A notch above a monkey

Chirp, Squawk, Cackle, or Honk*

Disappointed I stopped using Twitter at the end of 2011 and have since visited it mostly to follow up specific references. As a medium I found it lacking but ignorable until recently. While I was reading about the aptly named Jacobinghazi affair I felt the urge to tweet and pronounce Twitter as possibly more toxic than Facebook.

This article has been provoked by Tomaž’s polite disagreement and is my late attempt to explain what I couldn’t on Twitter.

My objections

Leon Wieseltier recently described Twitter as a place of infinite discharge of emotion and promotion where nothing intellectually or linguistically substantial can be accomplished. It is a great and true enough description of Twitter.

Over the years a number of articles have discussed effects of new media on society in its largest sense. While I am interested in those my comment was mainly about Twitter’s role in shaping how individuals and communities think, communicate and behave.

In blogging heyday I thoroughly disliked celebration of rapid exchange of half-baked ideas. Making them smaller and exchange more rapid is not an improvement. Ideas have always been cheap and plentiful when untested and inspiring to the unwitting. Twitter is vast and there may be much worth reading, but chances are most of what you will read will be soon forgotten fluff. Creating on a medium like Twitter is hard since most things worth saying can’t be clearly expressed in 140 characters, nuance is valued even less than continuity and every good tweet can be buried in a pile of inane responses.

One of the reasons why I originally stopped using Twitter was realisation that I found tweets from a fair number of otherwise congenial and intelligent people regularly off-putting. Twitter did not suddenly found their previously hidden depravity, instead its forced brevity of semi-public discourse made a great deal of it sound like movie informants wearing a wire. It is a great demonstration of how dialogue changes when we think others are listening and an insidious tool for normalising blanket snooping, much of it our own.

Research has shown that our brains keep adapting to their use and improving one skill often leads to deterioration of another or as McLuhan put it: “Every extension is also an amputation.” I lost count of people describing their difficulty with reading longer, more slowly developing articles after an expectation of instant gratification has been built by a steady diet of short ones. It doesn’t get more instant than a tweet and Twitter’s interface is optimised for non-discriminative reading of a never ending stream of tweets.[1] Can this really be good for a thinking person?

My tweet which led to this piece was provoked by an absolutely absurd argument closely matching Alan Jacob’s description of Twitter at its worst. Maybe worst, but certainly not rare. Of course arguments with all the negative baggage are not exclusive to Twitter, but Twitter does seem a more emotive medium than most of them. Discussions on Twitter are commonly a sad sight because it isn’t built for dialog. It is a marketing machine and works best when used as such.[2] Unsurprisingly millions of its users conform to its design hints by sharing content or less obviously with signalling group membership by snarking and sloganeering at sometimes only imagined opposition.

Ian Danskin’s “This is Phil Fish” video essay[3] about the nature of online fame recently made rounds and I can’t recommend it enough. Fame can appear without being sought and the longer it lasts, the more likely it is that the famous will become a stand-in for a concept to which public often responds negatively. This is especially unpleasant and difficult to deal with when the negative concept is tied not to what you did, but who you are or are perceived to be.

On Twitter (as previously noted) tweets may be written with a recipient in mind, but can be seen by anyone so all of them contribute to our public image without it being in our control.[4] Controlling tweets comprehension and propagation by relying on cultural norms to differentiate audiences does not work because those norms may not be well known and are certainly not accepted by everyone.

We speak when we want to pass on an idea. Amplifying ideas of others can be worthy, but we are more enriched when new ideas are created and explored. The really interesting ones can be controversial, rough and in need of a nurturing environment in which to develop. Twitter is not that place.

Mobbing and repression of unpopular opinion happens almost everywhere where opinions can be expressed, but the immediacy, ease of response and pay-off make Twitter particularly popular with trolls, sociopaths and anybody willing to goad their followers into collective sectarian hysteria. There will always be enough of them willing to tweet before thinking to pummel into silence everyone but the most determined. Only ideas at first protected by obscurity can develop and flourish in environment without boundaries.

Three pillars of Twitter design

Twitter earns money by showing ads. There’s another reason to be careful with any ad-based business beyond worrying about their usually insatiable hunger for our privacy. Its value is proportional to the amount of our time it captures.[5] Seeing ads on a site you frequent should trigger an examination of how much time you are willing to spend there.

I disliked Twitter’s design until I realised that its main purposes are spreading messages and increasing its use. It does those two things splendidly and kudos to Twitter’s designers.

I am obviously not privy to any internal information, but to me the foundation of Twitter’s design are three main values: terseness, immediacy and broadcasting.

Terseness is of course the well known restriction of 140 characters per tweet because of a technical limitation which does not really exist any more. Its effect on writing however remains because writing thoughts longer than 140 characters is awkward and will in newest-tweets-first Twitter applications always result in a broken reading experience. It is ill-suited for human dialogue because we don’t express ourselves at tweet lengths and we don’t hear responses first. Life is not Jeopardy! and it is not a coincidence that most messaging applications put newest messages at the bottom.

So why doesn’t Twitter raise the limit? I can only speculate, but I believe there are other benefits to Twitter beyond the limit’s role in Twitter’s brand. Longer text simply requires more effort from writer and readers and makes the platform less engaging thus hurting both of the stated Twitter’s goals.

Twitter does not use time much as a design tool beyond a core belief that real time is the right time to deliver a message and that delivered messages should be displayed in the opposite order they were sent which at some point will practically guarantee broken narratives and constant change of topic.

Most of us can’t effectively multitask because we can’t quickly switch contexts. We cognitively suffer when we try and reading tweets from unconnected authors in order in which they came is really just multitasking at high speed. There is no reason to believe that we listen as well and care as much as we would if our focus would not be constantly drawn to the next thing. Ability to listen fully and steadily is a difficult skill to develop, but quick to atrophy on Twitter.

Twitter may tolerate a moderate use of its platform, but certainly does not want it. It will keep suggesting new people to follow no matter how many you already do to keep the stream of tweets from ever drying up. Without them you don’t have a reason to constantly check your phone for new tweets and fewer reasons to post your own.

The other face of broadcasting is building up your audience which is how you’ll eventually see your followers once you get enough of them to not know many. And ever so helpful Twitter is here to get you to this point as quickly as possible.

First it provides a crude privacy model in which either everything is private or nothing is (ignoring direct messages that are irrelevant for this article). This not so gentle nudge to make output public is further supported by ubiquitous leader boards tracking followers, retweets and favourites, constantly reminding us of everyone’s standing and relying on our vanity to improve it. None of these would need to be so prominent if what really mattered was sharing and chatting with your friends. Putting a scorecard on our every utterance makes sense only if its most important feature is their popularity.

Hoarding followers and followees has another negative effect beside making already described ones worse. For historical reasons and because of web app limitations twitterers often use just one account, so subscribing to it conflates all author’s interests into one stream and while not merging different communities, it certainly exposes them more without them having much say in it. This, together with stilted expression, reduced comprehension and empathy, on a platform that promotes making an instant idiot of yourself in pursuit of recognition is, in my opinion, an important contributing factor to many heated arguments.

In closing

This is not an exhaustive list of issues I have with Twitter, not even important ones (e.g. obtuseness of relying on any one source for important information). Much of what I said is not unique to this service but a lot of it feels more excessive here. What makes it different is the platform’s growing presence and influence in our society by its successful co-opting of promoters in us. Doubtless there is a lot of good that happens on Twitter or because of it, but the platform is also bringing out the worst in us and I find its damaging effects more substantial.

Writing this article reminded me of a larger point I have not made before or not often enough. Technology is not morally neutral or unipolar let alone inherently positive and it frustrates me that discussions often try to cast it thus. As a practising technologist I am obviously not a Luddite, but neither do I assume that everything I am able to make is good even when made with best intentions. Our creations shape what we do, how we do it and even who we are and should therefore be critically examined for what they do for and to us.

As tools transform us and our societies I find pining for previous times unproductive, but I do not subscribe to technological determinism. We used freons for decades, but were perfectly capable of finding suitable replacements when we realised that our fridges would eventually fry us. But we did have to first realise and accept that.

* The title of this post was borrowed from the already linked article written by Leon Wieseltier.

  1. I know there are other clients. Well, mostly were. Twitter has been very open with their intention of eventually replacing all of them with theirs which already is the only one that matters.
  2. Another thing Twitter is not trying to hide. Twitter analytics could hardly sound more marketing oriented and Twitter’s homepage is all about following, not creating.
  3. There’s a transcript and while I usually prefer written word, in this case I would recommend to invest 20 minutes into watching the original video.
  4. Since we can’t control which tweets will be seen by whom and which won’t, it is impossible in the long term to really shape their overall perception unless they are sufficiently dehumanised or we consistently act out only one persona.
  5. Corollary of this is that it makes no sense to rely on a purportedly time-saving services whose revenue mostly comes from advertising.

40

Pole dancing room in Ice Hotel 2014

I became 40 while I was sleeping on a slab of ice, which could be seen as a reminder of things to come when I am hopefully at least twice as old. I used to think 40 is the age where you finally need to give up on the idea of being young and that this would make it an important milestone for me. It didn’t.

My birthday trip is coming to an end and with it my conscious effort of figuring out what it means to be 40. So far it looks exactly like late thirties. Of course I am growing older. My health is still fine and I can do what I did at 20, except I now know some of the problems I will have if I live long enough. Wounds heal more slowly and muscles hurt a day later than before.

To actually see and feel the changes I need to compare myself with me at a platypus age of 30. 20 year olds are getting younger and finally look as young to me as I do old to them. I am not confused anymore about how my age is perceived. Greyer head and deeper lines on my face took care of that, but physical changes are not yet important.

The biggest difference for me was changing my priorities. My work is still important to me, but not as important as people I love. I will never be my father, but I am finally becoming more like my memory of him.

I have heard it many times, but rarely observed, that getting a child betters a man by giving him something more important than himself. My wife has done that for me and latching on to her was the best thing I have ever done for myself. I can’t think of a positive change in me or my life that happened without her help.

Changed focus does not mean that my ambitions have become smaller, but I am fine with not achieving most of them. Wanting approval, let alone seeking recognition beyond my intimate circle now also seems silly.

There’s a direct parallel between my development as a developer and as a person. I don’t feel inept anymore, but the more I learn, the less important most issues and technologies become. However remaining important ones I likely see even as more important than before. Everyone should feel strongly about something.

By this age most of us will discover that a lot of the stuff we didn’t want to believe when we were younger is nevertheless true and that we are not as special as we hoped or even thought. There’s a new found freedom when you stop beating yourself for things you won’t be or do and that freedom can then be used to do the things, that you can do, better. Which is what I am doing now.

The books I read in 2013

My plan for 2013 was to read more foreign literature which I guess I did since I read no Slovenian author. However that was not what I meant. I meant more books from authors translated into English (so not “Anglo-saxon”). I did a few, but not as many as I thought. Still, it was a very gratifying reading year with no real misses and only few less satisfying picks.

I read fewer than I hoped and more than I expected even few months ago when I noticed how poorly does my reading mix with my programming. Nexus 7 tablet I bought in the beginning of the year certainly helped with reading electronic books, but I still enjoy it less than paper. The upside is the ease of finding notes which would be even better if they were easily exportable and creating them wasn’t such a hassle.

As always unaffiliated links point to Amazon and are there only for those that are at least fine. Bold is reserved for those I found best: This House, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Embers, River Town: Two Years on Yangtze, Chimerica, Decline and Fall and The Fall of the Stone City.

  1. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert. A book on constructivist approach to learning written for educators which for me was sometimes a bit of a challenge. Makes a persuasive case for at least a modified approach to learning (wasn’t won over completely) and did provide some intriguing possibilities for my work.
  2. Midnight in Peking by Paul French. Similar to The Suspicions of Mr. Whitcher. A gripping, well researched story about an “unsolved” horrendous murder that vividly brings to life Peking long gone.
  3. This House by James Graham. Great and very funny drama about 1974 UK hung parliament that I wish I could see in theater.
  4. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte. I bought this book because I wanted to understand why some places in my neighborhood work so much better than others. The book is easy to read, short, but packed with useful information and I can’t recommend it enough.
  5. Django 1.1 Testing and Debugging by Karen M. Tracey. Book has some flaws: 50$ price on Amazon, sometimes too much details, obsolete Django 1.1. Nevertheless I would recommend it since it does provide a very good and mostly still relevant introduction to this topic.
  6. My Brother and His Brother by Hakan Lindquist. A warm and sad love story about a boy discovering life and personality of brother he never knew. Recommended.
  7. Two Scoops of Django: Best Practices for Django 1.5 by Daniel Greenfeld, Audrey Roy. I read this book in alpha and beta form, but can nevertheless heartily recommend it to every Django developer. It gives you something to think about even when you disagree, but you’ll learn plenty too.
  8. Embers by Sándor Márai. An engrossing book about passion and betrayal for those drawn more to meditations on nature of human life than surprising turn of events. A masterpiece even in double translation (from Hungarian via German).
  9. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art by Steve McConnell. A must-read book on software estimation for every developer. I just wish it had more to say about challenges of estimation in agile environments.
  10. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. A witty book about pleasures and downsides of reading. Good fun for bookworms.
  11. Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer. Investigative journalism at its best. Look at (mal)practice of Central Asia Institute and its founder. Unlikely to be interesting to those who’ve never heard of it.
  12. The Accessibility Handbook by Katie Cunningham. This fairly short book has a few minor errors, but it is packed with information and should be required reading for every web developer.
  13. Bandit Algorithms for Website Optimization by John Myles White. If you do A/B testing, but don’t know what bandit algorithms are, then this short, practical and well-written book will noticeably improve your work.
  14. River Town: Two Years on Yangtze by Peter Hessler. A wonderfully alive and sensitive depiction of life in small China town that might change how you see China. Couldn’t put it down.
  15. The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky. I completely disagree with the review on Amazon. This would be a very good book even if its author wasn’t 21 when she wrote it. Certainly not sentimental, but also not a overly judgemental look at life of a doomed affair.
  16. PADI Open Water Diver Manual by . Lots of good information, but poorly organized with bunch of infomercial crap at the back. Still much better than cretinous videos and definitely helps to pass the exam.
  17. The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye. If you have a literal sort of mind, then don’t skip Toni Morisson’s introduction. Beautifully written, still relevant and not completely understood by me.
  18. What Happened to Art Criticism by James Elkins. Book that reads like listening to dinner polemic. Still insightful look into why modern art criticism satisfies few, but a bit evasive at times. Did not resolve my problems with modern art.
  19. Porting to Python 3: An in-depth guide by Lennart Regebro. An encouragingly short book on the topic that still feels complete. Made me want to make my code Python3 compatible.
  20. Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Read it after I accidentally saw the movie which I surprisingly (to me at least) liked a lot. The book and the movie are really two takes on the same story, both standing on their own, but I liked the movie a bit better. The book is much darker and not for the squeamish.
  21. Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood. I bought this book after I’ve seen this remarkable play and it is equally impactful when “just” read. Can’t recommend strongly enough.
  22. Monsters by Niklas Radstrom. Short drama about unfathomable tragedy when children kill a child and the complicity of non-involvement we are guilty of.
  23. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh. 85 years old satire of British society that is sadly relevant and very funny.
  24. Testable Javascript by Mark Ethan Trostler. A book with (I think) slightly incorrect title. I wish ratio between explaining how to test Javascript and how to set up environment was more in favor of the former, but still good book to read on the subject.
  25. The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare. Complex and rich tale of power, dictatorship and integrity. Just read it.
  26. Books by Charlie Hill. Satire on literary culture and modern art which would be better if characters were not simply 2D archetypes (as I am certain author intended). Often really funny if you share author’s view (which I do).
  27. Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett. Does not have subtlety and surprise of his best work, but still funny and enjoyable especially for long time fans with tons of references and favorite characters (not granny though).

This year I expect to read fewer than 20 since I would really really like to build a couple of things I’ve been postponing for years now. Hopefully it will be a good mix of foreign literature and tech books and is also about time I read something substantial in Slovenian.

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