Category Archives: Media

A response to “The End of Twitter”

I really enjoy and usually agree with much of what Joshua Topolsky has to say about the world of tech and media but felt compelled to respond to his New Yorker article “The End of Twitter”

I wanted to annotate it with Genius but for whatever reason, wasn’t able to, so I’ll post sections I want to respond to here:

It wasn’t that long ago that I — and many other people I know — would have argued that Twitter was more than just another social network.

I’d argue it still is, there’s not really a strong argument here about what’s changed that would make that not the case. The article seems to focus on the financial and organization issues the company has had but not the service itself. Which, for someone like me, a self-admitted power user, who would normally scoff at major changes, hasn’t found any changes so drastic as to scare me away. The same utility that attracted me remains.

A lack of rigor in verifying reliable sources made information suspect or confusing. More troubling was the growing wave of harassment and abuse that users of the service were dealing with — a quagmire epitomized by the roving flocks of hateful, misogynistic, and well-organized

This contradicts the previous paragraph. (you’ll have to go and read it, I’m not going to copy and paste the whole article) Just a moment ago you were fine with the rawness of the feed but suddenly you’re not. I don’t know of any social media platform currently that plays an editorial role in choosing what’s accurate and what is not.

Facebook has surpassed the company by orders of magnitude, but it’s hardly Twitter’s only foe. Instagram, WhatsApp, and even WeChat all now have more individual users than Twitter does. Snapchat has almost caught Twitter, too.

You can’t on one hand complain about noise, a by-product of growth, and simultaneously cite a lack of growth. As a user, it doesn’t matter to me if Twitter grows to the size of Facebook, since at the current size it provides a tremendous utility. Were it to grow, I would simply want to continue to manage feeds my way, even if new users get a custom experience tailored by Twitter based on their behavior. It’s not difficult to offer both and I actually believe, in words and deeds, this is Twitter’s opinion as well.

In Facebook’s case, the company has demonstrated its mastery of product focus and long-term commitment to user experience.

Not exactly. Facebook Paper was a huge flop, they’ve had to reverse major changes to the NewsFeed several times, and in fact almost all internal products developed haven’t taken off. They’ve mainly innovated, product-wise, by acquisition, not by internal development.

If users get abusive on Facebook, they’re dealt with.

This isn’t backed up by any evidence. I would cite users who don’t agree with this but that too would be anecdotal. Since I am not the author of this piece, I think it’s incumbent for the author to actually back up his thesis that Facebook is a utopia for users looking for a harassment-free experience.

Unsurprisingly, the company’s stock has lost about fifty per cent of its value over the past three months.

I’m not sure Wall Street is the best measurement of if a service is useful or not. Is Twitter currently being run as a business that makes Wall Street happy? Obviously not, but again, I don’ think that’s an indication that people like the service or not.

…the service could run for another four hundred and twelve years with current losses.)

Which contradicts the title of this article, which is: The End of Twitter.

it’s not difficult to see a future in which Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or even a newcomer like Peach (yes, I am citing Peach) focus enough on real-time news that they obviate the need for Twitter’s narrow, noisy, and oft-changing ideas about social interaction.

It is, actually difficult to see, since none of these services were developed with the intention of being Twitter. Their users use those services because they’re offering something else that isn’t Twitter. Citing Peach seems like troll-bait, so I’ll just ignore that one.

If Facebook wanted a Twitter-replacement stand-alone app, they would have done it by now. I don’t think they’re interested in being in that business, for whatever reason. Perhaps the same reason they dumped Parse, it distracts from their main focus. (I wrote Fabric instead of Parse here originally, thanks for the heads up, Jana!)

This is especially notable to all of us in the world of media, the people who fill these services with highly valuable and hotly traded “content,” such as the piece you’re currently reading. Social media is a scale game or a product game, and Twitter is failing at both.

Is there any evidence to back up that media companies aren’t still publishing to Twitter at the same pace? I certainly don’t see individual journalists using Twitter less, in fact seems quite the opposite. It still is the #1 way I get news and before anywhere else.

Rumors currently swirl (and have been all but confirmed by Dorsey) that the service, best known and best loved for its tight hundred-and-forty-character limit — an economy that often forces clarity — will begin allowing ten-thousand-character Tweets with multiple images or video content.

But the experience will still start with a 140-character message, so while Twitter will allow you to go deeper, you’re still forced to provide what makes Twitter special, a short message that travels wide and can be quickly received.

That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. There are hundreds of millions of dedicated users (I count myself among them) who still see tremendous utility in the service.

This goes back to my earlier argument. I don’t care if Twitter is a multi-billion dollar company, I just want Twitter to be what it has always been for me. Hundreds of millions of users is a big deal, it doesn’t need to be the size of Facebook to be a sustainable business, it can be a great, but smaller business that provides the tremendous utility it already offers.

The company just needs to find the right way to show the power of those connections to a bigger audience, and the value of that audience to advertisers and partners. Not a simple task, but for Twitter an unavoidable one.

It doesn’t have to, but it wants to, but ultimately it could still be a very successful smaller business for a highly engaged audience. If Josh’s thesis would have been focused on the business, I would have a hard time disagreeing with him. The results (at least in the short term) look bleak, but I don’t agree that Twitter today is any less useful, or essential, than it ever was. I am still a hardcore user and fan.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Circa was an atom in the universe of Semantic Web and Structured Journalism. I’d like to think we created a Big Bang, which resulted in apps like NYT NowWSJ’s “What’s News”Yahoo’s News Digest and countless others. However, we didn’t create the concept, we just built upon it and hopefully took it further than it had been executed, or conceptualized before.

We were preceded by folks like Chris and Laura Amico at Homicide Watch and the LA Times Homicide ReportRegina Chua has been at this for years, Bill Adair of Politifact, journalist and computer scientist Jonathan Stray, and Zach Seward at Quartz, whose earlier work at WSJ preceded ours. We took cues from Zach’s work at Quartz as well. Adrian Holovaty was talking about this as far back as 2006!

Where I think Circa took a step forward from Homicide Watch and Politifact and others — was the idea that we could add structure to ANY story. Not just those that were in their wheelhouse (homicides, political statements). It was the idea that we could take ANY story and add a structured element to it — even if the only structure was “this item read, this item unread.”

Circa wasn’t and isn’t arrogant enough to think we came up with all the concepts we built upon, we integrated some and invented others. The important thing is that we acknowledge those who came before us and their work that helped us move the ball further down the field.

I do think there are a few concepts that Circa created and executed upon that were truly “inventions” in the sense we came up with new concepts and executed on them, when others had not before. If you think I’m wrong, I’d be happy to listen but here goes. Among them:

Following the long arc of a story through atomic elements

The concept of atomizing news was not something Circa invented but the idea of using those atoms, apply metadata to them and allowing a reader to follow discrete stories which would only push to you the atomic units you had not already read had not and has since not been done before. You could follow the evolution of stories that went on for days, weeks, months and even years without ever re-reading anything you already knew. If you forgot the background information, you could still scroll back up or down and read the story as if you were coming to it fresh. We satisfied both new readers and longtime followers at the same time.

It’s such a great concept that the New York Times recently thought of it too!

The Particles approach suggests that we need to identify the evergreen, reusable pieces of information at the time of creation, so that they can be reused in new contexts. It means that news organizations are not just creating the “first draft of history”, but are synthesizing the second draft at the same time, becoming a resource for knowledge and civic understanding in new and powerful ways.

Reusable, completely customizable atomic story elements

The first point is in service of the story. This concept is in service of being able to present discrete elements of the story anywhere.

This is the basis of what is now becoming a big deal in publishing. Facebook’s Instant Articles and others are ushering in a way of taking existing stories and serving them up in more lightweight formats for specific usage. Intially the application is smartphones, but soon likely wearables and others.

Circa built everything that comprised an article in a way that it wasn’t a slave to the container you were consuming it in. This actually goes several steps further than what Instant Articles and others are doing (as far as I can tell) and allowed us to easily port and manipulate very granual story elements into limitless destinations.

Oh look, the New York Times just thought of that too!

Finally, the recent proliferation of new devices and platforms for media consumption creates new pressures for news organizations to programmatically identify the pieces of information within an article. Consider every new platform and product to which news organizations currently publish their content, and how each of those outputs requires a different format and presentation.

A publishing platform that made our team more efficient

Circa’s staff writers and editors used a completely homegrown CMS called KPS (knowledge publishing system) and were in the process of building its next generation platform, which was revolutionary. I hope we might be able to reveal all the elements of that system someday, but that decision is no longer in my hands. I can tell you that KPS allowed us to easily reuse, rearrange and add metadata to discrete atomic elements of the stories we built and allowed us to publish faster and more accurately than many of our better resourced peers.

But if Particles were treated as their own first-class elements that were encoded, tagged, and embeddable, contextual information would be easy for a journalist to find. All kinds of newsroom tools could be built to allow journalists to leverage the rich body of previous reporting to make their jobs easier and more efficient.

Sounds familiar.

I think what the New York Times is conceptualizing is exciting and interesting but it’s also something that we and others have discussed and executed on already. It would be great if that was simply acknowledged.

This concept builds on ideas that have been discussed under the rubric of the Semantic Web for quite a while

…and I don’t think that is quite sufficient, as far as an acknowledgement.