Essays on Technology and Culture

iPad-only is the New Desktop Linux… For Now

The new hotness is no longer going iPad only. Now, all the cool kids are writing missives about how the iPad can’t be their only computer. Okay, that’s a more dismissive than I mean to be about Watts Martin’s excellent Medium piece on trying to do his work on the iPad, especially since I’m typing this on a Mac. He makes some great points about file handling and interoperability with the legacy PC world. Going iOS only is feasible, but only if you have the infrastructure to support it in your line of work. If you desperately need to use the Track Changes feature in Word, well, don’t plan on going iOS only just yet.

What I’d like to do, instead, is discuss the difference between the iOS and iPad ecosystem and the world of desktop Linux. First a caveat: while I have used Linux as my primary operating system, I am a decade removed from that whole scene. I ditched Linux for the Mac in 2006, and have never looked back. Well, okay, I’ve looked back once or twice, enough to know that my experience with Linux in the early 2000s is not accurate to the experience someone would have in 2016. That said, some aspects of Linux have not changed in the intervening ten years, and its those aspects that make all the difference here.

The history of iOS has been the slow re-development of the GUI-based computer from first principles. From the original iPad and iOS in 2010, the past six years have seen an incremental inclusion of the features we take for granted with modern desktop operating systems. You can argue about whether this was the plan all along, but you can’t deny it’s happening. iOS on the iPad now has multitasking, rudimentary multi-user support for education, the start of a user-accessible file system via iCloud, improved inter-app communication, and even the first steps towards a native development environment. However slow it’s been, the forward momentum of development makes me think that in a few more years, we’ll have an iPad and an iOS that addresses most of Martin’s complaints.

Linux, on the other hand, is design-by-committee. There’s a million ways to do everything, and no unified vision for the operating system above the kernel level. There’s distributions focused on usability for the desktop, and development on open source Linux consumer applications that have almost perfect feature parity with their Windows and Mac counterparts. Despite all of this, and people proclaiming every year since 1998 as “The Year of Linux on the Desktop” it’s yet to happen. And I have my doubts it will beyond the niche of computer geeks who are into that sort of thing and/or are frugal on hardware and software. That’s not to say Linux doesn’t have a place. It’s part of the infrastructure of the Internet, and it’s not going anywhere. Linux, in a pure form, as a desktop OS, however, is not likely to happen in the next few years. And it won’t happen as the underpinning of ChromeOS either.

Maybe the future isn’t everyone with 10” and 13” slabs of glass as their primary computing device, but I maintain that it’s still far too early to tell. Right now, the consensus seems to be that big changes to iOS for the iPad will come in the Spring. Whatever changes Apple brings will make doing “real work” easier and faster. In a few more years, I fully expect a native development environment in time, perhaps once Swift is streamlined a bit more. The iPad and iOS keep making slow, steady strides towards being a new way of computing. Linux, on the other hand, continues to be itself, a powerful tool that can be used as a desktop operating system if you want, but unlikely to make any additional inroads into people’s homes except as the foundation of an Internet of Things device. And I also don’t think the Mac or traditional PC will ever go away either.

Randi Harper on the Problem with Verified on Twitter

Abuse filters are a lot like anti-spam. They look for patterns in data. When I’m creating rules for filtering abuse in my own software, I look at a combination things like account date creation, if the profile pic is still the default, who the person interacts with, if that person interacts with people I’ve got blocked, who they follow, how many tweets they’ve sent, how many of their tweets are retweets versus original content, etc. It’s a huge list, and it creates a risk score. Any one or two or three of these things isn’t enough to get you caught by my anti-abuse filters, but a combination of many means I won’t have to see your tweets. As I was building out this system, many things became clear. While some mob harassment shares very distinct characteristics, this is generally limited to abuse that exists within communities on Twitter.

The problem with Verified on Twitter

Verification is only one, small, tool out of many that needs to be in place for Twitter to protect its users from abuse. This is the sort of thing Twitter’s team would know and understand if solving abuse was a priority. Anyone who thinks being verified would be a panacea for the abuse problem on Twitter, (like a certain Mr. Calacanis) would do well to give Randi’s well-considered post a read.

The Failed Experiment of Open Social Media

It’s time we admit that the era of open-by-default social media is an experiment on the verge of failure. It’s not that people don’t want to have a public persona, but they want it to be a broadcast medium open to responses from selected friends. Nobody wants to be accessible to every jerk with an account and a grudge. Without a strong, active—and expensive—human moderation team, any digital space where people can directly contact anyone else is at risk of becoming an open sewer of abuse. And when the tools provided to end-users manage those communications are toothless, the situation can only get worse.

There are three major public and open-by-default social networks currently: Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. Of these three, Tumblr and Instagram two have some protections against abuse. Instagram is actively moderated, and has the advantage of being a visual medium, which makes abuse a bit harder to commit. Tumblr has had a handful of high-profile harassment and abuse cases, but is typically a safer, and more limited, space than Twitter. Twitter’s problems are numerous, and beyond the scope of this piece. For a sampling, just look at my last few essays and links. Or just read Randi Harper.

Considering that conflict, harassment, and abuse are par for the course on open-by-default networks, it’s not a surprise more people are moving towards closed networks. The geeks have their private Slack channels, the kids have Snapchat, and Facebook… is Facebook. Facebook is semi-public by default, but easy enough to lock your profile down so that your content can only be seen by friends. You won’t see anyone in your Facebook News Feed unless you friend them, or they’re a friend of a friend. This means you have significantly less risk of being attacked, spammed, or deal with any of the garbage that infests Twitter.

Open-by-default social networks operate under the assumption that all speech should be treated equally, and that equal access means a level playing field. All one needs to do is take a look at the people most likely to be the victims of abuse and harassment online to see that this is far from the case. Women, minorities, and LGBTQ people all face significantly more online harassment than the white men who make up the leadership and technical staff of most social networks. It’s been documented time and again that abuse leads to a chilling effect where victims of abuse lose their freedom of speech, because speech means they risk violence. When that’s the choice, who can blame someone for choosing a smaller, closed network of safe people.

The downside of closed-by-default networks is that they make positive network effects harder, if not impossible. In my personal experience, I have made some wonderful friends through Twitter that I doubt I would ever have made in a more private space. It’s a criticism that echoes the sentiment of a number of geeky types who live in private Slack channels. Still, unless the toxic elements of the open-by-default social network are brought under some semblance of control, many people are willing to give up the openness and connections for personal security. But doing so is expensive—financially, technologically, and emotionally.

Whatever way you want to look at it, it’s clear that the lack of controls and moderation of Twitter is proving to be a mistake. It seems obvious in retrospect, like so many other ideas. Perhaps in the brief days when Monthly Active Users were in the five-to-six digit range, it wasn’t a mistake, though Charlie Warzel’s reporting says otherwise. Perhaps we’re just not meant to have open, unfettered, unmoderated access to each other all the time. Twitter has been an interesting experiment in human nature, but like all experiments, its time has passed. The hypothesis has been proven false. Let’s take the lessons we’ve learned and build something better. Hopefully that better thing will come soon, before we all decamp back to App.Net.

Charlie Warzel – “A Honeypot for Assholes”

This maximalist approach to free speech was integral to Twitter’s rise, but quickly created the conditions for abuse. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, which have always banned content and have never positioned themselves as platforms for free speech, Twitter has made an ideology out of protecting its most objectionable users. That ethos also made it a beacon for the internet’s most vitriolic personalities, who take particular delight in abusing those who use Twitter for their jobs. This spring, the Not Just Sports podcast posted video of sports fans reading a sampling of the hateful tweets that the sportswriters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro received while writing and reporting. The video amassed over 3.5 million views on YouTube. Its message: This level of depravity is commonplace on Twitter.

Charlie Warzel – “A Honeypot For Assholes”: Inside Twitter’s 10-Year Failure To Stop Harassment

Scathing. This only confirms my theory that Twitter’s apathy on abuse and harassment is baked into the company’s culture, and that the teams responsible for fixing the problem are rendered powerless because of it. I’m starting to suspect that the only solutions for Twitter’s endless harassment problem are either a new service with anti-harassment baked in from the start, or for Twitter to be bought out and its executive staff replaced.

Neither option seems likely to me.

Why Would Anyone Invest in Twitter Now?

I typically don’t care for the financial side of the tech industry. As long as the companies I patronize make enough money to keep making the products and running the services I use every day, the specifics of the profits and loss statements for the quarter don’t matter to me. Let alone the damn stock price. Maybe if I had enough money to play the markets, that would change, but it’s doubtful.

But one company did announce earnings yesterday that caught my attention—Twitter. Their revenue is down, their monthly active users have plateaued, and their stock price has responded in kind.

Is this a surprise to anyone? Twitter’s revenue is dependent on advertisers, and user growth is dependent on a positive view of the company. Right now, Twitter has a whole lot of neither, right now, owing in no small part to Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones’s very public experience with abuse on Twitter. This itself is just another example of the endless harassment problem on Twitter that first blew up with GamerGate, but goes back far longer than that.

What advertiser would sign on to have their message run on a network that has the valid perception of being loaded with abuse and harassment? Even Twitter’s in-house solution for its users to buy promotion on the platform has no abuse oversight. Early on, noted neo-Nazi troll weev managed to get a white supremacist message into a promoted tweet. After opening the account verification process to users, a phishing scam managed to get a promoted tweet through. At least it’s not just abusers Twitter doesn’t care about.

Sarah Jeong, in her excellent book The Internet of Garbage, made a point that resonates hard in the recent Twitter news:

When people are invested in the community, the community will police and enforce norms, but when unrepentant bad actors are never banished or are able to reproduce their presence at an alarming rate (sockpuppeting), community trust and investment will evaporate.

I don’t trust Twitter, and a growing number of people in my timeline feel the same way. And there’s no shortage of people posting ways in which Twitter can improve. It’s practically a cottage industry. So far, after two years of promises, Twitter has barely made even the tiniest dent in the problem, and I’m counting banning Milo as part of that.

We haven’t up and left yet, but I’ve seen grumblings. I created a new account on App.Net, not because I’m worried Twitter is going to go under or get bought out… just to get ahead of the exodus if it happens again.

What has happened is advertisers are showing they want nothing to do with Twitter’s nonsense. Without new users and without advertisers, Twitter is dead in the water. And nobody is likely to pay for a moribund service with an abuse problem and declining revenues. Well, maybe Verizon.

Maybe, just maybe, a crashing stock price combined with the bad press over Leslie Jones’s harassment will be enough to either get Jack Dorsey to make fixing Twitter’s harassment problem a priority. I have my doubts. At this point, the apathy and disdain for dealing with abuse at Twitter is embedded in the culture.

Those in the community around preventing online abuse who have connections at Twitter say there are people there who do carer and are working hard. I don’t doubt it. I just doubt the ability of Twitter’s corporate bureaucracy to let them do their work and make the changes so desperately needed to make Twitter a useful platform again.

I want to be proven wrong. And so do many, many other Twitter users.