Benevolent digital dictators, without control

What is Facebook? That strange but relevant question was recently at the center of a long piece by Select All. Clearly, to describe Facebook and other highly influential tech firms simply as profit-driven companies like any other enterprise falls absurdly short, as it doesn’t allow us to grasp what they do and what they represent. It is like labeling every person as a “human”, and then ignoring what she/he does with their life. Obviously, it matters to our understanding of that person whether we are talking to a car mechanic, artist or president of a state.

The title of the article posed the question if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg knows what Facebook is. Most likely he doesn’t. Facebook’s conflation with essentially every of our civilization’s and daily life’s major systems, has turned Facebook into a thing which doesn’t represent anything that humanity has seen before, and that lacks a proper descriptive name.

Bill Fitzgerald describes the status quo like this:

“For all the talk of disruptive innovation, how tech entrepreneurs are the smartest people in the room, etc, etc, we are now in a situation where billions of dollars have been spent creating platforms that the creators neither control nor understand.”

So we don’t know what Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies are. Neither do their leaders. Nor do they have control. Sounds awkward and uncomfortable.

This also leads to another question: Who/What is Mark Zuckerberg, who/what is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey? If Facebook and Twitter aren’t just companies like [enter any major brand or manufacturer of consumer goods or traditional media company], then these guys aren’t just CEOs. They are something else.

Here is my proposal: They are a type of dictator. A digital equivalent, not ruling over geographical nations but over something akin to a digital nation. For now, these dictators are not intentionally evil. They are, or at least want to be, benevolent. And last but not least, as we just learned, they are kind of clueless and have lost control.

Digital, benevolent, clueless dictators without control over what’s happening with their platforms. But with the (accidental and undemocratic) power to change the whole world. That’s something to chew on.

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Twitter and Trump: A truly destructive relationship

Here you can read a German version of this article.

There probably is no other company in the world that has maneuvered itself into such a complicated and even pitiful position such as Twitter.

As the prime communication channel for infamously impulsive and notoriously conflict-ready U.S. President Donald Trump, Twitter’s platform is playing a critical role in the various minor and major squabbles which Trump is engaging in around the clock. In fact, Twitter’s platform is enabling these squabbles in an unique way, as the service’s unfiltered real-time character, brevity, viral dynamics and emotional user behavior amplifies any seemingly trivial 140 character message thousandfold, and – with helpful participation of click and outrage-driven media as well as tweeting anti-Trump activists – turning it into “world news”.

It’s hard to exactly pin down what would have happened in a world without Twitter (and without a service exactly like Twitter). But the world would look different for sure. It’s speculative but maybe Trump wouldn’t even be President. Presumably that’s the type of reasoning which led the former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson to launch a crowdfunding campaign intended to raise enough money to buy a majority stake in Twitter – in order to subsequently being able to ban Donald Trump from the service. Continue Reading

I stopped using Twitter and Facebook, but shareholders wouldn’t know

In their quarterly reports, publicly listed social networking companies highlight several key performance indicators (KPI). One of the metrics they often emphasize is “daily active users” (DAU). Facebook reached 1.28 billion DAU on average for March 2017. Snapchat reported 166 million DAU for Q1 2017. Twitter doesn’t specify the number of DAU in its quarterly reports, mentioning only a “14 % year-over-year increase” for DAUs for the most recent quarter, and 328 million monthly active users (MAU).

The DAU metric is useful to evaluate young companies with still a comparatively low number of users, since it clearly shows the growth rate over time. For maturing companies which have been around for a while, I’d argue that the DAU metric is a weak measurement of a company’s ability to engage and retain users. Here is why:

In November, I stopped tweeting and reading my Twitter timeline. Early 2017 I significantly reduced my use of the Facebook app (not counting Messenger, Instagram or WhatsApp, of course). I’d estimate that I cut the time I spend with both services by 90 %. But if you only look at the DAU, this drastic reduction would not be reflected. Because I still almost every day check both apps at least once in order to have a quick look at the notifications. Just in case. If you, like me, frequently publish stuff on the Internet, you might get mentioned/tagged somewhere, and it’s nice to know.

Nevertheless, my contributions to the bottom line of these two apps have shrunken dramatically, because I hardly see any advertisements anymore. I don’t scroll through the news feed nor the timeline. On most days, I spend no more than at max a few minutes with Facebook and Twitter. On average, Facebook earns $17,07 per year from a user in the U.S. and Canada, and $5.42 from a user in Europe. Assuming that my usage of Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger (the latter two are essentially not monetized at the moment) remains stable in 2017 and that my usage in 2016 was completely average, then this year, Facebook will generate significantly less revenue with my activity compared to last year’s $5.42.

The DAU metric masks negative changes in user patterns of long-term users, but these are in fact what matters when evaluating the outlook for mature social networking services. Only the radical step of deleting one’s account would be reflected in the DAU metric, at least in aggregate terms. I’d argue that this is not how most people actually behave. Rather, they’d grow increasingly tired and decrease their usage over time, while still wanting to be able to do quick checks on notifications, events, live streams or whatever. While these users are not totally lost (and Facebook is doing a brilliant job of keeping them engaged through their other apps), they nevertheless mean a reduction in revenue potential for the particular service. Even if this would be the case for millions of users who reduce their usage, shareholders would not see it when looking at the DAU.

Therefore, as much as publishing DAU numbers can be considered an improvement over the totally useless MAU, it’s still just an arbitrary vanity metric that masks actual changes in user behavior in order to entice investors.

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How Hacker News benefited when I stopped tweeting

An alternative title to this post could be: “My first ever productive use of newly acquired programming skills”.

On November 21 2016 I wrote my last tweet on my personal Twitter account (I still tweet new blog posts on @meshedsociety). Shortly after, I also significantly reduced my sharing activity on Facebook. These were deliberate decisions. For individuals like me who have a natural urge to curate and spread information, not having such an easy outlet anymore for sharing reading recommendations is a big change. Where to promote all those good texts, essays and long reads? Sure, I have my weekly curated email (sign up here), and I publish a daily article selection about the digital economy (in German), but that didn’t cover everything I had previously been tweeting out. So did I just go against my nature, ending up sharing less links on the web?

I had the suspicion that without actually paying attention to it, I significantly increased my activity on the tech news hub Hacker News, submitting more stories than when I was still tweeting daily. And suddenly it hit me: I am now able to check myself if this hypothesis is true, thanks to my newly acquired Python skills. I started to teach myself Python in 2015, and a few months ago I decided to reduce some other work assignments to intensify my efforts. I currently invest about 1-2 hours daily. Continue Reading

Jack Dorsey’s belief

In a recent TV interview, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made it clear that he wants Donald Trump to keep tweeting (via). Here are his thoughts in his own words:

“I believe it’s really important to hear it directly from the leadership. I believe it is really important to hold them accountable. And I believe it is really important to have the conversations in the open rather than behind closed doors. If we all would suddenly take these platforms away, where does it go? What happens? It goes in the dark and I don’t think that’s good for anyone”.

This is quite some heaping plate of platitudes. But yes, what else could Dorsey actually say?!

If he would express regret about having given Trump an unique viral megaphone, he would essentially question Twitter’s right to existence. He cannot do that for the obvious reason that the consequence would be to shut down the company. After someone has walked around for 10 years selling the idea and value of a 140 character publishing service to the world, admitting that one (possibly) was wrong would be as unusual as giving up on any other strong ideological belief that someone holds (it’s no coincidence that Dorsey uses the word “believe” multiple times). And in this case of course, billions of Dollars and the jobs of many employees are at stake.

Therefore, the only thing Dorsey can do is to somehow construct a narrative which allows him and his employees to be able to justify whatever goes on on his platform (unless laws are violated) and to repeat it over and over again so it becomes some kind of quasi-truth. It’s not unlike the situation that Mark Zuckerberg is in, which I described in the post “Zuckerberg’s Lock-in Effect”.

I once read in an essay or book (sadly I don’t recall anymore which one) the following advice about what to ask people who have strong beliefs: “What evidence would it take to change your mind?” According to the author, if the person cannot come up with an answer, it is a sign that he/she actually is not interested in finding out the truth. I wonder what would change Jack Dorsey’s mind about his own platform.

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A radical idea for Twitter: Kill the timeline, and kill the call center

I just had a pleasant customer service experience with United Airlines through Twitter’s direct messaging feature (no I wasn’t asking about whether I could wear leggings on the plane). That’s the first positive thing you hear from me about Twitter since I stopped tweeting and consuming my timeline in November 2016.

This positive and highly time-saving experience in comparison to a traditional call or email brought me to a radical idea: Twitter should abandon the whole timeline and tweet concept altogether and focus entirely on becoming the world’s major service that connects every single consumer business, from large organizations with hundreds of thousands of employees to the mom-and-pop shop, with their customers.

Twitter has everything that is needed: The brands, the brand recognition among consumers as well as organizations, the technology, the sales force and a good install base of a couple of hundred million smartphones to start with. By becoming the definite customer support platform and thereby saving companies huge amounts of money, Twitter can charge businesses modest fees and increase the potential revenue per participating business almost infinitely considering the opportunities for b2c direct sales, market research and loyalty activities. In the example above, Twitter should now provide the airline with all kinds of tools to leverage the established contact. The limits really are only in one’s imagination and in my acceptance of commercial approaches – but I wouldn’t mind at all to get personalized fare suggestions from United, for example. Continue Reading

Forget Facebook: Twitter looks to Snapchat for inspiration

Here you can read this article in German.

Last week on stage at the Code Conference, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said something astonishing: He called his own service confusing and added: “When you do something [in Twitter], something unexpected happens”. He promised to fix that as soon as possible (Link to the Video, the remarks start around minute 14).

What’s astonishing about that remark is that Dorsey mentioned Snapchat as a counter example. “Snapchat is very modern. When you do something on Snapchat, more or less you know what is going to happen.”

That statement and comparison is remarkable. At least among people older than, say, 30, Snapchat is widely considered to be highly confusing. The perceived lack of an intuitive interface has led to a sea of “I do not get Snapchat” tweets and “How to get started with Snapchat” blog posts. It’s pretty much one of the defining Internet memes of 2016. Continue Reading

A suggestion for Twitter: stop looking for new users

The acceleration of Twitter’s growth and identity crisis has motivated many tech pundits, journalists and bloggers to present their take on what Twitter should do in order to find a way out of its dilemma. I have a little contribution myself. I promise it’s short and (hopefully) different to what you might have read elsewhere.

So what should Twitter do? It should stop to desperately look for ways to get new users onto the service. Instead it should turn Twitter into the best experience imaginable for its officially 320 million monthly active users!
Continue Reading

Twitter makes humans look like bots

The advances in artificial intelligence and the rise of businesses that develop and employ chat-based bots mean that it gets increasingly hard to know whether you are dealing with a machine or a human being. The technology behind bots has gotten so sophisticated that it can require a longer conversation in order to be sure that there is no person of flesh and blood on the other end, as illustrated in this exchange with a Google support “employee” which I linked to in yesterday’s reading list. Basically, one has to run somewhat of a freestyle Turing Test. In other cases, the opposite happens: Users assume they are interacting with a machine, but in fact are having a chat with a real-human who only pretends to be a bot. An “Anti-Turing-Test”, as conducted in this example with Facebook’s experimental personal assistant M, can reveal this.

Bots pretending to be humans, humans pretending to be bots – sounds a bit bizarre, doesn’t it? Here is something else bizarre:

Think about what’s typical for a contemporary chatbot, those being used by large companies for customer service such as in the example above by Google, or by telecom operators (I recently had a chat interaction with T-Mobile which made me suspicious that I was conversing with a machine pretending to be a human): Continue Reading

Should Twitter remove the 140-character limit? 11 arguments for and against it

Here is a German version of this article.

For what seems like an eternity, Twitter has been in somewhat of a crisis mode. The fact that it currently is run by an interim CEO who at the same time is in charge of another billion dollar company completely unrelated to Twitter is quite symbolic.

It’s safe to assume that at some point in the near future, bigger changes will have to happen, at least if the goal of overall growth of all the important numbers remains. One of the more frequently debated questions of the past years has been whether Twitter should get rid of its 140 character limit. As someone who has been on Twitter since 2007, I naturally have thoughts about that – some that make me be in favor of elimination of the character limit for tweets, but also some that make me want to keep it. Here are the pros and cons. Continue Reading