Twitter Abuse Solution Sketches

Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick. – Clive James

So a particularly nasty bout of threatening, possibly illegal, abuse against Caroline Criado-Perez triggered a petition asking for a report abuse button. Brooke Magnanti counters with examples of how this, and a twitter boycott, may be unproductive; its insightful in itself, and as former Belle Du Jour she does have an interesting angle on pseudonymity and publishing.
So this is society’s pathology, mediated by technology, and because Twitter is pretty neat, mediated in real time and connecting strangers at massive scale. It’s Larry Niven’s Flash Crowd of course, taken to its fastest immaterial instantiation. There are slow hard things to change about human society to make it less awful. The petition is right, though, in that technology got us into this specific version of the problem and there are surely smarter technical things to limit it, but it’s worth noting that right now no-one actually knows what they are. So here’s a few design assumptions and speculations, in the hope it sparks ideas in others.

Parameters / Assumptions
Manual abuse reporting is a deliberate usability choice. It makes you think about the accusation of abuse, and will place a premium on a coherent case. Abuse reporting is judicial and needs due process. It’s probably also rational laziness by Twitter: at small scales this is the cheapest solution to implement.
Adding structure is adding due process, but it’s also institutionalising abuse. At uni, I broke my right arm in a soccer game. I had a lecturer in rationality at the time who noted that soccer had incorporated a whole system of breaking the rules into the game itself, with yellow / red cards. That then motivates the entire diving substructure (pretending to be injured or fouled to get advantage). As in soccer, so in Twitter: all systems will be gamed, especially judicial ones. This effect manifests right down to the amount of structure you put on the report abuse form. Each element narrows the likely scope of human judgement; an abuse form also describes the sort of thing that might be considered abuse.
Human review is needed – with tools that scale. I don’t know any Twitter employees, so this is speculation, but it sounds like it is just reading emails and kicking individuals at this point.
The criminal justice system is needed, and shouldn’t be outsourced to a corporation. This part will be slow. Write to your government, but also keep in mind a certain slowness is a side effect of due process.

Use data visualization to analyse abuse events rapidly and at scale. Using new data views to augment human judgement is a digital humanities problem. Require one example tweet in form submission. The abuse support person needs to be able to rapidly see the extent and intensity of the abuse. To facilitate this, when they open an abuse ticket, they should be able to see the offending tweet, the conversation it happened in, and all of the user and reporters twitter network. This consists of followers, people followed, people replied to, people mentioned, people mentioning, people using the same hashtag. They can view much of this as a literal graph. All this can be pre-calculated and shown as soon as the ticket is open without any automated intervention in the tweets themselves. Show ngrams of word frequencies in reported tweets. In the recent example, they aren’t subtle. Allow filtering by time window.
Rank tickets in an automated way and relate to other abuse tickets. The time of the abuse team is limited, but the worst events are flash mobs. Make it easy to see when network-related abuse events are occurring by showing and linking abuse reports in the graph visualization above. Identify cliques implicated in abuse events, in the social and graph-theoretic senses. Probably once an abuse mechanism is established, there will be events where both sides are reporting abuse: make it easy to see that. And yes, show when identified users are involved – but don’t ditch pseudonymity as an account option.
Allow action on a subgraph, slowdowns and freezes. Up until now we have just described readonly tools. Through the same graphical view, identify subgraphs to be acted on. Allow operators to enforce slowdowns in tweeting – the tweet is still sent, but after a number of minutes or hours. The advantage of being able to set say one minute is it will be less obvious investigation is going on. A freeze is a halt on posting until further notice. The operator can choose to freeze or slowdown any dimension of the graph – eg a hashtag, or all people who posted on that tag, or all people in a clique replying to certain users with a certain word. This is similar to a stock exchange trading halt. This has to be a manual action because its based on human judgement and linguistic interpretation. Finally allow account deletion, but not as a mass action.
Capture and export all this data for use by a law enforcement agency you are willing to collaborate with.
Open the API and share at least some of the toolset source so people can get perspective on the shape of an attack when it happens. And of course, don’t do this at once – start with simple read only monitoring and iterate rapidly. Remember that the system will be gamed. Keep the poets out of gaol.

Link From Twitter

Twitter have damaged their phone app by adding a feature. This is a problem software is particularly prone to, so let’s sift through it.

I was surprised to find Twitter useful. It had originally seemed a concentration of the least interesting ingredients of online culture: celebrities wittering moments from their shadow lives in a medium where smalltalk was enforced by a strict character limit. That’s not wrong, but it is incomplete. Twitter can be rendered functional, for me, by following interesting people, who link in depth, and by dropping anyone who emits more than two dozen undirected tweets in a week. 

Despite my faddish embrace of the medium du jour, two of the best discussion groups I am a part of are still closed mailing lists of mutual friends. It is also easy, with mail, to copy other random people that might care. This electronic mail thing really seems to have a future. Someone should look into that.

With this use pattern, and the primacy of the smartphone in a busy life, a fair proportion of the times I find something cool on twitter involves mailing a link.

Until recently, the email composed by twitter consisted of a link, my default signature, and an empty subject. This wasn’t great. Typing a subject, like typing anything on the phone, is a bit of a pain. Blankness is lousy microcontent, a terrible breach of information etiquette for a platform focused on short semantic bursts. Feedly – heck even Safari, dog that it is – at least has the sense to use the title of the web page in question.

Twitter fixed this bug. The latest version of the app sets email subjects to “Link from Twitter” and, as well as the link, adds a note to “Download the official Twitter app here. The fix of course is worse than the bug. Not having a subject just looks careless, like leaving your fly undone. “Link from Twitter” looks like somebody paid you €5 to tattoo an advertisement on your arse and then moon out car windows.

The time spent to delete that guff and replace it with something more meaningful is time wasted. Pretty much anything would be more meaningful to most recipients, who care about what was sent, not how it was sent. The empty subject is better. The subject “lol” would even be better, as at least it tells the audience about the content instead of whether it was sent by carrier pigeon or whichever. This is true even if you drink from the twitter firehouse; then you waste even more time.

If Twitter really thought it was important to squeeze some self-promotion into my email, they would find a way that added to my user experience. Why are people using the tool in the first place? It’s for snippets of content in a social network context. I don’t care that something came from Twitter, but I might care that it came from a particular user on Twitter. Maybe quote the tweet the link originated from, or mention the @user. Maybe link back to that tweet. Maybe I followed a few onward links, and am mailing that, so provide a breadcrumb trail of that history with a chain of vias. Do neat things that bring people into your conversation. Don’t make my email look like a spam. And don’t waste my time.

Seeing Like A Facebook

The insistence on a single, unique, legal identity by Facebook and Google continues a historical pattern of expansion of power through control of the information environment. Consider the historical introduction of surnames:

Customary naming practices are enormously rich. Among some peoples, it is not uncommon to have different names during different stages of life (infancy, childhood, adulthood) and in some cases after death; added to those are names used for joking, rituals, and mourning and names used for interactions with same-sex friends or with in-laws. […]  To the question “What is your name?” which has a more unambiguous answer in the contemporary West, the only plausible answer is “It depends”.
For the insider who grows up using these naming practices, they are both legible and clarifying.
 — James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State

It’s all rather reminiscent of the namespace of open internets since they emerged in the 80s, including BBS, blogs, IRC, message boards, slashcode, newsgroups and even extending the lineage to the pseudonym-friendly Twitter. You can tell Twitter has this heredity by the joke and impersonating accounts, sometimes created in ill-spirit, but mostly in a slyly mocking one. CheeseburgerBrown’s autobiography of his pseudonyms captures the spirit of it.

Practically any structured scheme you might use to capture this richness of possible real world names will fail, as  Patrick McKenzie amusingly demonstrates in his list of falsehoods programmers believe about names.

Scott goes on to show how the consistent surnames made information on people much easier to access and organize for the state – more legible. This in turn made efficient taxation, conscription and corvee labour possible for the feudal state, as well as fine grained legal title to land. It establishes an information environment on which later institutions such as the stock market, income tax and the welfare state (medical, unemployment cover, universal education) rely. Indeed the idea of a uniquely identifiable citizen, who votes once, is relied on by mass democracy. Exceptions,  where they exist, are limited in their design impact due to their rarity. Even then, the introduction of national ID cards and car registration plates is part of that same legibility project, by enforcing unique identifiers. For more commercial reasons but with much the same effect, public transport smartcards, mobile phones  and number plates, when combined with modern computing, make mass surveillance within technical reach. 

The transition to simplified names was not self-emerging or gentle but was aggressively pursued by premodern and colonial states. In the course of a wide survey Scott gives a striking example from the Philippines:

Filipinos were instructed by the decree of November 21, 1849, to take on permanent Hispanic surnames. The author of the decree was Governor (and Lieutenant General) Narciso Claveria y Zaldua, a meticulous administrator as determined to rationalise names as he had been determined to rationalise existing law, provincial boundaries, and the calendar. He had observed, as his decree states, that Filipinos generally lacked individual surnames, which might “distinguish them by families,” and that their practice of adopting baptismal names from a small group of saints’ names resulted in great “confusion”. The remedy was the catalogo, a compendium not only of personal names but also of nouns and adjectives drawn from flora, fauna, minerals, geography and the arts and intended to be used by the authorities in assigning permanent, inherited surnames. […] In practice, each town was given a number of pages from an alphabetized catalogo, producing whole towns with surnames of the same letter. In situations where there has been little in-migration in the past 150 years, the traces of this administrative exercise are still perfectly visible across the landscape.
For a utilitarian state builder of Claveria’s temper, however, the ultimate goal was a complete and legible list of subjects and taxpayers. […] Schoolteachers were ordered to forbid thier students to address or even know one another by any other name except the officially inscribed family name. More efficacious, perhaps, given the minuscule school enrolment, was the proviso that forbade priests and military and civil officials from accepting any document, application, petition or deed that did not use the official surnames.

The ultimate consequences of these simplification projects can be good or bad, but they are all expansions of centralized power, often unnecessary, and dangerous without counterbalancing elements. Mass democracy could eventually use the mechanism of citizen registration to empower individuals and restrain the government, but this was in some sense historically reactive: it came after the expansion of the state at the expense of more local interests.

The existence of Farmville aside, Google and Facebook probably don’t intend to press people into involuntary labour. People are still choosing to click that cow no matter how much gamification gets them there. The interest in unique identities is for selling a maximally valued demographic bundle to advertisers. Even with multitudes of names and identities, we usually funnel back to one shared income and set of assets backed by a legal name.

Any power grab of this nature will encounter resistance. This might be placing oneself outside the system of control (deleting accounts), or it might be finding ways to use the system without ceding everything it asks for, like Jamais Cascio lying to Facebook.

The great target of Scott’s book is not historical states so much as the high modernist mega-projects so characteristic of the twentieth century, and their ongoing intellectual temptations today. He is particularly devastating when describing the comprehensive miseries possible when high modernist central planning combines with the unconstrained political power in a totalitarian state.

Again, it would be incorrect and unfair to describe any of the big software players today as being high modernist, let alone totalitarian. IBM in its mainframe and KLOC heyday was part of that high modernist moment, but today even the restrictive and aesthetically austere Apple has succeeded mainly by fostering creative uses of its platform by its users. The pressures of consumer capitalism being what they are, though, the motivation to forcibly simplify identity to a single point is hard for a state or a corporation to resist. Centralization has a self-perpetuating momentum to it, which good technocratic intentions tend to reinforce, even when these firms have a philosophical background in open systems. With the combined marvels of smartphones, clouds, electronic billing and social networks, I am reminded of Le Corbusier’s words. These software platforms are becoming machines for living.