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Rant Time: The problem with Twitter

Posted in botch, business, social media by commorancy on August 27, 2018

Twitter-smTwitter began as a lofty idea for small text social conversation. For many of its early years, it managed to keep some semblance of order and decency. As of 2018, the platform has devolved into something far less useful and more problematic. Let’s explore.

Primary Twitter Topics

Today, Twitter is primarily dominated by breaking news, gun control and political rhetoric, sometimes all three at the same time. While these topics do have a place, reading these dominant conversations every moment of every day is tiring. It also goes against the diversity of what the platform is intended to offer. While these topics have a place, they don’t really have a place as the dominant force on Twitter. They exist simply to clog up each Twitter user’s feed.

Twitter’s Failings and Slow Development

When Twitter began back in 2006, it offered a fairly limited social conversation platform with its 140 character limit. In fact, that limit wasn’t raised until early 2018, 12 years later… when the limit went up to 280 characters. Talk about slow development! This 140 character limit was a holdover from SMS days which still to this day hold this limit. I do not know why Twitter chose this arbitrarily small amount of text for a social conversation platform. It had no relation to SMS and couldn’t send SMS messages, so it never made sense.

Twitter has also firmly embraced the “no edit” mantra to the chagrin of many. To modify a tweet, you must delete it, then recreate it. This is a cumbersome hassle. It also means that any feedback you had on that tweet must be forfeit. There’s a real incentive to get the tweet right the first time. For a conversation platform in 2018, this limitation on a text discussion platform is completely ludicrous. Clarification of thought is extremely important in all text mediums. The only way to ensure clarify of thought is via editing. We all make mistakes when typing, such as their for there or they’re. These are extremely common typing mistakes. Sometimes it’s the accidental misuse of homonyms. There are plenty of other types of common mistakes. There is also rewording. Yet, here we are… 12 years after Twitter’s inception and we STILL can’t edit a tweet. What the hell is going on over there at Twitter, Jack Dorsey?

While Twitter has grown little since 2006, only offering better privacy, limited feed customization, an ad platform and some UI improvements, it really has done next to nothing to improve the user functionality since 2006. I’ve worked at companies where the product has almost completely performed a 180º turn in product features in only 1-2 years. Twitter has remained nearly stagnant, feature wise and has implemented clamored features at an absolute snail’s pace (read, it hasn’t implemented them) in its 12 years of existence.

Censorship

As we all should understand, the first amendment free speech protections do not apply to private corporations. This ultimately means that there can be no speech submitted on the Twitter platform that is protected. As much as people want to complain that some left or right winger has been suspended, banned or otherwise dismissed from Twitter, that is Twitter’s right. Twitter is not a government owned or operated corporation. Therefore, they can censor, delete, suspend or otherwise prevent a user or entity from putting any content onto their platform for any reason.

What this means is that Twitter can do whatever they wish and claim violations of ‘terms of service’. After all, Twitter writes the terms of service and can modify them at any time without notification to anyone. In fact, Twitter isn’t even required to have explicit terms listed and they can still delete or suspend anyone they wish, for any reason. As I said, free speech protections on Twitter do not apply.

Leadership Team

Jack Dorsey heads up the leadership team at Twitter as CEO. In the last 1-2 years, he’s spouted rhetoric about reduction of hate speech on Twitter. What that ultimately translates to, within Twitter’s current moderation tool limits, is deletion of selected speech or accounts, regardless whether it contains hate speech or not. If Twitter doesn’t like what you have to say, out you go.

Twitter SuspendedNo more evident is that in those users who have amassed 15k followers or more. One foible on one of these accounts and Twitter closes it. No no, can’t have a 15k or more followers seeing something that Twitter management doesn’t like. Even celebs aren’t immune to this. If you are reading the article and you have amassed more than 6000 followers, your account is a risk with each tweet you post, particularly if your speech primarily consists of political messages, controversial topics or divisive ideas (NRA vs Gun Control, Abortion vs Pro Life, Trump bashing, etc).

The current technical means at Twitter’s disposal to reduce this kind of speech consists of tweet deletion, account suspensions or bans. Twitter has no other means at its disposal. In reality, Twitter has dug the hole it is now in. Twitter has failed to foresee problems of user scale. Whenever the total user base grows, so are the problems amplified that go with that. Twitter should have initially implemented some level of moderation and anointed users to help moderate its platform in a similar fashion to both Wikipedia and Reddit. It didn’t.

Twitter is to Blame

Twitter has only itself to blame for not taking proactive action sooner and in failing to build more complete moderation tools sooner. Additionally, social platforms that have implemented self-moderation automated systems have done exceptionally well. When the community downvotes certain content at a certain level, then Twitter should not promote it into user’s feeds. In fact, Twitter’s continual promotion of tweets into people’s primary feeds has actually propagated hate and problematic speech. Instead, Twitter should have been building a self-policing platform from day one or at least within the first couple of years. They chose not to.

Even today, Twitter still hasn’t built a self-policing platform. I regularly find hate speech in my feed. Worse, while I can mark the stuff I like with a heart, I have no such action to force items out of my feed that I choose not to see. The best I can do is mute the user or mute the account. Why is that Twitter? Why can’t I mark individual types of tweets that I no longer want to see and have that content removed from my feed? Why do I have to trudge all the way into preferences and put in mute words or, even more sledgehammery, mute or block the user? Even then, that only affects my account. It doesn’t have any impact on the global Twitter.

Employing Social Moderation and Tweet Grading

Using social moderation is both effective and necessary when you’re working with millions of users sending millions of messages per day. Twitter is a social platform. Let’s use that social interaction of those millions of people to bubble worthy messages to the top and sink crap messages so they never get seen. This is the ONLY way to effectively moderate at scale on a social platform. The value of each tweet is in its worth to viewers. Many viewers all marking tweets downward means less people see it. Many viewers marking tweets up means more people will see it. I can’t imagine that any sane person would choose to vote up hate speech, death threats or similar unacceptable or violent content.

I’m not saying that any one user should have undue influence over a tweet’s popularity. In fact, users will need to build their trust and reputation levels on the platform. For example, newly created accounts might not even be able to influence up or downward momentum of tweets right out of the gate. It might take 2-4 months of interactions on the platform before the user’s interactions begin to count. This way, users can’t go out and create 100 or more accounts in an attempt to get their tweet to the top of popularity. In fact, any tweet that ends up getting upvotes from too many newly created accounts without other upvotes should be marked as suspect and have their own trust levels locked or reduced.

Additionally, it should take interactions from many trusted accounts simultaneously to raise a tweet’s popularity substantially, particularly if those accounts have no relationship to one another (not following each other). This says that independent users have found a tweet’s content to be worthy of interaction by others.

This isn’t to say this is the only algorithm that could be built to handle social moderation, but it would definitely be a good start and a way to take this platform to the next level. Conversely, I will state that building an algorithm to scan and rate a tweet based solely on its textual content is next to impossible. Using the power of social interaction to grade a tweet and raise or lower its value is the best way to force those who want to game the system out of the platform.

Also, there should be no exemptions from the system. Not for CNN, not for Proctor and Gamble, not for any account. Social moderation needs to apply to all accounts or it’s worthless.

I’m not saying that social moderation is in any way a perfect solution. It isn’t. But, at least it can be fair when implemented properly. Can this kind of system be gamed? Probably. But, the engineers would need to watch for this eventuality and be ready to make change to prevent further gaming of the system. Eventually, the holes will be patched.

Multiple feeds and Topics

Here’s another area where Twitter has failed. As with any social platform, users have likes and dislikes and topic preferences they want to see. For example, I really don’t want to see political bashing. That’s not my thing. I’d prefer a feed that is politic free. My only interest in politics and political candidates is when there’s an imminent election. Otherwise, I want it out of my feed. Same for NRA / Gun control arguments. Same for Trump tweet bashing. Same for Pro Life vs Abortion. I don’t want to waste time with these types of divisive controversial topics in my feed. I have better uses for my time. If I want to see that content, I will explicitly go searching for it. I don’t want it to automatically appear in my feed.

Yet, Twitter has not implemented any customized feeds based on likes, hobbies or preferences of information (i.e., new technology). Instead, Twitter has based this part on following Twitter accounts that offer such information. The problem is, chasing down these accounts to follow. Even then, because those accounts might only post new on-topic information 20% of the time, the other 80% of the time I would see stuff I don’t want to see in my feed. Herein lies the problem with Twitter. It shouldn’t be based on following a user, it should be based on following conversation topics.

I’d prefer to customize my feeds (and have several feeds hooked to different topics) and subscribe to those feeds. I don’t need to follow any given account that’s talks about stuff I’m not interested in. Instead, by following topics, my feed gets interesting tweets. I can then discover new accounts to follow and also discover topics I’m interested in. This is the single important piece that Jack and team have sorely failed to address within the Twitter platform. To reiterate, I want to see stuff in my feeds that I am interested in, even if I don’t follow that account. I don’t want to see stuff I’m not interested in at all even if following an account that tweets about it. Following by topic is more important than following by user.

This is the power of social media. This is the power of Twitter. This is what is missing to make Twitter a complete platform… this, in addition to social moderation.

Twitter’s Hand Moderation

Instead of implementing a social moderation system or an interests based feed system, Twitter has spent its time hand moderating by suspending and banning accounts all in its stated goal of “reducing hate speech”. While deleting accounts may reduce that account’s ability to post hate speech, it doesn’t stop the user from creating a brand new account and starting it all over again. This is Twitter’s flaw in the user follow model.

Only the above two designs: 1) topic based multiple feeds and 2) social moderation will lead to lasting change within the Twitter platform. Nothing else will. Twitter’s hand moderation technique is merely a small bandaid with limited scope. It will never make a dent in reducing hate speech on Twitter. Lasting change only comes from innovating the platform in new and better ways to improve the end user experience and, at the same time, reducing the signal to noise ratio.

It’s time for Twitter to step up and actually begin innovating its platform in substantial new and meaningful ways… or it will perish.

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Google Android: How to fix Speech to Text “Couldn’t Connect” error

Posted in Android by commorancy on April 3, 2012

[UPDATE: 2019-06-25]: Google seems to have retired its legacy speech-to-text (S2T) services for older Android versions including Gingerbread (2.4) and below. If you have Gingerbread and S2T is no longer functioning for you, this is likely the cause. This service retirement likely impacts some newer Android versions, which also rely on this older service. Because Google has retired the service, it will no longer function ever. If you need this feature, you’ll need to upgrade to a device that can run a newer version of Android which supports the “Ok, Google” assistant. It seems that Google is moving forward by replacing this older S2T functionality with its newer “Ok, Google” voice assistant. If you have a Samsung, you may be able to use Bixby. This is Samsung’s own voice assistant. On with the article…

While this isn’t an overly common problem that I’ve found with Android, it is a problem that I have run into that has entirely baffled me.. until now. Note, I am running Android 6.0.1 on my Samsung S5. Even on my S5, the keyboard microphone button links to and uses the “Ok, Google” engine, not the legacy service. Note that this article was written in 2012. Some of the below, particularly as it pertains to downloading keyboard packages likely won’t help older devices. However, the portion discussing why this feature doesn’t work (i.e., Internet) is still valid. If you have an older device, you may find this functionality no longer works even if you DO have Internet available. This is because Google seems to have retired its legacy Android S2T service as of spring 2019.

To use the speech to text functionality (specifically voice search or voice keyboard input), you are required to download a package onto Android initially. After downloading, I thought that I would be able to use this functionality all of the time. Let’s explore why this isn’t true.

Text to Speech Input Troubles

On the Android Keyboard (that is, the non-Swype keyboard input), there is a small microphone symbol. Why this isn’t on the Swype keyboard is anyone’s guess? If you click the little microphone, the microphone feature activates and allows you to speak your text. The phone is then supposed to convert your speech into text. This is particularly handy while driving. Unfortunately, most of the time I always seemed to see the error ‘Couldn’t Connect’ when attempting using this functionality. After all, I had downloaded the necessary packages. At first I thought it had something to do with the microphone. So, I plugged in different headsets and different bluetooth devices, but it still only randomly works. Sometimes it works perfectly and other times not. I also tried restarting my phone thinking there was some kind of service that was not working properly. No luck with any of this. For a while, I had given up on even using it. However, I finally decided to get to the bottom of this issue.

This would seem to be a very handy feature while in the car. And, it is, when it works. In my car, however, most of the time it doesn’t work. I couldn’t figure this one out at all. I kept thinking how lame it is that the one feature you absolutely need while driving is Speech to Text. Yet, it is the single feature that is the most unreliable. However, today I have finally realized why this functionality only intermittently works. It requires the Internet to function.

The Internet?

Why would this service need the internet? Apparently, whatever data was downloaded only enables the feature, but it doesn’t actually do the speech to text conversion in the phone. Apparently, the audio input is sent off to one of Google’s servers on the Internet (can you say, “Privacy Issue”) to be processed and the text sent back to the phone after conversion. The phone doesn’t actually do the conversion.

My Rant

While I understand the audio processing needed to decode an audio file may not be capable within the phone (although, Siri seems to do a great job offline in the iPhone), the phone should at least have some offline capabilities. However, the error message here is just absolutely stupid. It doesn’t explain anything. If the Internet is not available and this service requires it, the phone should pop up a message that either explains that no Internet is available or it should simply remove that functionality from the keyboard (grey it out) until the Internet is available. Why try to allow use of this functionality when the Internet is not available? This is both a confusing and stupid design. Google, you need to fix this design fast.

So, you’re probably asking why it periodically worked in my car? First, my phone is not Internet enabled. Second, I refuse to pay $80 a month for a 3G data plan that’s half the speed of my cable service and offers half or less the amount of data at twice the price. Instead, I pay for an ‘unlimited’ MiFi device that I don’t always turn on in my car. Sometimes it’s on, sometimes it isn’t. That explains why this functionality sometimes works and sometimes not.

I use the MiFi specifically because it works with all of my devices and is not locked to only one device. It allows for more data throughput, due to the plan rate. It is also a non-contract prepaid service, so I don’t have to worry about being stuck in a hugely long contract. If something better comes along, I just stop payment and walk away with no penalties. Specifically, I use Virgin Mobile’s MiFi that is actually using the Sprint 3G Network. I digress.

How To Fix

If you’ve been searching all over the Internet trying to figure out why this functionality only sparsely works and how to fix it, this feature requires the Internet. If your phone is not 24/7 Internet capable and you use WiFi for connectivity in select places, like myself, you will run into this problem when trying to use ‘Speech to Text’ from the Android keyboard while there is no Internet connectivity. To fix this issue, you either need to subscribe to a phone dataplan so you have ‘Always On’ Internet service or carry a MiFi device around with you and turn it on when you want to use Speech to Text. A hassle yes, but complain to Google as they are the ones that designed it to require the use of a Google server to decode the audio.

So, there you have it. Problem solved, mostly. At least, it’s solved for Android 2.2. If your have a later version of Android, your mileage may vary.

[UPDATE: 2012-05-04]

My bad. It appears that Siri does, in fact, require the Internet for Speech to Text conversion just like Android. This also goes for Alexa, Bixby, Cortana and even “Ok, Google”. So, I guess this article applies to the iPhone and all other voice assistant devices as well.

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