On Friday morning, Twitter posted a single word to its Twitter account: “The.” Average users began replying, telling a story one word at a time. When it was done, the first thread read: “The beginning of the end is near. Yay.”
Had it been posted a month or so, it’s likely the world would have written off Twitter’s “the” as a pocket-tweet. But if you’ve been paying attention to @Twitter for the past few weeks, you’ve noticed an undeniable transformation. An account best known for posting almost comically remedial education to its user base — it was still instructing followers on how to retweet as recently as 2016 — suddenly felt a bit more alive.
In recent days the account started a service-wide conversation around the meaning of users’ Twitter handles, which went viral. It asked all users who was up, generating 7,000 replies from people who were. Most recently it just tweeted “tweet, tweet,” and got 45,000 likes in return.
Other brands have been interacting with followers playfully for years. The most famous early example was probably the Oreo Super Bowl tweet; later, the Denny’s account one fame with a series of dadaist breakfast posts.
Brands like these were inventing the Twitter playbook for other brands, Twitter included, to use. But Twitter never did.
Hey @Twitter, y’all seem to be having a little more fun with your Twitter account lately. What's going on over there?— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) September 20, 2018
After seeing the “tweet, tweet” tweet, I decided to investigate — and tweeted at @Twitter asking what was going on over there. A series of whimsical replies followed, ending with: “Old bird, new tricks.”
I followed up with Twitter proper, and got a little more detail. The @Twitter account is run by the company’s marketing department, led by Leslie Berland, who joined the company two years ago. Berland spearheaded an effort to refine the company’s voice.
“We’re listening and learning a ton, and the team is having a blast,” a spokeswoman told me. “Goal is to have fun, bring everyone into the conversation, and celebrate the best of Twitter. It makes the world feel a little bit smaller.”
It also addresses a longstanding deficiency in the organization, which is that Twitter employees generally do not post on Twitter very much. (Tweeting among Twitter’s board members is so rare that people have occasionally wondered whether it’s considered disqualifying among potential recruits.)
The chirpier version of @Twitter also comes at a time when top executives, led by CEO Jack Dorsey, are exploring ways to promote healthy (which is to say, non-abusive) conversations. And at a time when much of the service is devoted to documenting America’s ongoing political crisis, good-natured questions about who stayed up late provide a nice tonic.
So here’s to Twitter using its Twitter account in strange new ways. If the company wants to see healthier conversations on the platform, it seems only fair that it should start some.
Google Suppresses Memo Revealing Plans To Closely Track Search Users in China
Ryan Gallagher has new details on Google’s controversial Project Dragonfly, an effort to return the company to China via a censored version of its search engine. A new memo about it was circulated within the company, and the HR department intervened to stop people from sharing it.
The memo identifies at least 215 employees who appear to have been tasked with working full-time on Dragonfly, a number it says is “larger than many Google projects.” It says that source code associated with the project dates back to May 2017, and “many infrastructure parts predate” that. Moreover, screenshots of the app “show a project in a pretty advanced state,” the memo declares.
Google Workers Discussed Tweaking Search Function to Counter Travel Ban
Here is a story that says Google employees considered including banners encouraging users to “contribute to pro-immigration organizations and contact lawmakers and government agencies.” They didn’t do any of it. That they considered it does not strike me as particularly remarkable, which is unfortunate, because we’ll probably have to endure a Congressional hearing over it. (Tucker Carlson picked it up, as did many others.)
Senators’ Gmail accounts targeted by foreign hackers
There’s a new effort to hack the Google accounts of US senators, Donie O’Sullivan and Alex Marquardt report:
The personal Gmail accounts of an unspecified number of US senators and Senate staff have been targeted by foreign government hackers, a Google spokesperson confirmed to CNN on Thursday.
On Wednesday, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, wrote in a letter to Senate leadership that his office had learned that “at least one major technology company has informed a number of Senators and Senate staff members that their personal email accounts were targeted by foreign government hackers.”
How France beat back information manipulation (and how other democracies might do the same)
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France saw what happened in the 2016 US election and effectively beat back efforts to interfere in its own election the following year, including a strategic document leak. A new report charts how:
“The leak did not significantly influence French voters, despite the efforts of the aforementioned actors. Why? French success resulted from a combination of structural factors, luck, as well as the effective anticipation and reaction of the Macron campaign staff, the government and civil society, especially the mainstream media,” the researchers concluded. Cultural clumsiness by the hackers and less reliance on ‘alternative’ websites helped, but so did the preparation and response of Macron’s campaign, existing government, and the mainstream media:
Marc Randazza Is Fighting To Keep Nazis And Trolls On Twitter In The New Speech Wars. Here’s Why.
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Joe Bernstein profiles the attorney Marc Randazza, who is leading the legal battle against de-platforming for some of the worst people on the internet in the name of free speech:
The advent of the internet ignited a big bang of speech, the consequences of which America hasn’t yet reckoned with. False speech, and speech many of us find hateful, proliferates in a way that would be unimaginable to those who waged the foundational First Amendment fights of the 20th century. And most of that chaotic speech — yours, mine, everyone’s — is now happening in private spaces ruled by massive, unaccountable technology companies. At the moment, the people who claim to be most threatened by those companies’ actions are on the right. But regardless of politics, the rules around speech have changed in a real and tangible way, and have done so largely beyond the bounds of democratic government. This vexes Randazza to the point that he’s willing to argue a position that liberals see as a naked attempt by the far right to preserve its ability to publish dangerous ideas and cynical falsehoods on platforms that aren’t obligated to host them.
“There is a war on right-wing speech,” Randazza, whose own politics are a mishmash (he favors widespread economic redistribution and universal health care but voted for Gary Johnson in 2016), told me. “If you can’t win in the marketplace of ideas, you try to change the marketplace.”
Vox’s Carlos Maza turns in another lucid, entertaining video about the bad incentives built into social networks — the same ones Jack Dorsey now says he’s reconsidering. Among other good nuggets in here, Maza cites a study showing that the more liberal or conservative a politician is, the more Twitter followers they have. It’s a good watch.
Facebook’s ‘Portal’ Video Chat Device to Be Announced Next Week
Alex Heath reports that Portal will be announced next week and sell for $300 to $400 depending on the size of the model. My gut tells me this thing is doomed, but we’ll see how Facebook frames it. Also, here’s a good detail about how the project transformed in the wake of Cambridge Analytica:
Portal will feature a privacy shutter that can cover the device’s wide-angle video camera, which uses artificial intelligence to recognize people in the frame and follow them as they move throughout a room. The shutter was recently developed in response to worsening public trust in the Facebook brand, an effect employees internally refer to as the “brand tax.”
Instagram’s TV service, IGTV, recommended potential child abuse
IGTV algorithms promoted three videos that seem pretty bad, judging from the descriptions. But also, like, it was three videos? (On the other hand: if Instagram can’t handle properly monitor its trending algorithms when the service is still fairly small, why should we trust that it will be able to if IGTV ever takes off?)
Twitter bug may have sent users’ direct messages to external developers
Here’s just an absolutely classic Twitter whoopsie-daisy for your Friday evening commute. The short version is that Twitter shared some of your DMs with third-party developers on accident. Hope they weren’t sensitive!
A bug in how Twitter’s platform is accessed by third-party app developers exposed certain direct messages of select users to developers who do not work for Twitter, the company disclosed in a blog post today.
Twitter says the bug was active starting sometime in May of 2017, and Twitter issued a fix within hours of discovering it on September 10th, 2018. It affected less than 1 percent of users, and the direct messages affected were those between users and accounts or businesses that relied on a certain API designed for customer service interactions. Twitter’s example is a direct message with an airline that uses a developer account to access the affected API, which is known as the Account Activity API (AAAPI).
Instagram is testing a native resharing feature for the feed
I posted a story late Thursday, based on screenshots and an interview with a source familiar with Instagram product development, saying Instagram was testing native resharing in the feed. After initially declining to comment, Instagram followed up to say it isn’t building or testing such a feature. I’m continuing to report on this one — I clearly don’t yet have the full story — and if you know anything, I’m all ears. Ask me for my Signal!
PayPal bans Infowars for promoting hate
Alex Jones just lost his payment processor:
PayPal will no longer do business with Alex Jones or Infowars, saying the site “promoted hate and discriminatory intolerance against certain communities and religions.”
New Pressure on Google and YouTube Over Children’s Data
Kids under 13 aren’t supposed to use websites without their parents’ permission. It seems likely that millions of them are watching YouTube anyway. Congress is looking into it, reports Sapna Maheshwari:
Several of the most-viewed channels on YouTube are aimed at children, including ChuChu TV and Ryan ToysReview, according to Social Blade, which compiles social media data. The channels, according to the site, have attracted billions of views. That’s good for ad revenue, which YouTube splits with video makers.
Mr. Golin said he was disappointed that the Federal Trade Commission, which met with children’s rights advocates in May after they filed their complaint, hadn’t acted on the issue. Lawmakers and the New Mexico attorney general “are really stepping up and putting pressure on the companies that should be coming from the F.T.C.,” he added.
Instagram denies it’s building Regramming. Here’s why it’d be a disaster
Josh Constine says Instagram should abandon all hope of implementing resharing features:
And the result would be that users couldn’t trust that when they follow someone, that’s whose vision would appear in their feed. Instagram would feel a lot more random and unpredictable. And it’d become more like its big brother Facebook whose News Feed has waned in popularity – Susceptible to viral clickbait bullshit, vulnerable to foreign misinformation campaigns, and worst of all, impersonal.
What is ActivityPub, and how will it change the internet?
Jeremy Dormitzer has a good post up about ActivityPub, the infrastructure that powers decentralized Twitter clone Mastodon. There used to be lots of talk about a federated version of Twitter, and I continue to think it’s an idea worth exploring. The user interface and experience are still Linux-level bad, but they don’t have to be. I’d encourage people exploring new social spaces to check this out and maybe do some hacking:
ActivityPub is much bigger than just Mastodon, though. It’s a language that any application can implement. For example, there’s a YouTube clone called PeerTube that also implements ActivityPub. Because it speaks the same language as Mastodon, a Mastodon user can follow a PeerTube user. If the PeerTube user posts a new video, it will show up in the Mastodon user’s feed. The Mastodon user can comment on the PeerTube video directly from Mastodon. Think about that for a second. Any app that implements ActivityPub becomes part of a massive social network, one that conserves user choice and tears down walled gardens. Imagine if you could log into Facebook and see posts from your friends on Instagram and Twitter, without needing an Instagram or Twitter account.
And finally ...
https://t.co/3XW3o3WypQ pic.twitter.com/prQg8TIEgZ— demi adejuyigbe (@electrolemon) September 21, 2018
The best Earth, Wind & Fire memer returns right on time
Do you remember the 21st night of September? If you’re an Earth, Wind, and Fire fan, you probably do. And in recent years — thanks to the singular talents of writer and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe — you’ve had a whole new reason to appreciate it. Since 2016, Adejuyigbe has posted an annual video on this day, ramping up the ambition each time. His 2018 installment is the most elaborate yet, and while I won’t spoil the surprise, I guarantee that if you watch all three — they’re threaded here — your day will immediately improve.
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, weekend plans: firstname.lastname@example.org.