Crossing the Line: Why Feeding the Trolls Can Turn You Into Something Even Worse

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 3.17.21 PMThe Internet is abuzz with conversation today about an article published in The Guardian yesterday by young adult author Kathleen Hale entitled “‘Am I being catfished?’ An author confronts her number one online critic.”   The article, which is the story of how Hale attempted to confront in person the author of an extremely negative review of her debut novel No One Else Can Have You, is a surprisingly gripping read, and I’m not surprised that it’s spurred the amount of debate (on Twitter and elsewhere) that it has.

At its heart the debate is merely one of choosing sides: who was the greater sinner, here–Hale, or the person behind the Internet persona/catfish who identified herself as “Blythe Harris” (a faker sounding name, I’ve never heard, incidentally)?

Immediately after finishing the article, my sympathies were, for the most part, for Ms. Hale: while I don’t approve of her decision to confront the woman in the way that she did, I do understand, as a writer, the desire to do so.  Ms. “Harris” posted a review on a popular, powerful review website (Goodreads) that was both aggressively negative and, from Hale’s perspective, also inaccurate.  Stepping back from the situation though, I realized that my own biases as an author were probably getting in the way of recognizing the fundamentally immature and inappropriate nature of her response to the situation.  Looking on Twitter to find many people supporting the catfish over the author, I found my own internal compass jerking sharply from one side to another before landing, uncomfortably, in the middle.

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Will the New Twitter Algorithm Make It Less Useful to Writers?

ios_homescreen_iconTwitter recently implemented a new algorithm in its code that selectively includes content from users you don’t follow into your timeline.  This change has caused a lot of backlash in the Twitterverse, for relatively obvious reasons.  TechCrunch reports on the changes:

The specific change in how your Twitter timeline operates allows for the company to inject additional content into your feed from other users you don’t follow. This is in addition to promoted tweet advertising content — you still get that thrust into your feed too.

So basically this change means tweets from people you’re not interested in may now show up in your Twitter feed. And judging by the popularity reference, at least some of the content being algorithmically injected is exactly the sort of mainstream trivia that makes Facebook so uninteresting to a large swathe of Twitter users (myself included). And indeed the sort of content that populates Twitter’s Discover feed — aka ‘the feed that no-one reads’. Except now some of that crap is being thrust in front of your eyeballs, mingled with the tweets you did want to read.

Twitter’s focus on popularity as a selection criteria for injecting tweets evidently also means that tweets marked as favorites by other users can now appear in your timeline — a change that has already triggered a backlash of complaints, as noted by an earlier Guardian report.

This is troubling to me as a writer, because I use Twitter as my primary social media tool.  I use it for marketing, networking, and interacting socially with friends and acquaintances.  A big part of the appeal of Twitter (aside from the fact that it’s still primarily text-based) is the fact that I can curate a news feed that is tailored precisely to my interests and field.  The idea of Twitter changing their app to deliberately interfere with that functionality irks me.

It seems fairly obvious to me that this is part of a larger effort to monetize the service and therefore increase corporate profits.  Yes, they already have advertising in the form of promoted tweets, but the more power Twitter has over your timeline the more opportunity they have to fill it with irrelevant, mainstream, commercialized crap (which, as the TechCrunch article notes, is exactly what has happened to Facebook).