Weeks after Elon Musk took possession of Twitter and proceeded to tweet fast and break things, this Scientific American article by Joe Bak-Coleman offers a general theory of why it’s going so badly: social networks are complex systems rather than complicated ones.
On a social network, interactions between individuals create dizzying feedback loops and chaotic interactions that render simple mathematical models next-to-useless for predicting the future, let alone controlling it. Musk’s gamble is that applying his tinkering philosophy to Twitter will take him where no one has gone before: ownership of a large, healthy and profitable social network. The problem is that, unlike the moon or Mars, we have no idea how to get there—and that’s a challenge that engineering fixes cannot solve.
I saw this linked from Mastodon, where I (and now a pretty large fraction of my former Twitter network) have taken refuge. People there are generally passing it around in the spirit of schadenfreude that imbues most discussion of Twitter in the “Fediverse” distributed social network. However, I don’t see much awareness that what Bak-Coleman identifies as a problem for Musk running Twitter is also a problem for a network of mostly volunteer admins running Fediverse-connected Mastodon instances: we don’t actually know how design and moderation decisions will ultimately add up to create the decentralized social network we’re all using now.
The science fiction novel Ender’s Game is best remembered for its primary plot, about a genius child who leads Earth’s forces to genocidal victory against aliens; but it also has a secondary plot line that seems, in retrospect, terrifyingly prescient. While the protagonist Ender is learning to become the greatest space-general in history, his near-equally-gifted pre-teen brother and sister, left behind on Earth, take up politics. Peter and Valentine set up pseudonyms on a global online message board and spar theatrically, building competing followings and eventually real-world political influence. By the novel’s end Peter has leveraged his online clout into the leadership of a worldwide government.
I read Ender’s Game in the mid-1990s, when it was truly science fictional to imagine the whole world connected in a single messaging system, much less using devices portable enough to carry in a backpack. By 2004, my final year of undergrad, I acquired a bulky Dell laptop which was, most excitingly, capable of using the wifi network that had just been installed in my campus apartment complex — and I’d already gone from a hand-coded HTML personal website to a series of blogs hosted on the most obvious choice, Blogger.com. Multiple of those blogs were social affairs, shared with friends, but their connection to people elsewhere on the Internet was entirely mediated by individual “<a href=” hyperlinks. Midway through graduate school, I accepted responsibility for building a website for a conference to be hosted by my home department, and decided to try embedding a new messaging platform I’d heard about: Twitter.
Word is that Twitter is selling out to Elon Musk, whose (speculated) plans for the platform are not especially encouraging. On the one hand, Twitter privately owned by a “free-speech absolutist” may not be appreciably less pleasant for a person like me than Twitter as a publicly traded company with some nominal interest in the experience of users besides Elon Musk. On the other hand, this is as good an excuse as any to take a step back and see if I can, finally, log off.
I’m not deleting my account — not yet — but I’m going to see if I can’t get back to something like my online behavior from the era before Twitter was my first social login of the day. Way back in the Obama administration, I posted to this blog (actually, its incarnation on, yikes, Blogger) multiple times a week. I didn’t break my thoughts up into pithy little snippets, or plan longer discussions in strings of 280-character sentences. I just … wrote.
Late last week I happened to notice that I was following something like 1,400 accounts on Twitter. That seems like … a lot? So I decided to start pruning the list a little. I like Twitter for interactions with other scientists and science-y folks, for discovering new ideas and results and news, and for its overall global water cooler aspect. So with that in mind, I’ve decided to triage who I follow along these lines:
I’m only going to follow accounts that actually update regularly. Because otherwise, what’s the point?
I’m prioritizing accounts belonging to people I know personally.
In many cases, I was following both the official account for publications or organizations and accounts belonging to their staffers/contributors—and I’d get tweets about the same stuff from each. Given the choice, I’d rather follow individual people than organizations; Mark Joseph Stern over Outward.
I’m prioritizing scientists, particularly those in my field.
I’m blanket-unfollowing politicians and political organizations. I read the news; I don’t need links to press releases and official statements in my Twitter feed. And if they tweet something genuinely interesting, I should see it re-tweeted from the “real” people I follow.
I’m blanket-unfollowing parody and joke accounts. Yes, it’s funny to read the latest management tips from Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but I really don’t need a regular drip of them in my feed. As with political feeds, I’m now relying on the actual human beings I follow to show me the best stuff from these accounts.
I’m unfollowing any account if, when it comes up on my feed, I can’t remember the last time I clicked on one of its posts (unless the account falls into one of the priority lists above).
Twitter doesn’t provide any useful way to sort through a, let’s face it, ridiculously long list of account names based on anything other than the order in which I followed them, so I’ve been casting about for a third-party system. The interface at Tweepi is somewhat balky, but it does let me sort the list by how recently each account was updated, which is useful. I’m also simply keeping an eye on my main feed, and unfollowing whenever I see something that doesn’t meet the triage conditions. So far I’m down to … 1,169.◼