Twitter & fixing replies (aka “Why am I writing this?”)

14 May 2009

So I got quoted in the Guardian Tech blog on the Twitter replies debacle. And quite frankly, nobody cares about this, but once your name’s on a national newspaper website it’s best to lay the record down, so here goes.

When someone replies to you on Twitter in public, they use the @ sign like IRC. When looking at others’ replies in your stream, you had the choice of either seeing every single @ reply that people you followed made, or just those to other people you followed. 2% chose the former option, 98% chose the latter. Yesterday Twitter changed it to the latter only.

Cue backlash from the 2%. Cue backlash against the backlash (from me, amongst others). So Twitter freaked out, backed off and fessed up – discriminating between those you follow and those you don’t was proving to be not scalable. So the solution was to reverse the decision, and make @s to everyone visible – unless they were done through the “reply” button. So you now have to rely on how others use the system rather than have control over it – the worst possible solution.

Intermission: Nobody gives a shit about this. Why am I writing about this? WHY?

A half-arsed solution if ever there was one, and one that caused me annoyance. I flippantly Tweeted my annoyance – which I still stand by – and this got a mention in the Guardian’s Tech blog (thanks guys). But this is one of those things that needs more than 140 characters to elaborate on,so here goes…

Twitter’s approach was a classic fail in consulting users. The @ was a community-created asset and Twitter messed with it for no apparent good reason. Cure was worse than problem, and then they were forced into an icky compromise that suits no-one. The solution? They could fessed up it was causing problems, and announced a change well in advance. To help users prepare for it, they could extend the API to allow clients like Twhirl & Tweetdeck know the user IDs of who you follow and who you don’t. Then the clients can make the discrimination between followed and not followed, instead of the server, and the choice can be exercised at that end. Scalable, user-chosen, none of the problems encountered above.

Right, that’s it. Of all the things I’m meant to be writing about, I didn’t expect to write at length about this. Better stuff to come, promise.

If you’re thinking about commenting, don’t – I’ve wasted enough of the planet’s time as it is, please don’t add to it.


Thinking Digital

13 May 2009

From today till Friday I’m going to be at the Thinking Digital Conference as a guest blogger of the organisers (be sure to check out their blog too). Thinking Digital’s speakers include some of the top people in the digital sphere such as Russell Davies, Ben Hammersley, Adrian Hon, JP Rangaswami and Paul Smith (aka the Twitchhiker) and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m blogging about it both here (the more tech & geeky side) and on the We Are Social blog (the social media side), so keep your eyes peeled.

I’m planning to Tweeting fairly extensively on a special dedicated @conferencebore account, with edited Match of the Day-style highlights of all the best bits on my usual @qwghlm account (to save overloading regular followers). And if you’re there too and want to meet up, feel free to @ or DM me or just come up to me and say hi!


Going beyond privacy

13 May 2009

Last week I finally, finally, signed up to be a member of the Open Rights Group and attended a talk chaired by Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross on privacy and the digital age. And thanks to the red wine and general convivality on the night, plus my own badly-taken notes, it’s taken me a little time before I’ve finally been able to distill a few thoughts on the matter.

The talk was slightly disappointing in that it was a bit too general and strayed into unrelated aspects security debate as well. For example, talking about Richard Reid the shoebomber and how if he had been successful, we would not be taking our shoes off at airports now as nobody would have known how he did it, is a lovely anecdote but didn’t do much to inform the debate. Ditto complaining about school web filtering or the state of the tabloid press.

Still, there were plenty of good points and interesting notes. Charlie kicked things off when he pointed out how privacy is a relatively recent social construct; in medieval times peasants would live communally and the nobility would be constantly under the eyes of their servants; only through the industrial age and the institution of a middle class, segregated in their own houses, has privacy become a norm to expect.

Spin forward a couple of centuries later, and we are no longer merely industrial, but sufficiently technically advanced that we produce data about everything, which spills out of our houses and lives. As a result the normative privacy we expect is an ever-more elusive ideal, now teetering on the edge of a paradox. One the one hand, people publish vast amounts of information willingly, whether it be on blogs, Twitter, Flickr or whatever. On the other, we clamour for the government to stop snooping on us, gathering massive databases or performing mass-mining operations.

Are the two mutually incompatible – are we just hypocrites? Not quite. As our information-generative capacities have evolved, privacy has evolved into a part of a more sophisticated framework; privacy is no longer a simple norm, but a beneficial side-effect of a much greater good – the ability to control what information about is is dispersed. With this control, we choose what we can and cannot publish (for example, you’ll read my views on tech and politics here, but only very rarely will I disclose information about my family).

But Cory very astutely pointed out that this choice is rarely informed. We are very bad at valuing the impact of information at the time we release it, compared to how we might value it in future; a teenager posting pictures of him drinking and smoking weed onto Bebo might not matter to him now, but when he’s applying for a job or running for office in a few decades’ time, they may come back to haunt him. You can add into that the mix the fact that taboos and social conventions change over time. Charlie provided the example of parents would take photos of their young children playing in the nude – regarded as innocent in the 1970s, but an activity now tainted with anti-paedophile hysteria of the present day.

So, we’re producing shitloads of personal data, the control over which we are unable to judge accurately. That’s part one of the problem. Part two is that that data may not be accurate or can be misleading in the first place; if your browser history is full of pages about HIV, is it because you are a sufferer or just researching on behalf of a friend, or helping your child with their biology homework? Without wider context, it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusion.

It gets really bad in part three – what happens when governments and corporations start using these vast pools of data, possibly mistakenly disclosed, possibly inaccurate, to make judgements about us; would a health insurer, getting hold of your browser history in the example, force you to undergo an HIV test or increase your premiums?

In this sense, privacy, in the sense of safeguarding information about us that is true, but which is not widely in the public domain and we’d rather not let people know about, is not the real problem. The problem is about what institutions do with all information about us, true or not, publicly available or not, embarrassing or not. And that’s a bigger question than privacy – we get back to control again.

As Charlie put at the end: “the relationship between privacy, security and the state is broken.” The social contract we once relied on for privacy is being pulled and reshaped into a wider one about information control. But while personal control of all our own data is an ideal goal (that us geeks love to profess), it’s really one fraught with complications – if we ourselves can’t make the right judgements about deciding what to do with our personal information, what hope do institutions have?

Doubt is the key to reworking out this social contract – a healthy dose of uncertainty and a warning about context whenever we deal with personal information. In some ways this means accommodating conflicting ideas – a “Digital Britain” made more reliable and efficient through IT excellence is underpinned by an assumption of good-quality data, but we must also entertain the possibility it is wrong or inappropriate and build mechanisms around it so we don’t make mistaken judgements, and that mistakes can be easily corrected or reversed. Oddly, the closest equivalent to this I can think right now is how any sane person should read Wikipedia – treat what you read as plausible, but never be willing to accept it as truth on blind faith alone; the community behind it does its best to keep it accurate, while full well knowing mistakes will always be there.

Never perfect, but honest with yourself about your fallibility. That might just bring some sanity to the situation right now. But good luck recommending that to anyone in a position of power.

Footnote: Better and more coherent posts on the Doctorow/Stross talk can be found from Richard King and Chris Swan.


Let no idea go to waste

8 May 2009

On Wednesday night, I was at the London edition of the Digital Britain Unconference, a grassroots response to Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report, set up by Bill Thompson, Kathryn Corrick & others. Digital Britain is mostly concerned with preserving existing industries and interests and fails to address many of the issues those of us who live & work in the online space – free software, free content, social media & user-generated content, net neutrality, privacy, government transparency and so on.

Truth be told, I was tired, had a terrible headache and was a rubbish contributor – I didn’t say much of any worth or interest. My only decent contribution was during a session on skills & training; I pointed out that people who needed help to cross the digital divide could get as much training as they liked, but if the OS on their computers keeps crashing or the websites they use had unusable interfaces, it would be for naught; sadly, I don’t know what the answer is – but it lies with educating & incentivising the elite (i.e. us geeks), training & research into UX design and government leading by example is perhaps a pathway. It’s not all about the people at the bottom of the ladder.

I agreed with much of the stuff being said; some of it was a little woolly and wishy-washy, but that’s to be expected at these things, while consensus is still being sought. Encouraging the digitally excluded to take up technology and give them the confidence not just to surf the web but to express themselves was one key point; fostering digital entrepreneurship and risk-taking and allowing startups to experiment more stuck with me even more.

That has triggered the question: if we do let a thousand startups bloom and all corners of the population participating & creating, producing all this content, all this code, all these ideas. What happens next?

The worst thing that could possibly happen is that it goes to waste. That someone comes up with a great piece of code as proof of concept but hasn’t the time to bring it to production level. Or a frustrated web user has a great idea for a piece of UX design but none of the coding skills to bring it about. Or a startup has a great idea two years too early and goes bust, and whoever tries following in their footsteps has to start from scratch again. Reinventing the wheel costs time and money and given the abundance of digital and the interconnectedness of people online, really shouldn’t happen.

Mechanisms such as open source and free content licensing (GPL, Creative Commons etc.) are great means to make sure others’ work gets improved upon, but are still just a mechanism; getting people to coalesce around the work and support it is a separate challenge, which itself relies on making them aware of a project’s existence and encouraging & rewarding participation. For these means of doing to properly work, social and technical systems need to be set up for this to happen – Sourceforge does it for code, Wikipedia for knowledge.

But still, software projects die, data gets created and then wasted. To take an example in government – the ONS is busy creating a more accurate postcode geodata resource for the 2011 Census, which it is promptly going to destroy after it’s finished. Closer to home, I created an election map of the UK for the 2001 & 2005 elections, but I haven’t got the time or coding capability to extend it to 2010 (when there are new boundaries). I’d be happy to pass it on to someone else – if anyone’s a willing taker – but it’s hard finding places other than this blog to advertise the fact.

To make the most of the ideas and data coming out of a more Digital Britain and prevent waste, might it be necessary to be a bit more proactive? Recently I’ve been reading about the great work the Archive Team do, and their recent efforts to preserve Geocities, and it’s been both interesting and inspiring. So here’s an idea: a library of lost ideas and data, with a dedicated staff to curate it. They spend time going over submissions, wrapping them up with good metadata, categorising, rating, and promoting to make it easy for visitors to find.

At the same time, better government legislation on freeing up data collected there so it can be added in. Perhaps we should take look into data produced by failed and liquidated startups can can be collected into this resource as well (assuming it couldn’t be sold on the open market, which may be hard if its future worth is hard to ascertain).

Not only would the library take submissions but the team would actively go out and seek takers, sharing submissions with their audience and ‘matchmake’ to find people to take on projects others have passed on or left, asking “would anyone else like to take this on?”

Admittedly, there are more questions than answers. It may be a good idea to separate out data from ideas, to be honest. There are a lot of IP & copyright questions that I haven’t even begun to answer. It may not be possible to prove it can be a good return on taxpayers’ money, so maybe it’s best to run it under Lottery funding, as a creative experiment. And a lot of the best knowledge is tacit, in people’s heads, not written down anywhere – not to mention that knowing who is who is so important when trying to matchmake. So you’ll probably need a social networking function bolted on too to take care of that.

And of course, someone might have already done this, and this entire post is just reinventing the wheel itself. But I’ll leave the idea out there (most of it hurriedly written before I forgot it on Wednesday night) and see what you think…


If you’ve signed a petition telling the PM to resign, chances are that you’re a fuckwit

30 April 2009

There’s a petition out to tell the PM to resign. If you’ve signed it, you’re in all probability a fucking idiot. This is why.

For starters, we already have a mechanism for kicking Prime Ministers out of power. They’re called elections. True, they only come along every 4-5 years, but then democracies can only function with some continuity in administration. If you don’t want to wait till next year to cast your vote, then fucking tough, and count your blessings you live in a country where the citizenry can vote leaders out of power.

Second, you’re missing the wood for the trees. Gordon Brown’s premiership has been nothing short of a disaster, but it’s been very much a team effort. It isn’t just the man at the top, it’s the whole bloody team around him. Darling, Mandelson, Smith, Blears, Geoff fucking Hoon. Not to mention the old guard of Blair, Clarke, Blunkett, etc. setting it all up. The whole lot of them are responsible for the miserable idea-starved philosophy of New Labour, with its craving for power, its thrall for made-up wealth and its authoritarian managerialism in every department.

Third, what comes next? If Brown resigns, then Harman or Miliband or possibly Straw or some other New Labour apparatchik takes his place. A PM resigning does not mean a change in the ruling party, or even an election, and you don’t have to go that far back in history (Wilson, Thatcher, Blair) for examples. If you’re not happy with the current government then you really should be making a case for what the next one should be bringing (and fuck knows, the current Opposition need every bit of help in that department).

Finally, you’re a fuckwit because you’re a petition-signing fuckwit. Petitions have some very good uses – raising awareness of a previously unknown issue, or for co-ordinating action for the disadvantaged and disparate, or to help lobby for changing unjust laws. But these don’t account for many of petitions on the Number 10 site. Many of them are just ways for the inarticulate and incoherent to vent frustration at something they dislike, and petitioning the Prime Minister to resign is the stellar example. It has no hope of changing anything. It advocates nothing positive whatsoever. All it is is another way of childishly wailing “I don’t like you” to someone who doesn’t give a fuck, just so you can congratulate yourself with the delusion that you are sticking it to The Man. Well done, you must be so proud. Fuckwit.

Footnote: That was a bit of a rant, and I’m not normally this grumpy so here’s something to cheer you up. Have a looksie at the rejected petitions, some of which are terrible and some pretty good, such as this one which Tom heartily recommended.


Shouting ‘LOL’ in a crowded theatre

27 April 2009

My presentation at this weekend’s SocialMediaCamp London 2009 – entitled “Shouting ‘LOL’ in a crowded theatre: trolling, griefing and Web 2.0 dickery” – is now available over at Slideshare:

This was meant to be a lighthearted, last-one-before-the-beer presentation, but it turned out to be a lot more serious and thinky than I initially intended. What follows is my recollection of what I spoke, which in some cases doesn’t match exactly what the slides say – I did improv this a bit based on thoughts I had during the earlier sessions (who says you have to be prepared for these things?).

We kick off with a definition of trolling, that the point of trolling is to evoke an emotional response in the rest of a community. As these emotions vary – from anger, to fear, to genuine upset and shock, the methods used by trolls vary. In return, communities have their own tactics for telling what trolls are, and so in effect it becomes one big game. The topic doesn’t matter – politics and religion get their fair share of course, but then so does canoeing. So why do they do it? Is it because people are deep-down bastards (the misanthropic explanation) or does the Internet have some perverse transformtive effect on us all (the Luddite explanation aka John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory). I try to steer a middle line between the two. Judith Donath’s theories on identity online prove a useful pointer – the Internet allows people to explore facets of their personality, and these can be both good or bad. Nothing to say they can’t be both.

Combined with a wealth of material to shock or delight people, and we end up adopting multiple behaviours that differ from environment to environment. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we all do the same – I adopt a different tone and stance on my own blog to when I am on someone else’s blog commenting, as the former is my space and the latter is someone else’s. I reveal different facets of my personality when on Twitter (a geekier audience who don’t necessarily know me) as opposed to when on Facebook (people I have met IRL). You do the same too, even if you don’t realise you’re doing it. Turns out we’re not so different from trolls after all.

But does this really matter? A few anonymous trolls on a BBS is hardly concern is it? Don’t we deal with it the same was as we can with spam? Well, perhaps it used to be like that. But now with a wealth of Web 2.0 tools available for collaboration, the rules have changed. 4chan isjust one example of what happens when the mischevious come together, and while it’s given us the Rick Roll, it can also be supremely dickish, as in the case of Mitchell Henderson.

The barrier between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ has come down, and what happens online can now very easily spill over into offline. There is no inherent morality within Web 2.0 – tools can be used for good or evil. Trolls are now their own separate problem within themselves – they allow efforts to be distributed to many human actors over a variety of technologies, and collectivised to any particular end, over a mere matter of minutes, hours, days or months. It’s a different problem from spam (mainly bots) or hacking (mainly individuals or small groups) and as the social web gets ever more ubiquitous and less distinct from the ‘real’ world, it’s only going to be more of a concern. Successfully fighting against them is a distinct concern – but at the same time let’s not get obsessed by it; letting it stifle innovation would mean the trolls truly have won.

Update: There’s some video here: the sound’s a bit off and I speak way, way too fast (it’s only after watching myself on video do I realise how bad it is) – it also covers some of the interesting conversations from the floor from Terence, Ryan and Lucia as well:


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