What I Want Out of Twitter

The Internet is having one of its periodic “Twitter is doomed” spasms, and this means that everyone and their sister has an idea of what Twitter should do in order to save itself. Well, this is what Twitter should do to save itself: Sell itself to Google, which will allow the company to do what it does well (be a place for people to yak about shit for 140 characters at a time) while Google does what it does (mine the shit out of the things people are tweeting in order to sell ads). Done and done.

What I’m more interested in is how Twitter can make itself better, which is a different question than how Twitter can be saved. Twitter’s major issue, as everyone except apparently Twitter’s C-bench knows, is that there are a bunch of shitheads on it who like to roll up to whomever they see as targets (often women and/or people in marginalized groups) and dogpile on them. That’s no good.

I get my own fair share of jerks trying to make my Twitter existence miserable, so over time I’ve developed some strategies to trim those down. The problem here is that they require me to be an expert Twitter user, and do things like use a Twitter client with more features than the native web/mobile interface, and also simply to make rules in terms of interaction that don’t involve Twitter at all (see: the Scamperbeasts Rule). It also requires me to have a certain level of “don’t give a fuck” attitude, which fortunately I have.

But then, I’m a well-off straight white dude, and I can laugh off some mouth breather saying stupid things to me. If I were a woman and getting a constant stream of rape and death threats, I’m not sure I could do that, and I’m not sure that I should be required to be an “expert” user not to have to see this stuff. More to the point, this shit exists on Twitter because the assholes know it’s hard to filter it out; they know their target has to see it first to block or mute it.

I think it’s fine if Twitter’s philosophy is that everyone, including complete shitbags, have a right to an account on the service. But I think it would be useful if Twitter also incorporated into its philosophy, far more robustly than it has, that everyone is allowed to decide who is allowed to impinge on their time, and timeline. There are things that Twitter can probably do, pretty easily, to both give their users control of their timelines and to make it clear to assholes that Twitter is not a great place for them to troll and threaten.

Now, as it happens, Randi Lee Harper (who knows from trolls on Twitter) has a long piece on what she would suggest to make this a reality, complete with estimations of the technical difficulty of making the changes, and she put it up here. I recommend you read it. I also have some thoughts, which I will detail below. Some of what I suggest will overlap with what she has to say; some will not.

So, if Twitter were asking me what I wanted out of Twitter to make it an optimal service for me, here’s what I would suggest, in no particular order:

1. Timed mutes. Before Twitter started being jerks to third party software, I used Janetter to read my timelines, and the thing I loved most about it was that you could specify how long you wanted to mute people, for times as little as 30 minutes to as long as forever. This was great because sometimes I had friends who’d go on a tweet-jag about something I didn’t care about, or one of the people I followed got into it with another and their back-and-forth jammed up my timeline, or just sometimes someone I usually liked exhausted me and I wanted to take a break from them for a week. Likewise, sometimes a random person would tweet something stupid at me and I didn’t want to see that tweet anymore but I didn’t want to exile them out of my timeline forever, because, well, we all say stupid things from time to time.

Neither Twitter’s main web/mobile interface or its Tweetdeck client allows timed mutes, which means I have to choose between muting someone (and then possibly forgetting I wanted to unmute them at some point) or putting up with their crap on my timeline. Timed mutes solve that problem.

2. Mutable phrases/hashtags in the web/mobile Twitter UI. Tweetdeck, which is owned by Twitter, allows you to mute words as well as accounts, and this is handy because most of the jackasses who try to troll me will “@” some account they look up to or want to impress, so by making that second account handle a mutable phrase, I substantially cut down on the amount of stupid I have to see. Having that in the main UI, both on the Web and on mobile, would be super-useful.

3. Make mute/block lists native to Twitter and shareable across clients. I use the Tweetdeck client on mobile through the Web interface, which is horrible and has all sorts of “quirky” bugs. Why do I do it? Because my considerable “mute” list is stored on the Tweetdeck client and not by Twitter itself — which means anyone I’ve muted on Tweetdeck is not automatically muted on Twitter. I’d have to do it all again. I’ve got 1,500 accounts muted (so far). That’s a lot of work to duplicate. If Twitter stored the list and shared it with any clients I used (including its own), that would be fantastic.

4. Make mute/block lists easily shareable through Twitter between followers. I’ve muted 1,500 accounts, as noted above. It would be really useful for friends who don’t want to handcraft a mute list to be able to use mine as a starter. It would be even more useful if they could do it right through Twitter. Now, there are block lists out there right now but they do require you to export/import them in order to share them; as far as I know there’s no way to share mute lists. So making the latter sharable and having it all done in the client is the goal.

5. Robust filtering. Here are some things I would want to control for, in terms of whose responses to me I see in my replies timeline:

  • Account start date: I’d specify that accounts less than two weeks old would not show up in my replies (unless I chose to follow/whitelist them).
  • Account follower number: I’d specify that accounts with less than 100 users would not show up in my replies (unless I chose to follow/whitelist them).
  • Account icon: I’d specify that accounts that haven’t switched their Twitter icon from the default egg icon would not show up in my replies (unless I chose to follow/whitelist them).

Control of just these three things, at those levels, would automatically get rid of probably 90% of all “sockpuppet” accounts, i.e., the supplementary Twitter accounts assholes make to make it look like there are more of them and/or to get around being blocked. It would commensurately likely reduce the number of people sockpuppeting because they would know there’s no point. The numbers above for the account start date and follower number are my own; I think Twitter should allow people to specify the numbers.

Other things to allow filtering of:

  • Profile keywords: If I could filter out every single account that had “#GamerGate” in its profile text, as an example, my replies would have been a lot quieter in the last couple of years.
  • Accounts based on who they follow: Right now I’m thinking of five Twitter accounts of people I think are basically real assholes. I suspect that if you are following all five of them, you are probably also an asshole, and I don’t want to hear from you. In this particular case I think it’d useful to have the filtering be fine-grained, as in, rather than just filtering everyone who followed one account, you’d filter them if they followed Account 1 AND Account 2 AND Account 3 (and so on). It would also be useful to be able to do this more than once, i.e., have more than one follower filter, because often it’s not just one group being annoying.

6. Muting in Notifications and Direct Messages. If you mute someone, you don’t see them in your reply thread. But! As Twitter itself notes: “@ replies and mentions by the muted account will still appear in your Notifications tab,” and “Muting an account does not impact the account’s ability to send you a Direct Message.” It seems to me that if you’ve muted someone, you don’t want to see them. So users should at least have the option to extend muting to notifications and direct messages.

7. The ability to see only replies/notifications from those you follow/whitelist. Twitter kinda does this via private accounts, where the only people who can follow you are those you approve, so the replies will be from those folks. But that’s an ass-backwards way of doing it. Much simpler just to have a “Followers Only” option, either for the tweetstream in general, or for individual tweets (or both! Why not both!). Twitter already does something like this; verified accounts have the option of seeing only the replies/notifications from other verified accounts.

Notice that none of this so far requires Twitter to penalize or punish the accounts being muted or blocked, so mewling cries of “censorship!” can be easily ignored. Leaving aside that Twitter is not the government and as a private entity is allowed to say who may and may not speak on its service (and has a user policy that spells this out in any event), nothing above stops anyone from saying whatever they want on Twitter. It merely means that others are not obliged to listen. No one is guaranteed an audience.

Does this mean that I think Twitter shouldn’t boot and/or report accounts that threaten other users, or use the steps above to ignore or minimize threats of violence? Nope! I think that incorporating the things above will make Twitter less attractive to assholes in a general sense, and that’d be great, but that doesn’t mean that it will stop them completely. More to the point, it’s entirely possible that it’s not safe for some folks to ignore the messages assholes send them. As I’ve noted above, muting really solves a lot of problems for me, but then again, people don’t actively go out of their way to threaten me with rape or death. Not everyone has that luxury.

So for the people who have more to worry about than I do, but also want to have their general timestreams not filled with assholes spewing hate:

8. An optional tab where muted/blocked account replies can go. Wait, if you’ve muted/blocked someone, don’t you not want to see them? Indeed, you don’t! Or at the very least you don’t want to see them in the stream of daily conversation. But if you worry that there will be substantive threats to you among those accounts you’ve muted/blocked, then it’d be useful to have a quarantined area where you can see them and report the worst of them to Twitter. And that Twitter actually did something about them, with respect to their presence on the service, and when necessary (and agreed to by the person being threatened) in reporting the threatening accounts to appropriate authorities.

So these are the things I want out of Twitter, and not, say, tweets being longer. Note that I think having tweets be more than 140 characters will really mess with the character of Twitter and will make it into a second-rate Facebook. We already have a second-rate Facebook, called Facebook. Rather than potentially doing silly things like that, just give users more control of their own timestreams. It’ll make Twitter better, and something that people will still want to be part of.

Various and Sundry, 2/16/16

In which I catch up, briefly, on all the things:

* Hey, did you hear that Antonin Scalia died? Well, he did. I heard about just before I did my book signing session at ConDFW (which was lovely, more on that in a second), and roughly every fourth person in the signing line took it on themselves to let me know he’d died! In Texas! While I was in the same state! Isn’t that odd!

(It’s not odd. Texas is a big damn state, and Scalia was 79. These things happen.)

I wasn’t a fan of Scalia’s interpretation of the Constitution most of the time, and oh yes, Scalia interpreted the Constitution as much as any “activist judge” could be accused of; “Originalism” in general is a bunch of happy horseshit, since it pretty much boils down to “I’m going to rule however I want and blame it on James Madison.” Nice try, Scalia (and others), but no. That said, he and I have a few points in common, typically as they related to free speech — See Texas v. Johnson, United States v. Eichman and so on — so I can’t say there haven’t been moments where I didn’t appreciate him being on the bench, even if on balance I saw him being on the wrong side of history rather more often than not.

Now that Scalia’s dead, Mitch McConnell and other Republicans are trying to float the idea that Obama shouldn’t be allowed to name Scalia’s successor because “the people should have their say,” as if a) presidents have not nominated (and the Senate approved) judges in election years numerous times before, b) presidential terms somehow magically end more than eleven months before the new president takes up the gig. Speaking as one of “the people,” and specifically one of the people who voted for Obama in 2012 and will vote in the election of 2016, I know I didn’t and don’t vote for a president to have three quarters of a term; I voted for them to have a whole one.

Also, you know, the Constitution, of which Scalia was reportedly fond of, does not say “The president shall nominate Justices to the Supreme Court, unless it’s, like, less than a year before he’s out of office, or Mitch McConnell doesn’t like him, in which case screw that dude.” In this situation, what would Scalia do? The answer, as noted above, is “whatever he wanted, then he would blame Madison,” but in this specific case, the Constitution is pretty non-ambiguous about what needs to happen.

Bear in mind that if the Senate really is going to try to block Obama from making an appointment, no matter who he nominates, what they are doing is giving him a bludgeon, with which to pummel the entire Republican party, during an election year. I think Obama, who since the 2014 election is definitely in the “no fucks to give” phase of his presidency, will be delighted to pummel the GOP all the merry day long. So, you know. Go ahead, Mitch! You did a bang up job of limiting Obama to a single term. I’m sure this spectacular new plan of yours could in no way fail.

* On the subject of Republicans, a friend wrote me to complain that I had not written on the Saturday GOP debate. My excuse is that I was at a science fiction convention so my brain was busy elsewhere, and also that evening given the choice of watching the GOP debate or not, I went with not and watched Bridge of Spies instead. Hey, my pal Tom is in that movie! And I suspected it was going to be more coherent than anything that could come out of that debate. And wouldn’t you know, having seen the “highlights” of that debate, I was entirely correct!

At this point I can’t even image what it’s like to be a potential GOP voter here in 2016, and knowing that your top three choices for the job of Most Powerful Human Being on the Planet are a racist buffoon, a fumbling empty suit, and The Most Disliked Man in Politics, Ever. I’m not saying the GOP doesn’t deserve this; this is the bed it’s been making for itself since 1994 at least. But the rest of the country doesn’t deserve it. We’re getting it anyway.

(Oh, and the spectacle of Trump threatening to sue Cruz unless he stops being mean and lying all the time? It’s perfect, in the sense of “perfect” which means “Bless both their hearts.”)

* Moving away from politics, I spent last weekend at ConDFW, a very nice convention in Dallas, where I was on a bunch of panels, did a reading, and played the spaceship simulator Artemis, acting as the captain of the USS Scamperbeast. The game had a 20-minute time limit, and before we started I was asked if I wanted the game to go longer. I said “no, 20 minutes is perfect.” And then we played the game, and literally as the USS Scamperbeast was out of weapons, energy and shields, and two enemy spaceships were literally seconds away from blowing us out of the sky — our 20 minutes were up. That counts as a win, people. Also I’ve learned that I am a competent starship captain for exactly 20 minutes. After that: doooooooooom. But until then, I’m your man.

* Traveling to a convention and back again meant I was scarce here the last several days. Well, guess what? I’m soon to get on a boat, and will not be going online at all unless absolutely necessary, for about a week. So enjoy me while you have me, people!

RIP, Bud Webster

A moment here to note the passing of Bud Webster, science fiction writer and fan, and a SFWA colleague of mine who ran the SFWA Estate Project, which helped editors, publishers and others find rights holders to the work of writers who had passed on. I was privileged while SFWA president to be on the board that commemorated his good work for the organization with the Service to SFWA Award. I know he was genuinely honored to receive it, and we were genuinely honored to give it to him. His good work survives him.

A longer obit for Bud is at File 770, and I encourage you all to check it out. And if you are a writer, I encourage you to read this piece by Bud, about why it’s important to get your estate in order. He would know. He was the expert on it.

Condolences to Bud’s wife Mary and to his many friends.

The Big Idea: Randy Henderson

Warning: Randy Henderson nameschecks a lot of questionable movies in this Big Idea for Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free. But it’s for a good reason! Honest!

RANDY HENDERSON:

“Hey, what’s the Big Idea?” Finn asked.  “Didn’t we do this for Finn Fancy Necromancy?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “But this is to talk about your adventures since then.”

“Adventures?  Ha!  Excitement?  Ha!  A character craves not these things — or at least this character doesn’t.  Yet some sadistic author apparently gets his thrills by making me run from danger to dating to deathiness.”

“Oh, come on,” I said.  “If I’d just let you retire to Character Heaven you would’ve totally missed me.”

“Right.  I so couldn’t live without you.”

“Actually, if you want to get technical –”

“You know what I meant!”  Finn snapped.

“You act like it’s all bad,” I said.  “But if I hadn’t written Bigfootloose, you wouldn’t have gotten to reconnect with your family.”

“Have you met my family?  No.  You just created them, you don’t have to actually deal with them.”

“Okay.  How about catching up on that twenty-five years of pop culture you missed while exiled in the Fey Other Realm?”

“You only caught me up to 1989 in this book.”

“And you’re welcome!  You got to see Star Trek IV, Robocop, Willow, Die Hard — a ton of great movies.”

“And had to listen to ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’!” Finn shouted.  “1988 was, like, the Bog of Eternal Stench of music!”

“How about you just Don’t Worry, Be Happy then?” I said.  “‘Cause I’m never gonna give you up.”

“You suck, Henderson.”

“Fine.  What about this: if I hadn’t written you another adventure, you wouldn’t have gotten sexy time with your girlfriend.”

“…”

“Uh huh,” I said.  “Thought so.”

“Whatever.  Aren’t you supposed to be talking about the Big Idea of Bigfootloose, not my sex life, oh master of my fate?”

“Right.  Well, in book one, the idea was just to have fun.  So I guess the Big Idea for this book was: how do I take a novel I wrote just to be fun, and really build the basis for a series?”

“You could have just suddenly made everyone aliens, like in Highlander 2.”

“Sure!” I said.  “Or I could have stabbed my eyes out with a plastic spoon and saved some time!”

“Fine then.  So would you say Bigfootloose is more like Conan the Destroyer, or Beastmaster 2?”

“Very funny.  Actually, I was trying more for Empire Strikes Back.”

“A bit ambitious for you, don’t you think?” Finn asked.

“Wow.  Thanks.”

“I just meant this isn’t exactly an epic for the ages you’re writing here.  But it is good to dream.  I guess I should just be happy you didn’t say Wrath of Khan.  Not that anyone would mess with that.”

“Ummm …”

“What?  No!  Please tell me nobody dared mess with Khan.  Might as well mess with The Hobbit, or Clash of the Titans.  I mean, once it’s done right –”

I cleared my throat.  “SO, as I was saying, in Bigfootloose I wanted to take the world hinted at in Finn Fancy Necromancy and really dig into it, to expand on the cultures and rules of human magic users and feybloods creatures in our world, and the Fey in the Other Realm, and explore the relationships and tensions between the three groups.  And I wanted to dig a little deeper into the characters, and their relationships.”

“Oh, is THAT what you were doing?” Finn said.  “Because to me, you know, it felt like you were throwing me into the middle of a feyblood rebellion and expecting me to not only save the world but somehow find a date for that sasquatch, Sal, all while trying to figure out my own life.  Silly me for completely stressing out!

“I’m sorry, but people want the adventure, and drama, and sexy time.  Not that you’ve had much of the last bit.”

“Wow.  Just tell the whole world, why don’t you?”

“Finn, you do realize that your life is literally an open book?”

“Okay, that is totally non-non-non-non-heinous.  Just tell me you don’t plan to cut off my hand or freeze me in carbonite or anything crazy, at least.”

“Oh, look,” I said.  “We’ve come to the end of our broadcast day.”

“Dude!  Seriously?  Come on.  I’m, like, your brain baby.  You wouldn’t hurt your brain baby would you?”

“…”

“Whatever.”

—-

Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.