Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Behavioural Science Links and Updates: Twexit Edition

Below is a very long way of saying I will be posting links and updates here for the next while.

I am not sure what to make of the recent twitter take-over. The owner now seems to have full control over all aspects of the operations and is progressing a highly chaotic review of how the platform will work. I don't want to participate in something like that, at least for now. Participating in all social media, including this one I am posting on now, involves complex ethical calculations and, even before the takeover, it was getting increasingly tricky to see how much the platform needs heated engagement to be financially sustainable. 

Most basically, the tone the owner is setting is not something I want to be part of. It is not simply a matter of blocking the person. He is regularly updating on what might be transformative shifts to the platform so he is going to have a major role in setting the overall vibe. Constant shit-posting and goading of people is just bizarre behaviour and a feature of the overall world that I am amazed to see so prevalent.  I am worried that it is going to make co-operation between large groups of people increasingly difficult and at a basic level don't want to support someone like that. Anyone who has had to deal with narcissists off-line will know the fight-or-flight responses it generates.  Relatedly, it feels repugnant that one person can simply take control of a platform in such an obnoxious way. The current owner did not cause the circumstances that led to that happening but maybe he has given us a very salient wake-up call as to the problems of the public sphere being so fragile. 

The owner has obviously been very successful in other areas of life. I am  agnostic as to whether he can find a sustainable business model for the platform. A model where more people pay and folks that create particularly valuable things are remunerated doesn't sound crazy but I have absolutely no idea whether it can work on a platform where freedom of use has been a feature. Given the type of people he is interacting with and other things he has been interested in, it seems likely that cryptocurrencies in some guise will be part of the future model. One thing that is interesting is whether twitter develops significantly improved technology, including enhanced filter and edit capacities etc., I don't know whether general dislike or distrust of the owner and backers will stop people from engaging in a better technology. Popular resistance to technology changes is an interesting area to think about in terms of how this plays out. 

In terms of my own use of twitter, I guess the "golden age" was the period just after the financial crisis where many people adopted the forum and the style was quite conversational. The most useful professional function was using it to build a global research network particularly when we built our research group in Stirling. During lockdown and during two periods of moving from Ireland to UK I found twitter a way of keeping broadly in the loop with people. I have not posted very frequently in the last 18 months or so but it still feels valuable to have connections to former colleagues, students, and people in the broad networks I am involved with.  

In the last few years, it was a shock to see the amount of racist and authoritarian material constantly floating around. In general, the site became harder to relate to on a personal level and a lot of the posts started to feel contrived. Even on points where you find yourself broadly agreeing, the tone of a lot of tweets started to feel like talking points that had been pre-tested to gain emotional engagement, or that "the algorithm" itself was pushing people who had high degrees of certainty and valence about their topics. Also twitter's default mode of showing you "top tweets" meant you were often seeing talking point tweets that had been liked by other users or even posted by people that other connected users were following, frequently resulting in a sense of being overwhelmed by the noise of conversations you didn't agree to be part of. With ruthless use of the mute button, and regularly resetting your settings to chronological mode, it was still possible up to recently to produce a feed consisting of people you were learning something from and interested to hear from. Something like that is still something that a lot of people, including me, want to continue in some form. 

On broader level, I think there is a pretty urgent question for many bodies that broker to some degree in trust. Obviously there is a massive discussion happening with corporations, in particular twitter advertisers, over how twitter will protect brands in the context of the upheaval. Less discussed is whether things like universities, health agencies, public authorities, etc., should continue to participate on a platform where the owner has not yet given any serious idea on how things like fake accounts spreading obvious disinformation will be addressed. It could, in any case, be a time for different bodies to think about social media strategies. In the case of universities, is it now really the case that every university should have a verified twitter account?  

It would also be good to understand more about potential winners and losers if there is a large shift in the composition of twitter users, including in cases where it moves into decline. How many people, outside of twitter employees themselves (who I feel sympathetic toward and hope do well), rely on the platform to make a living? How many need it for basic types of expression and co-ordination that are not possible through other platforms? Are there people who particularly rely on the platform to avoid social isolation? Are there particularly serious cases emerging? At a low level, I feel guilty about losing the ability to offer encouragement to earlier career colleagues. Even something simple as liking a post about a new job or paper felt at least somewhat like creating the idea of a community of people who are broadly supportive. Instinctively, I think graduate students and early career researchers are the most resourceful when it comes to technology trends though and I expect them to find lots of ways to fulfil functions such as professional networking, corridor talk, structured procrastination. Even without the current takeover, it is probably no harm to shake it up as twitter had certainly lost any of the sense of excitement that was there in its earlier days. 

It has been an interesting time to think about alternatives. Many people in my networks have set up mastodon accounts, including me ( I am happy to try this out and keep an open mind on where it might go. For academia, it seems to me that Linkedin is a fairly obvious focal point for things like job postings, events, etc., For those of us mildly addicted to the general chatter of twitter, Linkedin doesn't offer a substitute for that and it will be interesting to see whether people stick with and/or generally drift back to twitter, or whether something else becomes a focal point. I will be posting here for now and figuring out how to keep in touch with people. 

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