip me of the chance to consider that it might not be possible anymore for me to hide in plain sight (a description I like for what it means to be unnotable). And not only journalists do this but other private citizens (Gamergate harassment being one of the hugely scary examples of this recently).

What happened here, I think, is that we all (by which I mean, anyone who publishes their thoughts on the Internet such that they’re publicly available) became published authors, at the same time as it became far easier to spread published information (and the two changes are obviously closely intertwined). Any published author has always been at risk of this type of stripping of context since their words can be taken out of their original work and quoted and spread. When becoming an author was a process, becoming notable was a known possible (and maybe often desired) quality of it. Now that it’s not much of a process, most of us just aren’t thinking of the possible consequences when we undertake it.

Even more stickily, it’s frequently legal to republish something published, under the doctrine of fair use, although it depends on what use you’re putting it to exactly. More practically, it’s very difficult to get people to stop doing that once they start, if the content generates a strong social reaction. If someone takes a tweet of mine and publishes it in a related news story, how likely am I to get it taken out? Not freaking very. This story chronicles one photographer’s attempt to get Buzzfeed to compensate him for use of a copyrighted photo. It was a lot of effort, and that’s a case where it’s much clearer that the site needs to get permission (because it’s a full reproduction of a copyrighted piece of content for commercial gain, and because licensing terms on Flickr are more clearly spelled out than they are for tweets).

We don’t have an existing legal right, that I know of, to hide in plain sight unless we consent to fame. I’m not even sure it’s possible to create one, let alone desirable, because the problem here isn’t really legal, it’s social. But considering the possible consequences, maybe we should at least be talking about it.

The marvels of social media

I get annoyed when people complain about the banality of social media. There’s been a meme going around Facebook (I’ve seen it twice now, with different things):

The idea is to occupy Facebook with {THING}, to break the monotony of selfies, knominations, cat dog pics and personal videos. 

I have no idea what knominations even are (typo? game? annoying website?), but that’s not the point. The second version of the meme used different items to complain about. And it’s absolutely true that most social media shares are essentially banal — tidbits about people’s lives, whether it’s their cat, their lunch, or a picture of them with their bestie.

I don’t know about you, but I actually like that. Maybe I’m excessively sincere and easily pleased, but I absolutely love people’s vacation photos, cute pictures of their kids, cats, and dogs, and great captures of beautiful moments. When I can virtually travel back to my home state through the eyes of a semi-professional contact because of Facebook, I’m delighted. I’ve terrifically enjoyed watching my friends’ yard transform from a treasure trove of buried bricks and other oddities to a container garden and lovely patio. It’s great hearing tidbits from people’s lives that I otherwise wouldn’t be in touch with (distant high school acquaintances), getting a culinary tour of New York from a friend who relocated there, or finding out how someone’s new job is going or new baby is growing even though they’re too busy or tired or far away to come and visit.

Even the not-so-personal banal is often amusing. I know Buzzfeed is problematic, but I’ve never laughed harder in my life than at their collection of Reddit’s “first sexual experience” gifs. A friend of mine posted this imgur thread recently, which sent me on a probably hour-long laughing fit as I read all the comments (well, all the top-level ones). Life is hard sometimes; spending that much time laughing is precious. Yeah, I didn’t spend that time reading a meaningful novel or contributing to a worthy cause, but life can’t entirely be made up of serious things. (Besides, I’m not short on my quota of meaningful novels read this week.)

Besides enjoying individual posts, the experience of social media in aggregate is the experience of community. Community isn’t only made up of what’s serious and weighty; in many ways, the online social spaces that we occupy play a role in our lives that’s similar to the role the town common and other real-life social spaces formerly played (and still do, to some extent), places where we connect with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors on a daily basis. Is it better for that role to be played by real space than virtual space? The reflexive answer is yes, but really the question is something that can be answered empirically to some extent, and the answer is likely to be multifaceted. The nature of the medium is that it’s more one-to-many than one-to-one, but comments and other conversation mechanisms reduce that tendency a little, and there’s advantages in producing a single piece of high-quality content and having it sent around to many people.

I’ve been a part of many online communities. Some were unhealthy, but most have been fundamentally enriching experiences, full of interesting conversations and surprising connections. Most of the communities I like best encourage more depth than Facebook and Twitter, but haven’t had the same advantage in connecting me with people I know in real life as well.

Finally, there’s a larger objection to the notion that Facebook and other social networks are banal, which is that while they mostly are (and that banality becomes significant only in aggregate), there’s a significant amount of substantive interaction that goes on as well — meaningful articles are shared, opinions exchanged, protests made and coordinated. Life is mostly banal; it’s not surprising that social media reflects that. But social media also carries high-quality information and interactions, if you keep looking for them. I try to cultivate my networks so that I get what for me is the right balance between the two. If you aren’t getting the right balance for you, keep looking. And keep sharing music or whatever it is you want to see more of, if that’s what floats your boat. But don’t moan about other people preferring to share their personal banality with each other, because whatever you think of it, it’s not without value.

Recommendation engines and the uniqueness of dislike

Twitter decided recently that it was going to change its fundamental paradigm and start putting content in your feed that it thinks you want to see, making it the last social site I personally use to try to guess what you want, instead of letting you tell it. It’s an obvious trend; it’s what Facebook has been doing with the News Feed for ages now. Google Plus refuses to let you hide your friends’ +1s, not to mention it’s still trying to find me more friends and teach me how to use it — which is to say, remind me about features it doesn’t think I’m using enough, like those aforementioned +1s.

What’s interesting to me is that even though this approach is so common, it’s still very hard to do well. This came up in a recent lunch conversation at work, unrelated to Twitter, about iTunes. My coworker wanted iTunes Discovery to play music that he didn’t have, but it didn’t seem to be able to do that. It either played music he already knew and liked, or music he didn’t like.

Even Amazon and Netflix, which are widely acknowledged to be relatively good recommendation engines, doing something relatively simple (recommending media), have trouble with edge cases. Another coworker shares a Netflix account with someone who enjoys “chick flick” movies, and watches them on Netflix, but the same person doesn’t like it when Netflix recommends that type of movie to her. Why not? After all, she likes them, so the recommendation engine is doing what it’s designed for. But it’s not doing what she actually wants, which is encouraging her to watch things she would like, but would otherwise have trouble finding. Chick flicks are easy to find. She wants help finding the difficult-to-find.

In the end, this is why automated recommendation systems fail: humans have preferences that are too diverse to code algorithmically, even with algorithms that learn from data. To Netflix’s recommendation system, “I watched this, and liked it” has only one meaning: show me more things like this! To a human, it can mean “I liked this, but I know it was kind of a waste of time to watch, and I’d really like to watch something more interesting next time”.

Take friend-suggestion as the simple case for social networks. Social networks are predicated on the idea that if we like Amy and Andrew, we probably also know and like their friends Bernard and Bailey. In general this is common; I do know and like many of my friends friends’, and if I haven’t met them, I’d like to, because there’s a good chance we’ll get along. But a good chance isn’t a certainty. If I like my friend Mitch because we both do linguistics, but his friend Chad likes him because they play basketball together, and I don’t like basketball, I might not like Chad that much either, even if he’s a fine guy. But social networks don’t have any way of coding that. All they know is that I like Mitch, so I might like Chad too, right? Or maybe after many meetings you just haven’t cottoned to a particular person in your larger circle. Facebook insists that you must know each other, so of course you want to be friends. Right?! But you don’t. You already assessed the situation in person, and decided that you don’t.

In the best-case situation, the social network lets you code that information in some way. On Facebook, click the X button and the suggestion is gone (forever? I’m not sure anymore). Or block the person, if you really don’t want to see anything from them. But while blocking and Xing convey some sort of information back to the system, it’s relatively coarse-grained. I just ignore Facebook’s friend suggestions at this point; like my friend and iTunes, it’s found me all it can find; the rest of its suggestions will never be useful, and I don’t care to X out all of them one by one.

Content is even harder to curate cleverly. Facebook has been trying it for years now with the News Feed, and although they’ve clearly had success in terms of engagement, it’s still an ongoing battle, the latest sally in which is reducing click-bait. Wait, didn’t we start out talking about content that people like, but don’t want to see more of? Oh, those silly humans, they just can’t stop themselves from sending mixed signals! Facebook is struggling with the same problem that my coworker’s friend finds in Netflix: a click currently can only code “I like this, it engages people, show me more of it.” Trying to make a click on clickbait not mean that, but a click on another kind of article keep its original meaning, is challenging to say the least.

I’m fascinated with learning algorithms (in case anyone reading this hasn’t noticed, I studied computational linguistics, and now work for a company that’s all about data) but if you spend much time at all working with them, you start to see their shortcomings very quickly. Humans are really remarkable creatures. Although we’re predictable in many ways, we also all have unique preferences that someone at Facebook, Netflix, or Twitter didn’t think to code in. Don’t want to see tweets from someone you love who passed away? Oops, someone at Twitter forgot to put that in as a criterion…wait, we don’t even have information on your relationship to this person or whether they’re alive? Oh crap. We forgot we aren’t Facebook. Wait, someone else does want to see that kind of tweet? Wait, what? Make up your minds!

While recommendation and curation systems are pretty darn cool as adjuncts to human judgment, intended to assist us in getting what we want, they’re not replacements for it. The data they collect is always incomplete, and their coding of it is always limited, and both of these are informed by their creators’ biases (does anyone remember Google Buzz? Yeah, those biases). Where these systems go wrong is where they assume they know better than the humans using them. There’s a big difference between adding a little box showing me people I might want to follow and insisting that I dismiss such a box before I can see my stream. There’s an even bigger difference between me getting to decide what’s in my feed and Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus deciding at least some of it. Twitter has just crossed that line, and accordingly I expect it to become more noisy, less useful, and less pleasant to engage with over time, because however well it may think it knows me, its model of my preferences can never fully comprehend my complexity. That’s the uniqueness of dislike.

What can I contribute?

Asked of oneself, in the context of being able to contribute one’s non-material resources to societal endeavors, the question What can I contribute? can be taken at least two ways. One is: what resources am I able to contribute, or capable of contributing? The other is: what resources can I offer that constitute a unique and valuable contribution?

I’m lucky to have a job where I frequently have the opportunity to make a contribution to improving people’s experience with software that’s important to their business or profession. I do that alongside other people with a similar role, which is a great opportunity to see both the common contributions that we bring and the unique and valuable ones. Everyone I work with has really strong technical skills, proven ability to analyze complex problems and identify solutions, and the ability to express those problems and solutions clearly and appropriately in speech and writing. But we all have different styles of expressing ourselves, different specific technical knowledge areas, and different ways of looking at problems. I’m particularly interested in documentation, zero in on and remember details, and tend to focus on the core issue without a lot of verbal decoration. I also have a great head for correct and effective process and a related, more amorphous thing that I think of as ‘appropriateness’ — I’m unlikely to jump into a situation headlong and ask for something that was already provided or try to answer a question I’m just guessing at. That’s a pretty cool thing that I’m good at. The flip side of that skill is “get ‘er done” — jump in and move things along, even if you don’t always get it quite right. It’s also valuable, but it’s not something that I personally am best at doing. It’s great to be part of a team so that I can focus on using my skills where they’re most needed and letting others do the same.

Applying that same thinking to transportation advocacy seems fruitful. Being on the sidelines right now means I’m mostly tuned out, but I’m still friends with my friends and Twitter is still Twitter, so I have the chance to see some of what happens with me out of the game. And the answer is: mostly the same stuff happens. I’m not the axis on which that world turns (obviously), but when I was in the midst of it, it was easy to think that because I could contribute something, that meant I should, because the work I was doing was important and therefore doing as much as I could was obviously valuable.

This seems honestly kind of stupid in retrospect. Most of what I can contribute (in the first sense) in advocacy can also be contributed by other people. As in my job, I’m one of several to dozens of people with similar capabilities and inclinations. Is this kind of contribution valueless? Definitely not. At work we’ve got a certain ticket load and my base contributions are important to keeping that load manageable. And in advocacy there’s a certain amount of basic work to be done that creates value by showing interest and articulating opinions — writing letters, making requests, commentating on issues, having discussions, attending meetings. But almost anyone can do this, and I don’t do most of it remarkably better than most people, aside from being a good letter-writer. Unlike in my professional life, though, I’m not as clear on what I do in advocacy that is unique and valuable, and that’s part of what I’d like to figure out during this hiatus.

This idea has a pretty broad application — it’s worth thinking about how it applies to close relationships, general socializing, and internet/social media as well, but that’s too long for one post (and I’m too tired).

UI things.

I care a lot about design things. It’s part of caring about details, to me, and also caring about user experience. I’m not formally trained, but you don’t need two years of school to figure out that doors that say push, but have a pull handle, are confusing and annoying. (On the other hand, this is funny.)

Most of my Design Things experiences these days come about on the web. Some recent things:

Websites requesting usernames or emails where validation fails if there’s a single space character at the end of my entry. This just makes me livid. Email validation is hard (so I’m not quite so angry when you deny me a plus character, although it is in fact valid, BlueShieldofCaliforniaareyoulisteningtome?), but trimming trailing spaces? That’s easy. Why is there a trailing space character, you ask? Why do you care? Just trim the damn thing. But in case you just care because you actually care, it’s because when you do an autocorrect insert on a mobile phone, you often get an extra space.

Facebook videos. You think I’m about to say something mean, but I’m not. I am super impressed by Facebook’s video behavior. The video is muted by default, and stops playing when you scroll it off the screen. Someone thought about that one for a while. Good job, that person/people.

Google Calendar looks up locations in Maps (I think it’s in Maps — maybe also in your previous events?) when you start typing them in. It didn’t used to do this, and I wished it did, and now it does, and I absolutely freaking love it. I love it so, so much. It saves me so much tedious typing.

Flickr. I can’t even. Embedding a simple JPG is now practically impossible; the embed code is pretty much a little app. God, it is so terrible. Do they know that people use devices that don’t do those things? And I haven’t even used the new website enough to figure out how much I hate it, but I definitely hate it (although less than some people do? maybe?).

Because cheese.

Since my Because Reasons post, I’ve been collecting examples. I’m sure a search would turn up more, but I’m enjoying collecting them in their native habitats.

“well, okay, maybe not the dairy free part, because cheese”

This was a sentence fragment from an online messageboard.

“I had catastrophic coverage, but no maternity coverage (private insurance because self-employed)…”

Also a sentence from an online messageboard. This sentence is ambiguous syntactically; it could actually be from an older pattern which is referred to in the Language Log post, a kind of “x because y” pattern.

Because, honestly, FUCK the whole idea of cooking an expensive and time-consuming holiday meal for people who cancel at the last minute because: “paperwork.”

But that’s okay, because – bourbon.

These were also sourced from the same messageboard, and are interesting because internal punctuation.* Internal punctuation is also found in a lot of the Languange Log examples. It suggests that the writer knows that something is being elided, at least semantically and perhaps syntactically.

“If you want to go to the next step in the route manually, you now swipe from left to right instead of tapping on the arrow. Because gestures.

This is from an article about Google Maps published in July 2013.

No, go away. I just want a salad because ranch.

Eating: A manifesto, from Rookie Magazine, July 2012

The most important thing about questpunk is to get plenty of sleep, because dreams.

A tweet from October 2013.

“Why is it spelled that way?”
“Because English.”

This one was a verbal exchange between a coworker paraphrasing her six-year-old, and me.

“Why there is a baby rat in my closet?”
“Because cats.”

Quoted dialogue from a Facebook post written by a friend of mine, November 2013.

Hope to see everybody at @busproject‘s “Jingle Bus” this year! Because DEMOCRACY.

Also a tweet, from November 2013.

*Originally I wrote this in Standard English as “because of the internal punctuation”, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to change it.

The kinds of conversations on the Internet that recur and recur and never end

  • How people arrange their financial accounts with their significant other.
  • What kind of car people drive and why they like it or hate it.
  • What personality type people are in some system, and whether that system rocks/sucks/is scientifically valid/is total bullshit.
  • [Added 9/22] What kind of houseware people own, or wish they owned, or have inherited, or how little they care about any of this.

This list to be added to the next time I end up in one of these.

So you got the cURL error:140770FC:SSL routines:SSL23_GET_SERVER_HELLO:unknown protocol

Yeah, a lot of people do, apparently. However, if you’re a client (not the server administrator) and you’re pretty much positive that the server isn’t configured incorrectly, you don’t have a proxy server on your side, it’s not supposed to be plain HTTP….you might still be confused after you read all that stuff.

I was using a cURL command with –anyauth. That’s supposed to work by negotiating the most secure authorization possible with the server, but apparently it doesn’t always work, and it can cause this error. When I changed –anyauth to -3 (short for ‘use SSL3’), magically the problem went away.

Your mileage may vary.

Two Google reader annoyances

Two things Google reader does wrong (in my opinion):

If two of your friends have shared the same post, it appears twice in your shared items.
If you follow a blog that one of your friends has shared a post from, you see both the blog post and the shared post.

I can see why there might be reasons for this, but on the face of it, this is just plain stupid, and even if it’s not plain stupid (e.g. if the comments are different on each post), there has to be a smarter way to handle this. I don’t want to read the same post twice. I have a hard enough time being patient enough to keep up with my feeds as it is.

Dear social networks

Dear Facebook,

You know all those people with whom I have mutual friends? The ones you like to suggest I befriend? Did you ever wonder if there might be a reason why I am not friends with those people?

Please stop telling me who you think I should be friends with, or suggesting that my friends need more friends.

Also, please stop telling me who to poke. That sort of thing is best left to those of us with a speck of human judgment.


Dear OKCupid,

Thanks for telling me, on my receipt of a message from a new sender, that you think we both like “Vegetarian”, “Ender’s Game” and “Hiking.” Because there’s no possible way I could figure that out for myself.

Also, “you both like Vegetarian” is not grammatical.

Adjectives are not Nouns

Is anyone else annoyed by the way social networks seem to be positioning themselves as knowing far more than their users do about who their users want to interact with?