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Twitter asks for help

The battle over "time well spent," which we first wrote about in January, has arrived at Twitter. It
March 1 · Issue #94 · View online
The Interface
The battle over “time well spent,” which we first wrote about in January, has arrived at Twitter. It came first to Facebook, where Mark Zuckerberg has tried shift the company from maximizing the time users spend using it to the number of “meaningful interactions” they have there. At Twitter, CEO Jack Dorsey says the company will now seek to “increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation around the world.” It just isn’t sure which metric it should optimize for.
In a series of tweets Thursday morning, CEO Jack Dorsey took the blame for the platform’s long history of neglect, and its negative effect on the global conversation. “We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers,” Dorsey wrote. “We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.”
Now the company will try to make up for lost time. But rather than build a solution in house, the company issued a request for proposals. “We are looking to partner with outside experts to help us identify how we measure the health of Twitter, keep us accountable to share our progress with the world and establish a way forward for the long-term,” the company wrote.
One partner the company has already worked with is Cortico, a nonprofit research group that spun out of the MIT Media Lab. Cortico believes that it’s possible to “measure the health of our public conversations,” based on four criteria:
1. Shared Attention: Is there overlap in what we are talking about?
2. Shared Reality: Are we using the same facts?
3. Variety: Are we exposed to different opinions grounded in shared reality?
4. Receptivity: Are we open, civil, and listening to different opinions?
(Based on my Twitter experience, the current answers to those questions as “no,” “no,” “sometimes,” and “no.”) Twitter intends to use those criteria as a starting point, it said: “We believe that we can identify indicators of conversational health that are even more specific to Twitter and its impact.”
Identifying the metrics, of course, is only a starting point. Once Twitter begins measuring the health of the platform, presumably it will find much to improve. How will the company go about it? This is an organization that still can’t reliably verify the names of its users. Product and policy changes that re-establish a shared reality can feel like too much to hope for.
Reading Dorsey’s tweets today, I was reminded of Joe Edelman’s concept of the Tamagotchi trap. Edelman created the Center for Humane Technology with Tristan Harris and coined the concept of “time well spent” with him. If you optimize your platform around a single metric, he writes, you inevitably begin treating people like digital pets:
To “nudge” users towards well-being or happiness — if it’s based on “science” rather than on the users’ own sense of what’s important — is to treat them like a Tamagotchi, a digital pet. You’ve decided what’s good for them.
I asked Edelman what he made of Twitter’s proposal today. He sent me an 11-minute voice message, which you can listen to here. (He’s lovely.) Edelman praised Twitter for asking for help, but he quibbled with Cortico’s approach to conversational health. “Variety” and “receptivity” are decent avenues to explore, he said: they correspond to real-world human values. But “shared attention” and “shared reality” don’t, he said:
“These are kind of gross,” he said. “I don’t think they correspond to any individual values. If anything they correspond to the values of people who want to set a public agenda. People who want to set a public agenda have a requirement that the public has shared agenda. I don’t know that that’s a good thing.”
Edelman said that instead of pushing for a return to the media environment of the 20th century, which is often put forward as a gold standard, platforms like Twitter should instead start from their users’ authentic values and build products around those. 
“It’s more about removing the incentives and barriers that get in the way of open-mindedness and honesty than it is the imposition of these second-order metrics,” he said. “So I think if Twitter were to just run with this Cortico stuff, they would really be causing a lot of trouble. Because they’d be getting away from the broad variety of values which tell us how we want to live and interact and engage with politics, and settling on a set of declarations about what works that really are not particularly grounded in what humans have decided works by adopting certain values over centuries.”

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