How to Understand Twitter's Bad New Direction

Twitter this week made two small changes that indicate a big shift in direction for everybody's favorite microblogging service.

The first was a two-part change: Twitter started suspending the accounts of users who posted a video showing the execution of an American journalist, and it adopted a new policy and process for handling requests from people who ask to have images of deceased family members removed from Twitter.

The second is that Twitter now adds tweets to users' timelines from people they don't follow. The posts are selected by Twitter for their popularity.

These aren't just isolated changes, but an entirely new direction for Twitter.

Twitter knows best

The video showing terrorists killing journalist James Foley must be horrible beyond words. I haven't seen it (unlike some on Facebook who saw it because of Facebook's reprehensible auto-playing video feature). I choose not to see it, regardless of what Twitter's policies are.

But Twitter's censorship of this content raises some big and fundamental questions. Among these are: Is Twitter the world's "town square"? Does Twitter exist as a neutral medium or does it exist for a handful of young, male Americans motivated by profit to impose their values on the world? And what is "engagement" if users are just passively getting the content Twitter decides they should like?

There are thousands of accounts on Twitter showing videos and other content as horrible as the recent terrorist execution video. I don't follow these accounts. If I do stumble across them, I block them. That is, and should be, my choice.

Before Twitter shuttered accounts sharing the video, a spontaneous hashtag emerged called #ISISmediaBlackout calling for people to stop sharing the video in order to take the wind out of the sails of the terrorists, who were relying on sites like Twitter to spread terror.

Involvement in such direct action has a psychological impact on people. In fact, that's what engagement really is -- engagement not for the sake of engagement, but to make a difference on social media based on real events. Should Twitter be standing in the way of people taking action collectively and spontaneously against video terrorism?

Twitter's meddling with violent imagery reminds me of the relationship between television access to images of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s and the evolution of the anti-war movement.

Americans got their impressions of World War II from cheerleading, sugar-coated newsreel shorts, such as this one. But by the time of the Vietnam War, the impressions came from prime-time TV news coverage like this (warning -- the images are still very disturbing).

Citizens in a democracy formulate their opinions about the impact of U.S. foreign policy from wherever it is they get their news about world events -- newsreels, network TV news, Twitter.

Making reality available to people who choose to confront it is important. Viewing the terrorist videos may cause one voter to support increased involvement in the Middle East in order to confront the terrorists, while it may cause another to want to reduce involvement and leave the whole mess behind.

By banning terrorist videos, Twitter is either abdicating its role as the world's public square or telling us that it knows what's good for us, based on the naive belief that censoring upsetting images is an unalloyed "good." Or maybe it just doesn't care because there's too much money to be made.

Make no mistake that value judgments are being made, and those represent the values of the people who run Twitter. In most of the world, the kind of pornography that's widely available on Twitter is considered far more offensive than violent videos.

There's other violent imagery with political consequences. Pictures of the dead body of Michael Brown, the teenager who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., were not censored by Twitter. But if Twitter continues to tighten its censorship policy, would images like that be banned in the future? If Twitter had censored the Michael Brown images, would the response to the events in Ferguson have been different? Is it really Twitter's job to decide the outcome of political or social opinions, feelings and actions?

It's a slippery slope. Especially if Twitter's goal is to make Twitter a friendlier place for advertisers. Today, it's violent terrorist videos. Next, it could be all violent videos, then all war footage, then all naked people. The next thing you know, Twitter will be a sanitized Facebook or Google+.

Speaking of Facebook, its recently reported experimentation on users involved a "mood study" where Facebook's research group deliberately selected posts from users' family and friends to ensure that the net effect of a user's News Feed was either positive or negative. The company wanted to find out if seeing positive posts caused users to post more positive status updates themselves (researchers found that in fact it did -- mood is contagious). That gives Facebook an algorithmic dial for turning up or down the positivity of Facebook overall.

It makes me wonder whether instead of social media being a place for exploring and understanding other people and the world, it instead becomes a dumbed-down information equivalent of "soma" in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World -- the place where we go to forget all our troubles and get distracted by frivolity.

Marketers know that happy people spend more money. It seems like we're headed for a world in which social media sites are increasingly happy and nonthreatening places -- places that present people with a highly sanitized, sugar-coated view of the world. Don't worry about all those horrible things going on in the world -- just focus on your bread and circuses and buy, buy, buy! Be a consumer, not a citizen.

In a move related to its decision about the Foley videos, Twitter also implemented a new policy regarding people's requests to remove images of deceased relatives from Twitter. Here's what Twitter added to its support blog:

"In order to respect the wishes of loved ones, Twitter will remove imagery of deceased individuals in certain circumstances. Immediate family members and other authorized individuals may request the removal of images or video of deceased individuals, from when critical injury occurs to the moments before or after death, by sending an e-mail to privacy@twitter.com. When reviewing such media removal requests, Twitter considers public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content and may not be able to honor every request."

Twitter is serving as judge and jury here about what's newsworthy. The Foley pictures aren't newsworthy, the Brown pictures are.

Who knows what other decisions it will make. Maybe a picture of the victim of a drunk driver won't be considered newsworthy, but a picture of someone killed by a meth addict will. Perhaps it will be OK to show historical footage from the Holocaust, but not video of a recent mass execution. Twitter is positioning itself to decide what the world gets outraged about.

It would be far better, in my opinion, to leave these judgments up to individuals. Let me decide what I can see and not see on Twitter based on my own reasons and sensitivities.

Must-see tweets from people you don't follow

While Twitter has decided it doesn't want you to have the option to see certain kinds of material on its site, it has also decided that content you never wanted, from people you never followed, is something you truly must see.

After testing a new feature in which the tweets from popular posts are inserted into your feed (and are unremovable by you), Twitter went ahead and implemented it, even though the feature failed the test (people hated it). So now you'll get tweets from people you don't follow. Twitter explained the new policy in this post:

"When we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that's popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don't follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting."

Taken together, it's clear that Twitter believes that it knows what's best for users, essentially saying, "We -- Twitter -- have decided that you, the user, shouldn't see this bad content over there, but you must see this good content over here. We'll decide what's good and bad, not you."

Yes -- it's true that we don't pay for Twitter, and that it's advertiser-supported. But it's also true that when we read Twitter, we make an investment of something much more valuable than money -- time.

Using myself as an example, Twitter tells me I've posted more than 25,000 tweets since 2007. Had I known Twitter was going to censor my stream, add things to it and (eventually) algorithmically censor the way Facebook does, I would have invested my time and energy and cultivated community elsewhere.

As it is, Twitter is feeling like a bait-and-switch racket. It got us to commit our time and energy to a service that was open, a new global public square where each user determined what he or she would see or say or post or learn -- and where we would be free from Facebook's manipulative newsfeed algorithms.

Now that we've committed countless hours to building a community on Twitter, it's rapidly turning itself into another Facebook, with condescending censorship, bold policies that determine the global political conversation and now the invasion of unwanted content into our personal streams that we cannot remove.

Worst of all, this move will probably yield other Facebook-style features.

It's likely that soon enough Twitter will get auto-playing videos, algorithmically censored streams (where the majority of the posts from people you follow never appear on your stream), app spam, intrusive advertising and all the rest.

It's a tragedy and a loss for people who invested their time cultivating community on Twitter, instead of Facebook, in the belief that Twitter would be the world's minimalist, universal, open public square.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.

This story, "How to Understand Twitter's Bad New Direction" was originally published by Computerworld .

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