My new year’s resolution was to give up on reading Twitter and Facebook

My new year’s resolution was to give up on reading Twitter and Facebook, by Joel Spolsky.

Since I design social software for a living I feel like I should have a professional opinion on why Twitter and Facebook made me unhappy.

Twitter:

I used Twitter to keep in touch with friends and colleagues because I cared about them. Unfortunately, those friends mostly didn’t use Twitter to share happy news and tell me how things were going. They used Twitter for bumper sticker flame wars. These were not the thoughtful long essays on blogs of yesteryear. …

Yeah, I get it, this 140 character limitation was just a historical accident, and now it’s 280 characters anyway, and you can always make a Twitter Story, but the flame wars on Twitter emerged from the fact that we’ve taken a medium, text, which is already bad at conveying emotion and sentiment and high-bandwidth nuance, and made it even worse, and the net result is a lot of outrage and indignation.

The outrage and indignation, of course, are what makes it work. That’s what keeps you coming back. Oooh shade. Oooh flamewar. We rubberneckers can’t keep our eyes off of it. I don’t know what the original idea of Twitter was, but it succeeded because of natural selection. In a world where the tech industry was cranking out millions of dumb little social applications, this one happens to limit messages to 140 characters and that happens to create, unintentionally, a subtlety-free indignation machine, which is addictive as heck, so this is the one that survives and thrives and becomes a huge new engine of polarization and anger. …

Facebook:

Facebook quickly copied Twitter’s idea of the “feed” as a mechanism to keep you coming back compulsively. But whereas Twitter sort of stumbled upon addictiveness through the weird 140-character limit, Facebook mixed a new, super-potent active ingredient into their feed called Machine Learning. They basically said, “look, we are not going to show everybody every post,” and they used the new Midas-style power of machine learning and set it in the direction of getting people even more hyper-addicted to the feed.

The only thing the ML algorithm was told to care about was addiction, or, as they called it, engagement. They had a big ol’ growth team that was trying different experiments and a raw algorithm that was deciding what to show everybody and the only thing it cared about was getting you to come back constantly.

Now, this algorithm, accidentally, learned something interesting — something that dog trainers have always known. …

Rather than providing a constant stream of satisfying news and engagement with friends, Facebook’s algorithm had learned to give me a bunch of junk I didn’t need to hear, and only gave me intermittent rewards through the occasional useful nugget of information about friends. Once in a blue moon I would hear about a friend’s accomplishment or I would find out that someone I like is going to be in town.

The rest of the time I would just get the kind of garbage newspaper clippings … 9 of out 10 things in my feed are complete garbage — last week’s newspaper lining the birdcage with the droppings already on it — but then once every two weeks I find out my niece is engaged or my best friend got a great new job or my oldest friend is in town and I should make plans to hang out. And now no matter how full the Facebook feed is of bird droppings I still have to keep going back. …

Twitter and Facebook:

Both Twitter and Facebook’s selfish algorithms, optimized solely for increasing the number of hours I spend on their services, are kind of destroying civil society at the same time. Researchers also discovered that the algorithms served to divide up the world into partisan groups.

So even though I was following hundreds of people on social networks, I noticed that the political pieces which I saw were nevertheless directionally aligned with my own political beliefs. But to be honest they were much… shriller.

Every day the Twitter told me about something that The Other Side did that was Outrageous and Awful (or, at least, this was reported), and everyone was screeching in sync and self-organizing in a lynch mob, and I would have to click LIKE or RETWEET just to feel like I had done something about it, but I hadn’t actually done anything about it. I had just slacktivated.

hat-tip Matthew