Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric, technology, and writing.
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My own reasons for leaving Twitter

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I explained to some friends why I gave up on Twitter, and since there’s a lot more to say about it from a personal perspective, I realized I might as well share it in public too.

After a great deal of reflection, Twitter had three main problems for me:

  1. How much time I spent reading/refreshing because of a little red notification number.
  2. How much I wrote there instead of anywhere else.
  3. How problematic I find Twitter at managing their own aspects of community.

After the first couple years of Twitter being a “yeah, whatever, fuck it, post something there” place for friends it quickly became a thing I paid LOTS of my attention to. Any time I wasn’t doing something, I was reading my timeline. I was following over a thousand people, and I cared deeply about everything they wrote, and everything else they retweeted. At some point a few years in, I fell into the numbers trap of wanting more followers and likes and RTs for things I wrote. Even though I limited my notifications as much as I could, I was totally addicted to the little red bubble on my phone app that showed I had 5 unread things. I stopped doing whatever I was doing to check it every 15 minutes or so, basically every hour I was awake, for many years.

On the second point, it killed my desire to ever blog about things or write more than a few sentences about complex subjects. I would go six months between writing something 1,000 words long to put online when that was something I’d do every few days pre-Twitter. When Twitter moved to 280 characters, all hope was lost, since there really was no reason to have a blog for anyone anymore. I didn’t like that everything I wrote ended up being hard to find or reference, and even hard for me to pull up myself when I wanted, where a blog makes it pretty dang easy to see everything you wrote about in the past.

The third point is obvious, but in the past year, Twitter has gone to great lengths to engage the alt-right and give them blue check marks and allow them to organize rallies using the platform and appease conservatives and entertain their imaginary persecution notions of being “silenced by algorithm” and the last straw was them doing nothing about Infowars. When every social network decided to ban or block Alex Jones, Twitter chose to be the network where white nationalism could have a home. And that’s not where I want to put my words, so I deleted them all.

Rethinking everything

Twitter created something truly addictive and I found myself putting all my time and energy into it at the cost of everything else. Something famous authors often said about Twitter was they couldn’t believe people gave away their thoughts on it for free, and though I thought that was a silly notion when I heard it, I can’t say I ever got paid thanks to my twitter presence. It wasn’t entirely for naught, I did get really good at editing my own words. Forcing yourself to whittle concepts down to limited characters for a decade made me much better at editing my work, and helped my writing elsewhere. It was also a great network for underrepresented voices, and there’s a whole world of people I wouldn’t understand nearly as well until I got to read their daily thoughts. But this is also the company that killed Vine, an entire platform for underrepresented voices making their own media. On the whole, as much fun and information I got out of Twitter, being good at Twitter doesn’t translate into job offers or freelance gigs considering all the effort that goes in.

Up until a few weeks ago, the thought of deleting the twitter app or stopping posting sounded absolutely unimaginable to me. I have many friends that have taken twitter breaks and they often keep their break going way longer than they expected, and only return with lots of limitations and caveats on how they’ll proceed. I felt any of that was impossible, until I finally did it.

What I didn’t expect was to suddenly feel free. I used to walk around with a part of my brain wondering what I would tweet next. I would listen and observe and wonder if what I was looking at would make a good tweet. So when that feeling was finally lifted, it was being freed from something you were addicted to all this time but never could see in your own eyes.

After almost a week, I feel great about it. I am glad I started blogging more here, and it’s kinda fun to not really get much feedback. Twitter is a feedback firehose, both good and bad and whether or not you like it, it demands a lot of your time and can be overwhelming in a way a personal blog never will.

At work I started and completed three projects last week, where a project or two a week is my norm. It was nice to be able to crank on work for hours without interruptions.

I logged back into Mastodon but I don’t see myself posting there more than once or twice a day and using it mostly to stay in contact with friends. It very much feels like early days twitter over there, which is fun and lighthearted, but I never want it to become a thing that overtakes my life like Twitter did, so I’m going to keep myself from looking at it more than a couple times a day too (it helps that most of the mobile clients aren’t polished like Twitter’s).

I left Twitter and deleted all my posts because I no longer liked what the place had become a host for. But I also realized I let it overtake my life and the best way forward was to do something drastic to improve things, so I did. I encourage everyone to do the same sort of reflection of what it takes away from your life and think about what’s best for you.



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acdha
13 hours ago
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The only thing I’m missing is easy link sharing with friends since newsblur still lacks an iOS sharing extension
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betajames
7 hours ago
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the “gradual decay” of Twitter

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Am I finally done with Twitter? After years of leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back? If I haven’t learned how to leave Twitter, at least I’ve learned how not to claim that I’m leaving Twitter. But I’m closer than I’ve ever been.

There’s almost never any pleasure in visiting Twitter now, just the utility of finding out what my friends are up to. Still, something in my brain remembers better times, so left to my own devices I check in far more often than makes sense. So lately I’ve been using Freedom to block Twitter except for a brief period each morning and a brief one each evening. I have found that I don’t miss the place, yes, but also that more and more often I forget to visit when the window is open.

Now that Twitter is finally hobbling the third-party clients that make using the site bearable, and is continuing to get bad publicity for its inability to control bad actors on its platform, I’m seeing in my RSS feed a number of suggestions for how Twitter can be fixed. All of them are ideas that have been put forth for a decade now — adding a paid tier, forcing the third-party clients to show ads, improving the ability to block users — so it would be very strange if Twitter started making intelligent decisions at this late date. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t known for his wit, but I think often of what he said some years ago about the creators of Twitter: They drove a clown car to a gold mine, and then fell in.

Twitter’s current leadership are flailing around right now, looking for ways to fix their platform, but there’s virtually no chance that they’ll make good choices. They have never understood their own product, in large part because few of them use it themselves, and a dozen years in that’s not going to change. And for people like me, it’s too late anyway.

There’s a very moving passage in one of Samuel Johnson’s essays about how friendships end that captures much of how I feel about Twitter:

The most fatal disease of friendship is gradual decay, or dislike hourly increased by causes too slender for complaint, and too numerous for removal. — Those who are angry may be reconciled; those who have been injured may receive a recompense: but when the desire of pleasing and willingness to be pleased is silently diminished, the renovation of friendship is hopeless; as, when the vital powers sink into languor, there is no longer any use of the physician.

But if my friendship with Twitter is dying, I still care for the friends whose company I have enjoyed there. I hope I will hear from them elsewhere — maybe even at micro.blog.

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betajames
16 hours ago
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Saving Capitalism From Itself

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For all the talk about the rise of socialism, both as a term of endearment among the young, DSA, and now winning politicians such as Ocasio-Cortez, what is striking for a lot of historians on the left is the moderation of all the political ideas coming out of this. In short, Ocasio-Cortez has the domestic politics of Hubert Humphrey or Ed Muskie, updated for modern progressive beliefs about race and gender. The supposedly socialist ideas of today that right-wingers are freaking out about are basically reiterations of the standard liberal policy agenda of the 1970s. All of this is a sign of how far right politics moved in this nation after 1981.

What people such as Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are arguing for, at least through their policy proposals, is to save capitalism from itself rather than actually overthrowing it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, that was the point of the New Deal. FDR was no revolutionary. He was a rich elite who saw plenty of space in the nation for himself and his friends. But he recognized that the revanchist politics of his fellow rich elites were going to destroy them if they didn’t change. So he and his allies sought to save capitalism by making it more equitable and less predatory. That succeeded and lasted for a long time. Now we are heading back to the era of the 1920s, albeit with a left far less developed and far less radical than that time. Once again, capitalism needs to be saved from itself.

That is what Elizabeth Warren is trying to do, as she lays out in her Wall Street editorial about the bill she is introducing to significantly transform shareholder rights to force corporations into having the social responsibility of personhood as well as the personhood rights the Supreme Court has given them.

That’s where my bill comes in. The Accountable Capitalism Act restores the idea that giant American corporations should look out for American interests. Corporations with more than $1 billion in annual revenue would be required to get a federal corporate charter. The new charter requires corporate directors to consider the interests of all major corporate stakeholders—not only shareholders—in company decisions. Shareholders could sue if they believed directors weren’t fulfilling those obligations.

This approach follows the “benefit corporation” model, which gives businesses fiduciary responsibilities beyond their shareholders. Thirty-four states already authorize benefit corporations. And successful companies such as Patagonia and Kickstarter have embraced this role.

My bill also would give workers a stronger voice in corporate decision-making at large companies. Employees would elect at least 40% of directors. At least 75% of directors and shareholders would need to approve before a corporation could make any political expenditures. To address self-serving financial incentives in corporate management, directors and officers would not be allowed to sell company shares within five years of receiving them—or within three years of a company stock buyback.

For the past 30 years we have put the American stamp of approval on giant corporations, even as they have ignored the interests of all but a tiny slice of Americans. We should insist on a new deal.

Yglesias has a good explainer on this as well. It’s a great and necessary bill. It’s totally nuts that corporate propaganda, created in this case of shareholder rights by the utterly vile Milton Friedman, a cancer on this nation that continues to have tremendous say long after his death, has so totally transformed the nation. People are finally starting to wake up. But it will take a very long time for this to be fixed. At the very least, Warren continues to set much of the agenda for whoever wins the 2020 Democratic nomination, which may very well be her.

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betajames
2 days ago
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QAnon and Pinterest Is Just the Beginning

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I have been talking about Pinterest as a disinformation platform for a long time, so this article on QAnon memes on Pinterest is not surprising at all:

Many of those users also pinned QAnon memes. The net effect is a community of middle-aged women, some with hundreds of followers, pinning style tips and parfait recipes alongside QAnon-inspired photoshops of Clinton aide John Podesta drinking a child’s blood. The Pinterest page for a San Francisco-based jewelry maker sells QAnon earrings alongside “best dad in the galaxy” money clips.

Pinterest’s algorithm automatically suggests tags with “ideas you might love,” based on the board currently being viewed. In a timely clash of Trumpist language and Pinterest-style relatable content, board that hosts the Podesta photoshop suggests viewers check out tags for “fake news” and “so true.”

The story is a bit more complex than that, of course. It’s not clear to me that the users noted here are not spammers (as we’ll see below). It’s quite possible many of these accounts are people mixing memes and merchandise as a marketing amplification strategy. We don’t know anything about real reach, either. There are no good numbers on this.

But the threat is real, because Pinterest’s recommendation engine is particularly prone to sucking users down conspiracy holes. Why? As far as I can tell, it’s a couple of things. The first problem is that Pinterest’s business model is in providing very niche and personalized content. It’s algorithm is designed to recognize stuff at the level of “I like pictures of salad in canning jars”, and as Zeynep Tufekci has demonstrated with YouTube, engines of personalization are also engines of radicalization.

But it’s more than that: it’s how it goes about recommendation. The worst piece of this, from a vulnerability perspective, is that it uses “boards” as a way to build its model of related things to push to you, and that spammers have developed ways to game these boards that both amplify radicalizing material and and provide a model for other bad actors to emulate.

How Spammers Use Pinterest Boards as Chumbuckets

The best explanation of how this works comes from Amy Collier at Middlebury,  whose post on Pinterest radicalization earlier this year is a must-read for those new to the issue. Drawing on earlier work on Pinterest manipulation, Collier walks through the almost assuredly fake account of  Sandra Whyte, a user who uses boards with extreme political material to catch the attention of users. Here’s her “American Politics” board:

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These pins flow to other users’ home pages with no context, which is why the political incoherence of the board as a whole is not a problem for the user. People are more likely to see the pins through the feed than the board as a whole.

Once other users like that material, they are more likely to see links to TeeSpring T-shirts this user is likely selling:

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The T-Shirts are print-on-demand through a third-party service, so hastily designed that the description can’t even be bothered to spell “Mother” right.

teespring

So two things happen here. When Moms like QAnon content, they get t-shirts, which provides the incentive for spammers to continue to make these boards capitalizing on inflammatory content. Interestingly, when Moms like the T-shirts, they get QAnon content. Fun, right?

How Pinterest’s Aggressive Recommendation Engine Makes This Worse

About a year ago I wrote an article on how Pinterest’s recommendation engine makes this situation far worse.  I showed how after just 14 minutes of browsing, a new user with some questions about vaccines could move from pins on “How to Make the Perfect Egg” to something out of the Infowarverse:

after.png

What was remarkable about this process was that we got from point A to B by only pinning two pins on a board called vaccination.

I sped up the 14 minute process into a two and a half minute explanatory video. I urge you to watch it, because no matter how cynical you are it will shock you.

I haven’t repeated this experiment since then, so I’m unable to comment on whether Pinterest has mitigated this in the past year. It’s something we should be asking them, however.

I should note as well that the UI-driven decontextualization that drove Facebook’s news crisis is actually worse here. Looking at a board, I have no idea why I am seeing these various bits of information at all, or any indication where they come from.

pinterest

Facebook minimized provenance in the UI to disastrous results. Pinterest has completely stripped it. What could go wrong?

Pinterest Is a Major Platform and It’s Time to Talk About It That Way

Pinterest has only 175 million users, but 75 million of those users are in the United States. We can assume a number of spam accounts pad that number, but even accounting for that, this is still a major platform that may be reaching up to a fifth of the U. S. population.

So why don’t we talk about it? My guess is that its perceived as a woman’s platform, which means the legions of men in tech reporting ignore it. And the Silicon Valley philosopher-king class doesn’t bring it up either. It just sounds a bit girly, you know? Housewife-ish.

This then filters down to the general public. When I’ve talked about Pinterest’s vulnerability to disinformation,  the most common response is to assume I am  joking. Pinterest? Balsamic lamb chops and state-sponsored disinfo? White supremacy and summer spritzers?

Yup, I say.

I don’t know how compromised Pinterest is at this point. But everything I’ve seen indicates its structure makes it uniquely vulnerable to manipulation. I’d beg journalists to start including it in their beat, and researchers to throw more resources into its study.



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betajames
2 days ago
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cjmcnamara
3 days ago
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Mr. President, please stop the dangerous attacks FIRST AMENDMENT TO THE U.S. CO...

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Mr. President, please stop the dangerous attacks

FIRST AMENDMENT TO THE U.S. CONSTITUTION

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

By the East Village Magazine Editorial Board

To speak truth to power.  This is what the press must do.  This is what the American press must do.  This is what the American press has always been called to do. And now is the moment to stand up for our Constitutional right.

East Village Magazine only rarely issues editorial statements.  But today, we join with 100 or more newspapers and journalists across the country to express our urgent support for freedom of the press and a strong reproach to our president for his attacks on the press.  This must stop.  Our president’s attacks must not curtail or deprive the press of its freedom of speech.

The First Amendment is first for a reason.   The United States was born in response to tyranny.  We were rebels against a monarchy in which only some voices counted–the voices of a hereditary king or queen.  Many of us studied the story of John Peter Zenger, arrested in November 1734– even before the crafting of the Constitution and the First Amendment–for “seditious libel” for what he published that was critical of the king and his colonial government.  Zenger was taken to trial where he was defended by Andrew Hamilton and William Smith; fortunately, he was acquitted.  His case, many historians think, was influential in the crafting of the First Amendment’s freedom of the press guarantee. Interestingly, the mention of the press is the only occupation, other than political positions, mentioned in the Constitution and given explicit protection.  The Founders understood.

Our essential principles of equality and justice, our collective morality,  brought us back again and again from the temptations of authoritarianism since the Bill of Rights were ratified in 1791.  That’s 227 years. We have not always gotten it right.  But for more than two centuries, the country has wrestled with challenging, sometimes raucous, often passionate debates about these ideas — these guarantees.  These five freedoms:  freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances — all these have set our country apart in the world as a citadel against tyranny– a bulwark of  civilization in which there was no tolerance for a dictator, no tolerance for squashing the voice of the people.

We have always had the right to call out our leaders, to criticize the powerful, to halt an unfettered flow of tyranny.  To speak the truth, even when it hurts.  Even when truth leads us, as it so often does,  away from the precipice of injustice, oppression, nihilism, and demagoguery.

East Village Magazine was borne out of a moment when Flint citizens wished for a redress of grievances:  our founder, the late Gary Custer and a group of other East Village neighbors were upset about I-475 being built–an action propelled by monied and powerful interests in the city– and which Custer and others believed would disastrously affect the neighborhoods in its path.  They were right.  The freeway obliterated Floral Park, a longtime African-American neighborhood, a vibrant business section along Lapeer Road, and cut through Central Park.  Flint historians like Andrew Highsmith have been writing about the consequences of that decision ever since.  Custer’s worries were well founded.  The loss of Walker Elementary on Kearsley Street as the neighborhood school was an equally important issue affecting family living in the neighborhood.  The intent of EVM from the start was to provide a voice for residents to influence the bureaucratic decisions affecting their neighborhoods before events were irreversible.  And while their initial triggering campaigns did not stop I-475, those feisty citizens in EVM’s early years did raise a ruckus.  Some would say that was America at its best.

EVM has stood for telling the truths about our neighborhoods ever since — speaking truth to power and exercising our right to petition the government for redress of grievances.  It is who we are and who we need to be.

Finally, we mourn the loss of those doing the work of the Fourth Estate, and honor them here — in particular, the five dead at the Annapolis Capital Gazette:  Rob Hiaasen, 59, Wendi Winters, 65 Gerald Fischman, 61; John McNamara, 56; and Rebecca Smith, 34,  While their murderer did not mention Donald Trump, the hatred toward them struck us as painfully raw, another reminder of what feels like greater peril today for journalists.  Those five were community journalists just like us, and we cannot afford to do without them.

It is our constitutional right, our privilege, our patriotic duty to continue this role and to support, with our small but stalwart voice, our call for the president to  stop attacking the press–for doing what the Constitution calls the press to do. The country and its values are bigger than the president and his attempts to dismember and silence the free press.  We will not be silenced.  We will continue to do our job, with dignity and ferocity.  In the meantime, we call upon the president to stop endangering us with his fiery, illogical rhetoric.  We urge him to know and remember:  

We are not the enemy of the people.

We are the people, the American people he took an oath to defend and protect.  Our work is to honor and seek the truth.

With all urgency, from our hearts and minds and our love for all the good that this audacious country stands for, we say to the president, do not disrespect us.  Do not denounce us.  Mr. President, we implore you:  do your duty.  Honor your oath.  Be an American. 

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betajames
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Next 5 years predicted to be abnormally hot

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This summer's worldwide heatwave makes 2018 a particularly hot year. As will be the next few years, according to a new study. Using a new method, the study shows that at the global level, 2018-2022 may be an even hotter period than expected based on current global warming.
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betajames
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