Friday, 23 March 2018

Twitter is becoming more like the world

Facebook might be more in the news lately because of its links to big data firm Cambridge Analytica but Twitter is still chugging along nicely. Yet it is true that it is changing in important ways. In a story at The Verge dated 14 March published to coincide with the annual SXSW conference in Texas, Ev Williams, the founder of both Blogger and Twitter, said:
“Fifteen years ago, when we were coming here to Austin to talk about the internet, it was this magical place that was different from the rest of the world,” said Williams, now the CEO of Medium, at a panel over the weekend. “It was a subset” of the general population, he said, “and everyone was cool. There were some spammers, but that was kind of it. And now it just reflects the world.” He continued: “When we built Twitter, we weren’t thinking about these things. We laid down fundamental architectures that had assumptions that didn’t account for bad behavior. And now we’re catching on to that.”
I tend to agree with Williams, and have written about the polarisation that is tending to characterise social media, notably on 24 July last year. But you often erroneously hear that social media is creating echo chambers where people are only confronted by views that agree with their own. I think the opposite is in fact true. When you subscribe to a hashtag, for example, you get a wide variety of people tweeting things from a number of different viewpoints. Even people you follow will often put up views that disagree with their own, in order, as is always the case, to help create community, to stir up debate and forge conversations.

What is happening, and Williams has talked about this before, as I noted in a blogpost dated 22 May last year, is that we are now seeing a broader cross-section of the world on social media. It’s not just the early adopters any more, it’s everyone. And the quality of the text you read online betrays this heterogeneous provenance. You find people who cannot spell, who cannot use punctuation correctly, who do not know how to phrase things in a logical or persuasive way. Who are just averagely-educated. Or even badly-educated.

And on Twitter you get more of this variety than you do on Facebook, where you have to get people to follow you back in order to be connected. On Twitter, it’s more like the world than it is on Facebook. And it’s a wild place sometimes, a place where you are likely to find yourself confronted in unexpected and novel ways.

These days, Twitter is where I spend most of my time. I might refresh Facebook every few hours or so and spend a few minutes scrolling through the resulting News Feed to see what other people are saying. But most of my time is spent on TweeetDeck. I have multiple channels set up, including a hashtag (#auspol) and a second account I made which mostly follows people who just post book reviews. I can get plenty of content from Twitter on a continual basis, where I might just spend a few minutes on Facebook every two hours or so.

For the book reviews I write, which I publish most days, Facebook and Twitter both give me readers. I can see where the clicks are coming from using the analysis tools provided by the blogging platform. The tail is longer with Facebook, however, because of the way the platform times the release of content in the News Feeds of people you are connected with. With Twitter, the hit is quick and short-lived.

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