Just go ‘aahh!’ Hardcore!

Around the Web
Issue No. 014

Twitter, Facebook, how Apple broke its privacy promise, and GitHub getting sued. But a good news interlude, too.

Welcome to Around the Web. The newsletter where birds go to die.

Two weeks ago, I promised myself I wouldn’t write about Elon Musk’s bird affairs. But I’m terminally online, and for anyone who is terminally online, the last two weeks have been a bloody rollercoaster of emotions. I’m sorry, but this issue is very much about Elon Musk’s bird affairs.

Let the chirping commence.

The bird is freed but kind of dead

Below, I try to make sense of what happened by breaking it down into several things. Each thing moved quickly, and usually several things happened on any given day.

The sum of things is called the Mess. It’s just like the Queue, only bigger.

the terminally online partner explaining the necessary ten minutes of context for the blissfully offline partner to understand the tweet they're about to show them:

Image from Tweet

Editor’s note: While I tried to keep it succint, it turned out to be impossible. And I still have missed things. If you want to follow along with the most recent developments, check out Twitter Is Going Great.

The labour thing

While Musk and Twitter were still dancing in legal limbo, it was reported that Musk was planning to fire 75% of Twitter’s employees. Just before the actual takeover, he tried to reassure his future employees by saying that he wasn’t going to lay off that many people.

For once, he wasn’t lying.

He fired «only» 50% of Twitter’s workforce.

Teams cut included Twitter’s entire accessibility team, ethical AI team, content curation, outreach

It quickly became clear that some of the people who were let go had critical knowledge of Twitter’s infrastructure or were needed to build future features. Leading to the odd situation where you’d be let go one day and asked to return the next.

A few days after the layoffs, the remaining senior management began quitting in droves.

The global impact appears even greater than that in the United States. Twitter has laid off almost all the staff at its office in Ghana, its only office in Africa. Offices in India, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and Singapore appear to have been cut drastically.

Initially, the layoffs seemed to affect only staff. On 13 November, Platformer’s Casey Newton tweeted that contractors are now also being affected.

Contractors aren’t being notified at all, they’re just losing access to Slack and email. Managers figured it out when their workers just disappeared from the system.

The thing with maintaining a website

Drastically reducing staff on any system that’s more complex than simple is risky. No website is without bugs, and fixing them in a reasonable amount of time requires the knowledge and capacity to do so.

If no one is left to fix these bugs, they will accumulate.

A massive tech platform like Twitter is built upon very many interdependent parts. “The larger catastrophic failures are a little more titillating, but the biggest risk is the smaller things starting to degrade,” says Ben Krueger, a site reliability engineer who has more than two decades of experience in the tech industry. “These are very big, very complicated systems.” Krueger says one 2017 presentation from Twitter staff includes a statistic suggesting that more than half the back-end infrastructure was dedicated to storing data.

Here’s how a Twitter engineer says it will break in the coming weeks

Twitter’s professional category display now seems to be an unfollow button in disguise. The spam filter is going ham. Protected tweets are visible for a short time. These kinds of things.

Or, hell, even using the own account on the own platform.

Musk’s takeover of the company had been so brutish and poorly planned that, we’re told, there was not even a proper handover of the company’s social accounts. As a result, having spent $44 billion to acquire Twitter, for his first week-plus of owning the company, Musk and his team were unable even to tweet from the @twitter account.

Inside the Twitter Meltdown

The thing with content moderation

Content moderation is hard. Very knowledgeable people have been working on this for years, and it’s still a mess.

Mike Masnick was kind enough to some up the lessons to be learned in Hey Elon: Let Me Help You Speed Run The Content Moderation Learning Curve. Elon didn’t listen.

Destroying teams which are responsible for safety and accountability will hurt those already marginalised and with the least resources first.

The impact of staff cuts is already being felt, said Nighat Dad, a Pakistani digital rights activist who runs a helpline for women facing harassment on social media.

When female political dissidents, journalists, or activists in Pakistan are impersonated online or experience targeted harassment such as false accusations of blasphemy that could put their lives at risk, Dad’s group has a direct line to Twitter.

But since Musk took over, Twitter has not been as responsive to her requests for urgent takedowns of such high-risk content, said Dad, who also sits on Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council of independent rights advisors.

Content moderation, ultimately depending on underpaid, traumatising human labour, wasn’t great before. Everything that happens now will be worse.

The checkmark thing

The thing with the verified checkmark. People who fell somewhere in the realm of «public figures» could be verified by Twitter. In the past, this meant verifying that these people were these people. There were no benefits, just a blue tick.

Now, Elon has been quite vocal about this for some time. After all, non-fans of Elon were being verified. In a rare attempt at Marxist analysis, Musk identified a two-class system. Not being a Marxist, he decided to let the market sort it out. For $20, anyone can buy a checkmark. And better ads. And priority placement in the timeline.

Stephen King, yes, the real one, complained. In a now-deleted tweet, Musk said, «We’ve got to pay the bills somehow!» and lowered the price to $8. If that sounds unbelievable, I regret to inform you that it’s also true.

Since the blue mark was essentially worthless as a sign of trustworthiness, someone came up with another mark. The official tag was added to a subset of previously verified accounts. And immediately removed.

A screenshot of Twitter’s user interface. You see Elon Musk’s profile. But every letter on the whole page is changed to be Twitter’s checkmark. On the right you see the browser development tools, which show that the used font has been changed to «Twitter Sans Neue».
Twitter’s new font, solving the verification problem by changing every glyph to a checkmark. Designed by Cristoph Köberlin. (Parody)

The result of the Blue verification was pure chaotic energy. One of the best days on Twitter. Someone verified an account, pretending to be the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, and announced that insulin was now free. Eli Lilly, the real Eli Lilly, quickly tweeted that this was, in fact, not true. A vial of insulin costs almost $100 in the US.

Imagine being on Eli Lilly’s social media team and having to say that you continue to overcharge for drugs.

For a brief moment it seemed like Twitter sent the stock price of Eli Lilly diving. But correlation is not causation.

Addendum: A previous version of this section stated that the tweet did have an impact on Eli Lilly’s stock price. Serving as a reminder that funny does not equal true.

Was it worth it for Twitter? Probably not.

If you factor that only the 10 percent of Twitter users that the company considers to be "power users" would be interested in paying, the conversion rate is a bit better but not great at just over 0.25 percent. The average conversion rate in e-commerce is roughly between 2 and 3 percent.

On the not-funny-at-all-side-of-things: neo-Nazis immediately used the opportunity to buy verification badges. And this is the thing. While it may was fun and games for a day (given that you are not Eli Lilly’s social media manager), eventually such a product will be used primarily for abuse.

The advertising thing

The important thing with advertisements on Twitter is that Twitter makes 90% of its revenue through ads. So, anything that hurts ad income is a pretty substantial blow to Twitter’s bottom-line.

Advertising companies, at large, don’t like risks and don’t like to be associated with shit.

As you might imagine, a platform where «verified» users shitpost under the name of multi-billion dollar companies owned by a billionaire dreaming of being one of the shitposters but not managing the posting isn’t exactly where advertising thrives.

After the glorious days of the verified disaster, Omnicon recommended to its clients (including Mc Donald’s and Apple) to stop advertising on Twitter. IPG, another media network, recommended pausing advertising spend immediately after Musk took over.

The good thing about this is that advertising isn’t a thing anymore. The key result «Reduce reliance on advertisements in percentage of total revenue» has been achieved. Well done, team, pop the champagne.

The bad thing is that revenue isn’t a thing anymore.

The thing with the laws

A pretty substantial mess we have here. Teams axed, senior leadership gone and a lawyer of Musk saying «Elon puts rockets into space, he’s not afraid of the FTC».

Meanwhile, at the FDC:

“We are tracking recent developments at Twitter with deep concern,” an FTC spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “No CEO or company is above the law, and companies must follow our consent decrees. Our revised consent order gives us new tools to ensure compliance, and we are prepared to use them.”

A company lawyer warned employees that they might face hefty fines if they sign off that a certain product is compliant with regulations. In the same message, he advised to take paid time off.

What do hefty fines look like when violating FTC demands? In 2019, the FTC settled with Facebook for $5 billion dollars, after Facebook violated a privacy order. Ooops.

It’s not just the FCD. The EU has regulations, too. This includes the new Digital Services Act. After Musk tweeted that the bird is freed, Europe’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, was quick to respond:

In Europe, the bird will fly by our rules.

The thing with Twitter being essential

Over the last few weeks, many people were demanding to leave Twitter or even abandon social media altogether. The thing here is: It’s not that simple.

An example of those is the disability community. Twitter is an important part of their support networks and visibility they dearly miss basically everywhere else.

It's frustrating when people say they wish social media wasn't a thing because it's a literal lifeline for so many. Like, just log off. Disabled people have literally needed social media to stay alive during the pandemic. When these sites go down, we lose entire support networks.

Twitter had been one of the most user-friendly social media platforms out there—with a world-class team that made sure it was usable by people who had a variety of different needs. Plus, it’d been a megaphone and a lifeline to the outside world, for those who’d been especially vulnerable during the pandemic and mostly stayed indoors. Everything was now up in the air.

Twitter Was a Lifeline for People With Disabilities. Musk’s Reign Is Changing All of That

If the demand to leave is voiced by white liberals, running from harassment they don’t have to face, while Black Twitter is staying and fighting is only amplifying the problem with whiteness.

Do we need better, non-corporate alternatives? For sure. But leaving those behind who are reliant on the platform is doing them a disservice.

The thing with Space Karen being so stupid that this headline does not do it justice

Throughout all of this, Musk didn’t stop tweeting. And he made a mess of it. If he tries to be smart, he is not and if he tries to be funny, he is a cringe lord. By now, his interactions have been mostly reduced to incredibly inappropriate rolling on floor laughing emojis.

While complaining about sinking revenue, he was gleefully reporting usage numbers were higher than ever. Yeah, mate, you set fire to one of the largest websites and made sure there is no one left to extinguish it. Of course, everyone is looking at you.

Burning Man is canceled. How can it compete with the spectacle of setting $44 billion on fire?

He has further decided to include bots in his active users calcuation. Which is slightly weird, given that he didn’t want to buy Twitter because of the bots. But at this point, nothing is expected to make any sense anymore.

All his business decisions were completely erratic. He refuses to learn by example. Doing the one thing at one point, reversing it two hours later. He is suffering from late stage Billionaire Brain Damage. The only cure is to tax billionaires out of existing and crack down on the networks of yay-sayers and bootlickers. None of which seems particularly likely at the moment.

Everything he has done so far is so nakedly bad and wrong that it is almost impossible to understand why he’s doing it, other than the fact that he can and wants to. It’s one thing to disagree about what verification is, or means, or should do - it’s another to lose many of your advertisers at a time when you specifically need to make more money. The actions Musk has to take are ‹big,› but not particularly complex, and yet he appears to be deliberately choosing to do the wrong thing every single time.

There we are. An incredibly incompetent person bought a company he wanted to avoid buying. His only plan seems to be trying out whatever comes to mind and reverting it immediately.

The problem with throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks is that you have a room full of shit. Which is what I imagine Twitter’s board meeting room to look like right now.

A good news interlude

Researchers at the University of California have developed a brain implant which can turn brainwaves into words.

A man using the interface discussed in the link above, looking at a screen. The screen show two section with words. The first shows «How are you today?». The sections shows the answer «I am very good».
A paralyzed man who hasn’t spoken in 15 years uses a brain-computer interface that decodes his intended speech, one word at a time. University of California, San Francisco

And egg whites can be transformed into a material capable of filtering microplastics from seawater.

The researchers used egg whites to create an aerogel, a lightweight and porous material that can be used in many types of applications, including water filtration, energy storage, and sound and thermal insulation.

You don’t even need egg whites from real eggs, but can use other proteins, which makes this even more useful. The research is not yet ready for commercial application, though.

Social Mediargh

The bird is one thing, but there have been other things in social media! Take Facebook. Mark «Android» Zuckerberg took full personal responsibility for destroying stock value by shoving billions into a product which no one needs.

And he showed it by buckling up and taking the hit. Kidding. He showed it by letting 11,000 people go. Soon after, laid-off employees who depend on the employment for their visas were complaining about radio silence. Proper leadership, Mark. It deserves a present. How about a new antitrust charge in the EU?

Big Tech can’t be trusted. I guess that’s clear by now.

Maybe we should push for small tech? Mastodon has seen massive user growth amid all the chaos. It’s an art project, but an interesting one: Minus. A social network where you get one hundred posts. For life. Ben Grosser also did Deficit of Less and Orders of Magnitude. Films reducing Zuckerberg to saying less and more.

There’s a small movement, called the IndieWeb, which pushes for an independent web. The problem, as Max Böck argues, is that it can feel super intimidating for non-developers to join the fun.

Want to start on Mastodon, but feel unsure how? You might want to know how to pick an instance and read Everything I know about Mastodon.

I really enjoyed this exploration of how to create an alternative protocol for a timeless less communications platform: Specifying Spring ‘83.

This ain’t intelligence

What happens if corporate AIs take over caring for children? Companies like Amazon push their home surveillance devices to ever younger children, addressing issues with bias – as always – after harm has been done. Elsewhere in Alexa: Amazon says screw it, lets Alexa respond to search queries with ads.

GitHub is now being sued over its use of open-source code in Copilot. Elsewhere in generative AI: How one unwilling illustrator found herself turned into an AI model.

When talking about the output of Large Language Models, it’s tempting to say stuff like «written by GPT-3». But, as Matthias Ott reminds us, It Wasn’t Written.

Sasha Luccioni built a handy tool to explore bias in Stable Diffusions.

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Prevailing surveillance

In October, France’s data protection authority fined Clearview $20 million for data protection violations. It’s not the first European country to do so, but it’s unclear if the fine will ever be paid.

This limit of enforcement lays bare a fundamental problem in EU’s fight to protect the data of its citizens. If you can’t enforce the fine, why should companies care?

In China, internet users resort to puns to get around the state’s draconian internet censorship. Banning words is no singular quality of the Internet: Kotobagari: Japan’s Hunt for Taboo Words.

Hacked documents provide an inside look at an Iranian government program that lets authorities monitor and manipulate people’s phones.

Apple managed to break its unique selling proposition of being the privacy-focussed company. After Gizmodo reported that Apple collects usage data, even if the corresponding setting is disabled, Apple now faces a class action lawsuit. A separate antitrust lawsuit alleges that Apple and Amazon colluded to fix iPad prices on Amazon’s marketplace.

Not working: Using eagles to catch drones.

EOL of humanity

The next person who says «Yeah, climate change, really not that great, but I love the warmth» to me might get slapped in the face.

Europe had its warmest October in the record, with temperatures nearly 2°C above the 1991-2020 reference period. In western Europe a warm spell brought record daily temperatures and it was a record-warm October for Austria, Switzerland and France, as well as for large parts of Italy and Spain.

Surface air temperature for October 2022

After the death of a cyclist in Berlin, German politicians stopped hiding their authoritarian tendencies and openly contemplate prosecuting climate activists as terrorists. Under Bavaria’s new restrictive police law, some activists are already in police detainment for up to two months.

The internet runs on data centres. And a lot of them have no contingency plans for the climate crisis.

This is all going swimmingly, y’all. Don’t mind the piranhas.

The Web at Large

Using Open Type characters that look like latin italic characters is wracking havoc for users of assistive technology. Please stop using this.

Correctiv used many words to say that use can buy new domains faster than you can block them. Consequently, blocking RT domains in the EU is rather useless.

FTX, one of the largest crypto exchanges, exploded. Crypto investors still think they are going to get rich.

Right-wing superhero movie ends ’in disaster’ after $1 million in funders’ cash goes missing.

Image from Tweet

Thanks for reading ’till the end. We’ll see us again in two weeks. Until then, stay sane, hug your friends, and don’t smoke crack.