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One of the joys of reading the news is the occasional opportunity for disparate articles to end up explaining one another.

Ernie Smith’s Tedium yesterday was about Facebook’s new project to ask users to consent to a new feature called ‘link history’. This appears to be a feature built solely to give users a unobjectionable justification for Facebook to continue to collect data which is primarily used for advertising.

Ernie linked to a Gizmodo article by Thomas Germain which said:

When you click on a link in the Facebook or Instagram apps, the website loads in a special browser built into the app, rather than your phone’s default browser. In 2022, privacy researcher Felix Krause found that Meta injects special “keylogging” JavaScript onto the website you’re visiting that allows the company to monitor everything you type and tap on, including passwords. Other apps including TikTok do the same thing.

I find it astonishing that Facebook is harvesting people’s passwords for other services, and yet this is neither major news nor has prompted a mass exodus from the platform.

Yet, I often hear people discussing with certainty the conspiracy theory that Facebook covertly analyses continuous audio recorded from people’s phones to target advertising. Confirmation bias provides ‘evidence’ for people. It’s essentially nonsense, but it’s accepted as fact by many people.

So… what’s going on here? Why would people choose to keep using a service that violates their security and which they believe to spy on them? Why are so many people still active users?

In Platformer, Casey Newton shared a link to an article by Hannah Devlin in The Guardian which answers those questions:

Almost half of British teenagers say they feel addicted to social media … The finding, from the Millennium Cohort study, adds to evidence that many people feel they have lost control over their use of digital interactive media.

People feeling addicted to products which don’t have their best interests at heart is a depressing situation, though I guess it’s a common one.

I quit social media in 2020, for no better reason than noticing that my mood after opening the apps was typically worse than my mood when logging on. I can’t claim that I’ve become a new person, reclaimed hours of time, or cast off any psychological shackles. But I can say, without a scintilla of doubt, that I don’t miss it at all.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Technology, , , , , , , , , , .

Someone else’s thoughts on artificial intelligence

Last week, I reflected that I’d underestimated the potential of large language models by basing my opinion on the early versions of ChatGPT. Interestingly, Casey Newton has talked in the latest edition of Platformer about making the same mistake.

I had recently subscribed to ChatGPT Plus at the encouragement of a friend who had found it to be an excellent tutor in biology. A few days later, I found myself embarrassed: what I thought I knew about the state of the art had essentially been frozen a year ago when ChatGPT was first released. Only by using the updated model did I see how much better it performed at tasks involving reasoning and explanation.

I told the researcher I was surprised by how quickly my knowledge had gone out of date. Now that I had the more powerful model, the disruptive potential of large language models seemed much more tangible to me. 

The researcher nodded. “You can fast forward through time by spending money,” she said.

Naturally, Casey’s thoughts are more extensive and more fully formed than my own, and the whole piece is well worth reading.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , , .


Matt Levine has a good question:

I guess my question is, what was he paying for? Musk didn’t want Twitter for its employees (whom he fired) or its code (which he trashes regularly) or its brand (which he abandoned) or its most dedicated users (whom he is working to drive away); he just wanted an entirely different Twitter-like service. Surely he could have built that for less than $44 billion? Mark Zuckerberg did!

Casey Newton has an answer:

This framing misses the true shape of Musk’s project, which is best understood not as a money-making endeavor, but as an extended act of cultural vandalism. Just as he graffitis his 420s and 69s all over corporate filings; and just as he paints over corporate signage and office rooms with his little sex puns; so does he delight in erasing the Twitter that was.

I found myself challenged by this. Newton is among my favourite tech journalists, and I highly value his analysis. But can I really buy that Musk is openly engaging in an intentional, extended act of cultural vandalism?

Newton makes a good argument… but maybe Callum Booth is more on the money. Their suggestions aren’t really that far apart.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , , , , , , .

Pulling threads

I’m predisposed to dislike Meta’s new social media app Threads. It’s years since I left Instagram and Twitter, and I haven’t missed either of them. I’m therefore unlikely to be convinced by something which seems to be a combination of the two. But equally, my lack of engagement means that I’m not well-informed, and my opinions ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Yet, Threads has been unavoidable in recent days, with acres of press coverage. In this post, I want to reflect on some of the things I’ve read.

In Tedium, Ernie Smith wrote:

I don’t feel particularly motivated to write about Threads, the Instagram-in-Twitter-form social network that Meta launched this week. It feels like a social network that exists to check a box for a company that owns a lot of social networks. But I do think it represents something about the moment that we’re in, where people are so desperate for a certain kind of experience that they will go from the hands of one billionaire to another, in hopes that will give them what they don’t feel like they were getting before.

It would be a bit rich of me to claim that I don’t feel motivated to write about Threads at the start of a blog post about Threads. But I do feel removed from it. I can’t imagine I’m ever going to join the service, and—in all honesty—I think the moment for this sort of short-text-based social media service has probably passed.

In his Platformer newsletter, Casey Newton interviewed Instagram’s Adam Mosseri about the new product. This bit stood out to me:

The thing that makes Twitter distinctive, Mosseri said, is that replies are given the same visual priority as the original posts. In a world where every other social network buries comments underneath posts, Twitter elevates them. And that encourages people to participate in discussions.

“The post-and-comment model is great,” Mosseri said. “But it really does not support public discourse nearly as well as the tweet-and-reply model. Elevating the reply to the same level as the original post allows for much more robust, diverse discourse.”

I fundamentally disagree with this: I think giving replies equal prominence to original posts fuels terrible discourse. It pits experts on the same level as conspiracy theorists. It encourages people to seize on the tiniest error, the most abstracted perceived slight, in any Tweet in order to ramp up engagement with the reply. It encourages attack, not discussion, and pile-ons (a natural by-product of giving responses the same prominence as original posts) squeeze out diversity rather than encouraging it.

In The Atlantic Daily, David Graham wrote about the impact of the death of Twitter on the ability of journalists to build personal brands. He said:

What comes after Twitter is a much more fragmented landscape. Many social-media sites command significant audiences, but no single platform can do what Twitter once did. A journalist can make a big bet on one platform, or they can try to hedge and be active on Reddit, YouTube, TikTok, Substack, and, as of this week, Meta’s Threads—give or take a dozen more. But who has the time? And besides, you don’t get the same reach. TikTok and YouTube command enormous but typically niche audiences.

I’ve written with boring frequency on this site about the BBC’s promotion of Twitter. This is, in my view, the wrong approach for myriad reasons, but the more the social media landscape fragments, the more unsustainable that approach becomes.

Imagine a 2024 Presidential election fought between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Suppose Biden continues to campaign on Twitter, but that Trump restricts himself to Truth Social, safe in the knowledge that he won’t be banned or fact-checked and that his messages will find their way beyond the network anyway. Would the BBC continue to promote only the platform used by only one of the candidates? Self-evidently not. Would it promote Truth Social? No chance.

And so, the era of free promotion of a particular network ends… surely. We presumably revert to “Campaign X said Y”, rather than “Candidate A posted on social network B”. The latter has never made sense for the BBC anyway: it’s no more logical than saying “Party M has posted a press released on media repository N”, which has never been a thing.

Threads won’t benefit (in the long-term) from the free promotion that built Twitter.

FullFact recently posted about false news circulating on Facebook suggesting that animals had been released from Paris Zoo in recent riots.

This stood out to me because I well remember, in the days I was on Facebook, the frequency with which “escaped zoo animals” were reported in connection with any number of news stories. I remember this because I briefly parodied it in an email to partners after arranging rabies vaccinations for an individual bitten by a wild animal abroad.

This is a long-standing and easily disproved item of fake news which could reasonably cause unnecessarily fear among readers. Even all these years on, Meta hasn’t got a grip of this simple stuff. The idea that Threads will be a reliable source of anything, or a place for informed discussion, is clearly not rooted in reality.

In Garbage Day, Ryan Broderick wrote:

My verdict: Threads sucks shit. It has no purpose. It is for no one. It launched as a content graveyard and will assuredly only become more of one over time. It’s iFunny for people who miss The Ellen Show. It has a distinct celebrities-making-videos-during-COVID-lockdown vibe. It feels like a 90s-themed office party organized by a human resources department. And my theory, after staring into its dark heart for several days, is that it was never meant to “beat” Twitter — regardless of what Zuckerberg has been tweeting. Threads’ true purpose was to act as a fresh coat of paint for Instagram’s code in the hopes it might make the network relevant again. And Threads is also proof that Meta, even after all these years, still has no other ambition aside from scale.

If you look back at every era of the internet, towards the end of each, you’ll see a whole pile-up of forgotten apps that tried to swoop in and bring back or replace something that was dying or dead. Myspace tried to bounce back with a redesign. Vine was going to be resurrected as Byte. BeReal was marketed as a way to recapture the simple fun of Snapchat, etc. But it doesn’t really work that way. Our tastes change. We move on. And then suddenly we can’t imagine ever going back.

I’ve wrongly predicted the death of Twitter an embarrassing number of times. I even did it earlier this month. I think Broderick might be right that it’s the class of services that is fracturing and dying, not just Twitter specifically. And that bodes ill for Threads.

In The Atlantic Daily, Charlie Warzel is interviewed about the impact of Meta’s appalling privacy record on the potential success of Threads:

People are never going to be as concerned with privacy stuff as they are with I want to be where my friends are. I want to try something new and interesting and see if it works. And if that initial experience is easy, fun, and intriguing, the potential to hook a new user and turn them into a quality repeat customer is very high.

It’s fair to say that Warzel’s overall impression of the prospects for Threads is less positive than this brief quotation implies. But this quotation stood out for me because I think Warzel is right.

It was the ‘creepy line’ that drove me away from Google services. Like most people, I think I projected my views onto others, and assumed that everyone else is increasingly concerned about privacy too. Except, objectively, they are not.

Warzel’s words reminded me that I often overhear people talking nonsense about Facebook spying on them through their phone’s microphone and inserting related adverts into their feeds. Yet, none of them have deleted the app or left the service… even when they genuinely believe they are being covertly surveilled.

Privacy is not a big deal to most people, which probably works in favour of Threads.

It’s probably not in their favour that when I think of ‘Threads’, I think of this:

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Will A.I. make us write more clearly?

In Platformer last Tuesday, Casey Newton reported on CNET’s use of artificial intelligence tools to publish news stories.

Newton’s piece led me to Futurism, which pointed out serious errors in CNET’s AI-generated prose. Futurism argued that the tone of the piece was significant in disguising the errors:

The AI is writing with the panache of a knowledgable financial advisor. But as a human expert would know, it’s making another ignorant mistake.

If I were to develop an AI model, I would probably start with the writing style and hope the factual content would come later… and really, that’s quite human behaviour.

Technical writing often includes numerous technical terms. Despite this, good technical writing remains clear. It is as simple as possible, concise and unambiguous.

Good writing is a skill. It is not something that is easy to master. When reading Jeanette Winterson’s 12 Bytes last year, I was particularly taken with her plea that scientists ought to work closely with writers to ensure that their ideas were communicated with precision and, perhaps, beauty.

Yet, when people are trying to imitate this style of writing, perhaps when starting out, they frequently do it badly. They confuse technical terms for obfuscatory terms. When I am marking scientific assignments, words like ‘whilst’ or ‘utilise’ are red flags for this: these are not words people typically use in everyday life, and they can signify that someone is intentionally trying to make their writing sound more complicated than necessary. This is the antithesis of communicating complex ideas as simply as they can.

Good students—and good writers—grow out of this. But some don’t. Some people just slip into using ridiculous language as a habitual thing.

Others—stereotypically in the corporate world or the Civil Service—intentionally use obfuscatory language to hide their own confusion or to avoid pinning down a particular meaning. Why say something plainly if it might turn out to be plainly wrong? Why give a hard deadline when you can just ‘work at pace’? ‘We’re going as fast as we can’ doesn’t have quite the same sense of vague authority, and also might turn out to be provably false.1

When I reflect on my own professional practice, it occurs to me that when something is written in an obfuscatory style, I tend to assume it is, in the Harry Frankfurt sense, bullshit. This is not always fair, but it is my automatic response, and I find it difficult to overcome.

Let’s imagine, for example, that a chief executive talks about their organisation having an ‘integral role’ in ‘tackling incidents’ and providing ‘world-leading insights.’ I can’t help but automatically assume that this is bullshit. It gives the impression that the chief executive’s purpose is not really to inform, but perhaps to attempt to impress blindly.

None of the bold words is a technical term, and none of them can be interpreted as meaning anything specific. These phrases are empty, devoid of meaning.

But my automatic assumption that the whole text is bullshit may be false, and is really no more helpful than a response of ‘ooh, this person is using clever words and so really knows what they’re talking about.’

I once worked with someone who was completely ruthless with challenging this sort of thing. I remember one particular charged discussion where the feedback to one unfortunate communications officer was, ‘Look, if you want me to include any of this, then bring it back when you’ve translated it. I speak English, not McKinsey.’

You may only be able to get away with that sort of challenge when you reach a certain level of organisational seniority; I would argue that it then becomes something akin to a prerequisite for good management.

If AI mimics the style of this text while making fundamental errors, then perhaps readers will come round to my way of thinking. Perhaps the assumption that obfuscation and bullshit are closely related will become more commonly entrenched.

If so, this could have the wonderful side effect of spurring people to put extra effort into writing concisely and precisely, lest their work be automatically assumed to be an AI output riddled with errors.

I can hope.

  1. The shot at the Civil Service is a bit cheap. For all I whinge about gov.uk from time to time, they do have top-notch style guide which includes ‘words to avoid’ for exactly these reasons. Unfortunately, it is not always followed.

The picture at the top of this post is an AI-generated image for the prompt ‘a robot talking nonsense, digital art’ created by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , .

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