When Your Lived Reality becomes an Algorithm of the Popular

Yesterday, as people panicked about Twitter’s plan to present tweets to users using algorithmic calculations of what that person might like, I wrote this:

What if humans started to experience time as an algorithm of the popular rather than lived narratively ordered experience?

Especially since I work from home and in flyover country, Twitter is very much a lived conversation for me. And if Twitter alters the way it appears to me — basically choosing who it thinks I want to talk to rather than what the serendipity of the unique collection of people I follow presents in time-ordered fashion — it will be fairly dramatically altering my lived reality.

The thought got even creepier for me as respondents to my tweet (author William Gibson was among those who retweeted it, so I got so really awesome responses) pointed out that associations divorced from lived time is much closer to dreaming than waking reality. Of course, as a shrink friend noted, in dreaming, we consciously and unconsciously select what those associations are, rather than having a computer do it for us.

So thought of as its almost most dystopian, Twitter wants to take the serendipitous global conversation we’ve been having and instead replace it with a living dream world chosen for us algorithmically.

But let me go one step more dystopian. As I noted yesterday, Google recently told the British Parliament that it is testing ways to show “positive” ad words and YouTubes when people look for hateful, potentially terrorist speech. Google’s announcement follows an earlier one from Facebook, stating it would do the same.

In other words, since the early January meeting in Silicon Valley, two of the big tech companies announced plans to rejigger their algorithms selectively for users the algos identify as expressing an interest in terrorism. For those interested in terrorism, Google and Facebook will create a waking dreamworld.

Thus far, Twitter has made no such announcement. Yesterday (that is, the same day this algorithm report came out) it did, however, announce how many perceived terrorists it has kicked off Twitter.

Like most people around the world, we are horrified by the atrocities perpetrated by extremist groups. We condemn the use of Twitter to promote terrorism and the Twitter Rules make it clear that this type of behavior, or any violent threat, is not permitted on our service. As the nature of the terrorist threat has changed, so has our ongoing work in this area. Since the middle of 2015 alone, we’ve suspended over 125,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS.

The blog post making that announcement also addressed algorithms, admitting that they can’t really work, linking to this report from December (which discussed Facebook and Google) on another presentation to the UK Parliament.

As many experts and other companies have noted, there is no “magic algorithm” for identifying terrorist content on the internet, so global online platforms are forced to make challenging judgement calls based on very limited information and guidance. In spite of these challenges, we will continue to aggressively enforce our Rules in this area, and engage with authorities and other relevant organizations to find solutions to this critical issue and promote powerful counter-speech narratives.

All of which might have left the impression that Twitter, unlike its counterparts Google and Facebook, would not be fiddling with its algorithms in response to the request to magnify voices deemed to be positive targeted at those seeking terrorism content.

Except that at almost exactly the same time, came these reports that everyone would get (or would get the option of) the algorithmic treatment.

Now, having studied how, after 1848, the powers that be in Paris found ways to eliminate the growing newspaper public in the belief that it had led to that year’s revolution (that’s partly where the idea of high literature, as embodied in Madame Bovary, arose from), I’m pretty paranoid when I see the ways the elite would current neuter the voices that contributed to the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and yes, terrorism.

But I have to say, I always get buggy when communications companies — like AT&T and Microsoft — don’t have an apparently robust business model, especially when I consider ways they could (and do, in the case of AT&T) profit handsomely off working for the government. Most people assume Twitter is doing this as a way to monetize, which it has thus far failed to do. And that may well be the case.

If so, who is the customer, and what is Twitter delivering?

Update: Jack Dorsey just had this to say on Twitter.

Hello Twitter! Regarding #RIPTwitter: I want you all to know we’re always listening. We never planned to reorder timelines next week.

Twitter is live. Twitter is real-time. Twitter is about who & what you follow. And Twitter is here to stay! By becoming more Twitter-y.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

24 replies
  1. scribe says:

    Ummm, Ms. Wheel, talking about meaning:
    .

    Now, having studied how, after 1848, the powers that be in Paris found ways to eliminate the growing newspaper public in the belief that it had led to that year’s revolution (that’s partly where the idea of high literature, as embodied in Madame Bovary, arose from), …

    .
    What’s your meaning?
    .
    Should it instead read:
    .

    Now, having studied how, after 1848, the powers that be in Paris found ways to eliminate in the growing newspaper public in the belief that it [which “it” – the public or the newspapers?] had led to that year’s revolution (that’s partly where the idea of high literature, as embodied in Madame Bovary, arose from), …

    .
    Or am I just dreaming?

    • emptywheel says:

      Nope. I’ll try to clarify but basically what they tried to do, very very literally, was “discipline” what they called the literary sphere. Taxes and rules about content (on top of existing rules), but the entire point of Madame Bovary about dirty serials was meant to discredit what had,up to that point, been accepted as literature.

      • scribe says:

        You know this stuff cold, but the vast majority of us don’t. I think I an speak for a lot of us by asking you flesh out what you meant.

        • bmaz says:

          The other great thing about Ballys is that they are broken in about an hour after you start wearing them.

  2. Rayne says:

    I am Jack’s cold sweat.

    Seriously can’t tell now if Jack is really a function of our troubled collective consciousness struggling to reach a consensus about a digital commons.

    IMO, Twitter lost its way in two phases: when it went public, and when Dorsey stepped away. Once Twitter had to answer to investment banks’ analysts — who truly do not understand the organic nature of social media because they are socially challenged themselves — the business lost sight of users and chased the wrong goals. Dorsey had a grasp on this before he left the helm, but on his return he’s found it’s a totally different creature by scale and expectations, and he’s trying to reorient to it while trying to make investors happy.

    Twitter ends up chasing two different measures which are often not compatible:
    — more new users (which investment bankers stupidly demand, expecting another goddamned Facebook), and
    — more revenues (but pushing-pushing-pushing ads may only chase off the best users who are also best content providers).

    Twitter needs to back off on one of these, and explain to the investment bankers that Twitter may be more like a Lexis-Nexis than a Google. There’s a finite audience for L-N, but their consistency and their quality makes L-N a hedge against volatility in a portfolio.

    After reading feedback about the anticipated change including tweets from a Twitter engineer, I’m not as concerned. The buzz says algorithmically filtered timeline is an opt-in feature, offering content not unlike While You Were Away which we’ve all rather accepted without a lot of fuss. BUT…tweets from a Twitter engineer suggest that Twitter’s own developers do NOT understand how the rest of us experience Twitter. They don’t understand their own product very well as users. This is a really big problem, and may explain why Twitter has been so slow to address problems users have, including Terms of Service complaints. Until their experience of Twitter aligns with ours, there will be a disconnect — a disruption in The Matrix.

    • orionATL says:

      anytime a corporate honcho speaks like this:

      “… Hello Twitter! Regarding #RIPTwitter: I want you all to know… Twitter is live. Twitter is real-time. Twitter is about who & what you follow. And Twitter is here to stay! By becoming more Twitter-y…. ”

      you know you are going to get fucc’ed later than sooner, i. e., ” we are shelving this idea our income r&d staff came up with for now, but…. ”

      “Twittery-y? ”

      jesus!

  3. scribe says:

    Facts are stubborn things. Twenty and thirty years ago, we saw concerted attacks directed at damned tassel-loafer-wearing trial lawyers*. These were people who, inconveniently, had the professional duty of digging out facts and applying them, which usually redounded to the economic disadvantage of TPTB. After a generation of those attacks, the simple rear-end hit case with an unoperated herniated lumbar disc and no radiculopathy went from a value of $40k to $60k to maybe $25k (in absolute dollars, before inflation took its cut), assuming one can get the case over the insurance-company-friendly hurdles placed, by compliant governments, in the way of ever getting into court.
    .
    Fifteen years ago, we had the Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer telling us to “watch what we say, what we do” lest we be deemed to be assisting the terrorists. (Now, it appears he works tamping down PED allegations involving Nationwide’s Mr. Off-key Pitchman. If the Fox sports-talk radio is to be believed, the tampdown involves “goons”, “men in black”, making sure people get the right story. When he’s not working for the No Fun League.)
    .
    8 or 9 years ago, we had an Obama poster reminiscent of something out of the Stalinist cult of personality and, lo and behold, we got just that. Right down to O-bots rationalizing mass murder by drone and laughing heartily as he threatened to use those tools of war on teenaged suitors.
    .
    Now this? Big f’g deal, but truly a big f’g deal. It’s just the latest iteration of the same PTB trying, desperately, to maintain their position on top of the pile in the system they inherited, built and seek to preserve, all while staring straight into the headlights of the oncoming disasters that very system will bring: unchecked global warming; trashing the planet; mass extinctions; new, weird contagions spreading explosively through mass intercontinental transportation that takes far less time than the incubation period (This year, Zika. Last year, Ebola. Every now and again, a new flu); mass migrations of refugees driven from their homes by war between religious fundamentalists (on the one hand) and repressive dictators (are there any other kind) (on the other), said wars being amped up by nation states which should know better sticking their noses in to favor someone they think would benefit their “interests”; mass migrations of those same refugees leading otherwise sensible nations (EU, I’m looking at you) to toss aside in days and weeks all semblance of their sense and civil liberties in order to keep those dark-skins out.
    .
    I’m supposed to be surprised? As I recall it – the literary types can correct me – but didn’t Brave New World and any other number of dystopian pieces of literature and film forecast future worlds in which the only way to keep the masses under control involved drugs administered involuntarily, governmental violence, and media sources spouting nonsense?
    .
    Yet another reason I don’t twitter.
    —–
    * My good tasseled loafers are Italian-made Ballys I bought – the adamant insistence of my then significant other overwhelming my innate skinflint – at an outlet store for $200 some 25 years ago. They have outlasted a dozen sets of Bass loafers, made in some free-trade-friendly jurisdiction after that company’s American owners sold out, put American workers out of work while telling them how stupid they were, took the money, and became Buffett billionaires while the company – actually just its intellectual property – moved offshore. On the Bass shoes, the pressed-and-glued sawdust that bulked up the heels tended to crumble. The leather parts of the soles wears out in a heartbeat, particularly under the big toe. Before the sole wears out, the stitching holding that sole to the shoe wears out and rots. So, you wind up with wet toes and the front of the sole flapping and catching on things. OTOH, the Ballys, whose leather sole is less than half as thick as those on the Bass shoes, show little to no wear. Buying nice back then, I made out in the long run.
    But that’s not the only time that happened. My regular brown leather gloves are a pair I bought in East Berlin back in 1984 for maybe 5 or 7 bucks (nice exchange rate). 32 years of use and barely showing wear. Best Communist quality. The stuff sold now falls apart in a couple years. But today’s stuff falling apart does keep the sales figures high. And making the quarterlies is all that really counts, isn’t it?

    • orionATL says:

      you should have listened more to that significant other; think where your career would be now.

      (and you’d have had someone to take care of your old friend whenever you wanted to spend two months in alemania.)

      • scribe says:

        That S.O. was always looking for, and eventually found, a better offer. A lot “better” by society’s standards, or at least those of TPTB. How much better, you don’t wanna know.
        .
        Knowing myself, if I’d have gone down that road I’d be quite miserable. I’m happy with the road I’ve chosen and followed.

          • martin says:

            “Kathy Mattea gives us one example of what you might encounter in your alternative timeline, in “Where’ve You Been”

            Damn. Thanks bloopie. Been a while since I’ve heard music with that level of emotion. Still choking back the tears. Saw my folks go through a similar event.

    • Peterr says:

      Top to bottom, well said. Especially this:

      . . . the latest iteration of the same PTB trying, desperately, to maintain their position on top of the pile in the system they inherited, built and seek to preserve, all while staring straight into the headlights of the oncoming disasters that very system will bring . . .

  4. orionATL says:

    “… What if humans started to experience time as an algorithm of the popular rather than lived narratively ordered experience?…”

    this seems to me related to the situation of humans experiencing the behavior of other humans outside their physical social circle almost entirely through incorporeal electronic media – e. g., television broadcasts, broadcasts that have been jiggered by corporations for money and/or by governments for power. thus, for example, a news broadcast, movie, or tv show is a manipulation creating an electronic social reality, manipulation sometimes enhanced by arousing the autonomic fight/flight instinctive response thru terrifying visuals, loud noises, or fearful scenarios.

    politically, in this ersatz social reality politicians are not real people; their real behavior is not observable. they are electronic avatars of the real politician-person whom voting citizens can never know, e. g., the television candidate donald trump (whose electronic persona some voters actually feel they do know) .

    this fake reality :) supports the misleading, corrupting influence of television political advertising on american government.

    in some way all this seems related to marshall maclulan’s now ancient notion of “the global village”, an imaginary entity constructed by instantaneous electronic communication, but with the twist added of corporate/government manipulation of social reality that i’m not sure macluhan ever envisioned.

  5. bloopie2 says:

    There’s precedent for an enforced reordering of one’s affairs. It happens in the “when you’re old” timeline. You really should think about that for a while; about how it … is; and about how it almost assuredly will come upon you, like it or not. You’ll realize that there’s no way in hell you should ever let yourself get dragged into any such algorithmic bullshit.
    .
    Many with dementia experience it – a current event pushes the mind back in time. Kathy Mattea gives us one example of what you might encounter in your alternative timeline, in “Where’ve You Been”:
    .
    Claire soon lost her memory
    Forgot the names of family
    She never spoke a word again
    Then one day, they wheeled him in
    He held her hand and stroked her hair
    In a fragile voice she said
    Where’ve you been?
    I’ve looked for you forever and a day
    Where’ve you been?
    I’m just not myself when you’re away
    No, I’m just not myself when you’re away
    .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nl5Uog-MDGo
    .
    Do not do this. Do not go gently.

  6. rg says:

    I also want to get into the “what did you mean by that?”. I suspect a part of it was that you were referring to the newspaper-reading public; no?

    • emptywheel says:

      Yes: with the serialization of “novels” (they weren’t but we now call them that) in the daily news you integrated a lot more people into the “public.” Even before 1848, the papers were forced to be pretty institutional (plus the cost of printing presses led to that as well). But the idea was the stories being told were too … something. Thus the literal sneer at that kind of reading public in Madame Bovary.

  7. Kathleen says:

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n01/seymour-m-hersh/military-to-military
    Military to Military
    Seymour M. Hersh on US intelligence sharing in the Syrian war

    Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. Their criticism has focused on what they see as the administration’s fixation on Assad’s primary ally, Vladimir Putin. In their view, Obama is captive to Cold War thinking about Russia and China, and hasn’t adjusted his stance on Syria to the fact both countries share Washington’s anxiety about the spread of terrorism in and beyond Syria; like Washington, they believe that Islamic State must be stopped.

      • Kathleen says:

        Have been well thanks for asking and back at you. Somehow after 30 years of raising kids a five year break after the youngest went off to college and now allowed myself to be roped into taking care of 1 and 3 year old grandboys and 87 year old mother (an honor). However kicking my ass.

    • bloopie2 says:

      I’m curious if there’s Anything that all parties agree on, when it comes to Middle East policy. If not, then Everything is debatable, and one person’s fixation is another person’s idiocy, and the other person’s well-grounded belief is the first person’s nuttiness. Or whatever. Anyone?

      • Kathleen says:

        Did you read the piece? Horrendous death, destruction and millions of refugees as a result partially of Obama administrations actions are not “debatable” War crimes.

        • bloopie2 says:

          No, I admit I did not read it until now. Sure, the death and destruction in Syria is partially Obama’s fault. But let’s keep him in, then, right, and get ourselves another Egypt, in which “right thinking” people criticize Obama for supporting the tyrant. My point, inartfully made, was that there is NO policy that all will agree on. The Hersh article notes that there is disagreement on the issue and leans in one direction. I’m sure there are other articles by others “in the know”, that lean in the other direction. Hersh may be absolutely correct that there is (was) this strong disagreement and pushback, but that’s his only successfully presented point. His article does not successfully argue the point that Obama is wrong; thus, there is still disagreement, and it is still debatable, as I noted above. That was the point of my comment.

    • wayoutwest says:

      Sy Hersh is the Pied Piper of some factions in the Intelligence Military Complex so it’s best to beware of where he is leading people.

      Obama and the Western PTB’s fixation on Putin’s Russia and even China are hardly Cold War thinking which was ideology based. Russia and China have embraced the Capitalist model wholeheartedly and China has excelled in their market based progress, Russia is not an economic threat like China but its energy dominance in Europe is an economic threat to those important US vassal states.

      Putin thinks that he and Russia deserve something more than vassal status under the Hegemon and has shown his willingness to use his military, backed by their Nuclear Superpower status, to expand his influence beyond what their Mexico sized economic power would otherwise allow. This is a dangerous combination but thinking or wishing the US would or could change its attitude about Russia is fantasy.

      China is a strange frenemy of the US with the economic power Russia lacks but they depend on our and other western markets as much as we depend on them for our manufacturing and we work with them on security issues in Africa. The problem is that their success at adopting Capitalism and their expanding military power is threatening our other vassals, many of them with long term conflicts with China, in Asia who must be shown that we will protect their interests. Abandoning these vassals to Chinese hegemony is not likely and the coming TPP shows that economic power will be the main tool used to blunt China’s expanding power.

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