Piecing Together What We Know About Twitter’s Algorithm
Last week, Platformer reported that Elon Musk fired an engineer who told him that he’s not as popular as he used to be. Which apparently meant that Twitter employees had to stay the weekend working on trivial nonsense so Musk could brag about basic maintenance in a sad attempt to make people stop calling him a loser. Also, it probably gave him something to talk about with Rupert Murdoch at the Super Bowl.
On Sunday, Musk tweeted a few interesting details, however, about Twitter’s For You algorithm. “Recommendation algorithm was using absolute block count, rather than percentile block count, causing accounts with many followers to be dumped,” he said.
In other words, people who have been blocked a lot were not being shown very often on the For You tab. As someone who is on a lot of blocklists, this definitely explains the utter drop off in engagement I’ve seen on my own account since the algorithmic feed turned on. If you’re curious as to why I’m on so many blocklists there’s two reasons: One, when I first started reporting on the far right I made the mistake of following extremist accounts instead of what I now do, which is putting them on private lists. Many blocklists are compiled by mass-blocking not just bad actors, but also anyone that follows them. So I’m still blocked by a bunch of progressives. But, also, I’m kind of a jerk on the internet sometimes.
But this also explains why journalists, crypto investors, and Musk’s far-right reply guys all started screeching that no one was seeing their tweets anymore. I have to imagine those are the three most-heavily blocked demographics on the app aside from actual spambots.
Anyways, Musk went on to write that, “giant block lists are problematic. They mess up the recommendation system and create a DDoS vector.” Which got a lot of people spooked that he might sunset the ability to block users all together. Or, more likely, make folks pay for the privilege.
The idea of blocklists being a “DDoS vector” is also an interesting look into how Musk views Twitter. A DDoS, if you’ve never heard the term, is a “distributed denial-of-service” attack and it’s when you overwhelm someone or something with so much internet traffic that it crashes their web site or server. There is, simply, no way of viewing a blocklist on Twitter as anything remotely similar. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a very stupid thing to say, to be honest. But it’s notable that Musk views people not seeing his tweets and not engaging with his algorithm as a cyber attack. It’s also possible that he knows so little about coding that he literally thinks “denial of service” is people, you know, denying his service.
Last week, I wrote about a campaign that’s slowly building steam focused on compiling every user that pays for Twitter Blue, the premium version of the app, and putting them all on one massive blocklist. It’s pretty easy to do because there’s less than 500,000 users who have actually started paying for Twitter. And I imagine this is the exact kind of thing Musk doesn’t want happening.
A massive blocklist of every Twitter Blue subscriber being passed around would break the For You algorithm, which would break Musk’s ad strategy, as rudimentary as it is, and, more importantly, crush his own engagement, which is all he really seems to care about. Though, interesting to note that even he has not transitioned to Twitter Blue. He is still legacy verified. I have an easy time believing that he wants to be the last truly verified user on the app.
A quick aside: Even if I liked Twitter enough to pay for extra bells and whistles, I simply would not, in a million years, trust the current version of the company with my credit card information.
But the question is whether not Musk actually get rid of blocking. Sure, why not, it’s just as possible as any other harebrained scheme he’s kicked around. But he’ll need something to replace it with. There are all kinds of big-name investors in Silicon Valley that use the blocking tool with the same intensity of an offended teenage K-Pop stan. And stripping those guys of their ability to directly shut out the masses from their mentions requires new ways of letting them control the app.
Which is probably why yesterday Musk said that the site’s For You page will soon “transition to using only paid Blue Verified for signals.” And that’s the absurd thing about this entire very dumb era of Twitter and, by extension, the whole internet.
Imperfect social media tools gave anyone the ability to publish their thoughts and communicate. And the men who got rich from building those tools suddenly realized they didn’t want to have to read what the rest of us had to say (about them). And they have spent the years since the start of the pandemic losing billions of dollars building embarrassing failed attempts at retrofitting the internet into a country club. They create invite-only “social audio” apps, they try and convince us to buy cryptocurrency or expensive VR helmets or change the algorithms that power our apps to only prioritize their own content. They bend themselves into pretzels because they can’t seem to grasp that they aren’t cool or popular and they won’t ever be, no matter how much money they make. Even in the techno-feudalist future they all salivate over, as long as the serfs can make content, which is, ironically enough, the only way these guys make their money, we will still be able to post about how much they suck.
Think About Subscribing To Garbage Weekend!
It’s $5 a month or $45 a year and it helps Garbage Day continue. Along with the paid weekend version, you get Discord access, which is like the internet country club Elon Musk wants Twitter to be, but, you know, actually good and full of real people. Hit the green button below to find out more.
Loved Rihanna’s Half Time Show
Is This TikToker Pretending To Work At An Oil Company?
Here’s a weird thing. What is this account and why does it exist? At first glance, this appears to be a woman who works at an oil company called Oilshore. All of the videos are very anodyne, relatable posts about things Gen Z workers do. The account even got a writeup from the MailOnline for a video about the “'bizarre and informal' ways… Gen Z colleagues sign off their emails and out of office.”
But, as the account has grown, users, particularly on Tumblr, have noticed some very weird things about it. First, the website for the company Oilshore is a .net domain on a very barebones Squarespace page that includes approximately four stock photos and no real discernible explanation of what it is or where it’s based. I emailed their contact email, but haven’t heard anything back. There’s a Nigerian oil company with a similar name, but there is no obvious connection between the two.
Also, Tumblr users found the woman in these videos on LinkedIn, where she’s listed as a “TikTok Digital Content Creator” for a sustainable fashion e-commerce platform called RIISE. Which is very weird, seeing as how the whole point of this account is that it’s supposed to be videos from a marketing assistant at an oil company.
Even weirder, I think the fake oil company account is meant to be secretly advertising Riise’s clothes. In one video on @oilshore, the woman is wearing the same outfit that appears in a video on Riise’s account a month earlier. And, weirdest of all, in a now-deleted LinkedIn post, the woman in the videos bragged that the success of the account “has allowed RIISE to increase Oilshore’s brand awareness and establish the narrative for the television production which Oilshore will be at the fore front of.” So maybe it’s like a viral marketing thing?
Bing’s AI Search Is Not Going Super Great So Far
If you head over to the r/bing subreddit, there are a lot of users sharing screenshots of the new OpenAI-powered Bing chatbot going berserk. Apparently, there’s a well-known glitch involving showtimes for Avatar: The Way Of The Water where the AI will tell you that you’ve been sucked into a time portal. Bing’s AI search is still invite-only, so it makes sense that there’s going to be issues like this. But that doesn’t make the pressure any less for Bing to really get AI search right.
One of the most surprising things, for me, at least, about the last five to seven years of the tech industry is how begrudgingly loyal people have become about their particular web portals. There’s the assumption that whatever ecosystem you buy into will eventually get some version of the thing everyone’s excited about. So, as I see it, Microsoft only has one shot to really truly unseat Google with AI. Google has been the dominant search engine for the better part of three decades. S unless Bing’s AI search is really, truly revolutionary, I think most people are going to stick with a possibly lesser version that Google rolls out. It’s a story we’ve seen a million times, like Instagram cannibalizing Snapchat Stories or, uh, Instagram cannibalizing TikTok videos.
Harry Potter Drama Comes to Mastodon
Man, I did not want to write about Hogwarts Legacy, a game that I believe was created by the CIA to further undermine the ability for millennials to become real adults. If you’ve missed this entire thing, trans players want people to boycott the game because it financially supports J.K. Rowling’s ongoing hate campaign against the trans community. They’re asking people not to buy it, critics not to engage with it, or at least acknowledge the controversy when they do, and streamers not to play it. On the other side of this debate are people who want to play a video game about wizards. There’s all kinds of other bad and complicated stuff with the game, as well.
The boycott spun out into a culture war thing, involving all of the dumbest and most annoying people alive, of course, and, so, as a fun way to troll the Harry Potter adults claiming that they’re the actually the victims because they’re being yelled at about playing the game, users have begun sharing spoilers for the game on Twitter. It’s funny how it always eventually boils down to Snape kills Dumbledore with these people. Also, there is a similar amount of infighting happening about this on Tumblr right now, as well.
Well, the Hogwarts Legacy spoiler meme spilled over to mastodon.lol, which is a “server friendly towards anti-fascists, members of the LGBTQ+ community, hackers, and the like.” Users wanted the admin, Nathan, to ban users who were playing the game. Other users wanted Nathan to ban users who were spoiling the game. And, well, a surprising third thing happened instead:
The .lol server is being shutdown in three months and none of the information on the server will be migrated to a new one. Just to put this in perspective, the .lol server has 18,000 active users on it.
I think people who are not particularly internet native like to imagine that Mastodon, because it’s more internetty and more aligned with online subcultures, is somehow stronger and more resilient against discourse. But if you’ve ever spent any time on small message boards, you know that that is usually the exact opposite of the truth. Very online people get in big flamewars with each other all the time! And over stuff much dumber than a transphobic video game. And I would say that a federated internet platform that can nuke parts of itself on a whim is probably not the best place for those kinds of conversations with those kinds of communities.
I Suppose It’s Time To Talk About The Vanilla Extract Thing
Vanilla extract, like, the stuff you put in cakes, is the number two trending topic on Tumblr right now. It all started when a Tumblr user named relientk used the new polling feature to “bake a cake”. Each question on the poll was a different ingredient. Users start spamming the “vanilla extract” option, which resulted in a cake that was 44% vanilla extract.
From there, users tried to figure out how much vanilla extract that would actually be. A user formerly named neutr0ndance, now going by hardtimes, decided to try it. Sorting through all the discussion about vanilla extract is honestly a pain, but you can watch this video from STRANGE ÆONS and it gives you a good rundown of everything you need to know.
The top level observation for me is that it’s genuinely very fascinating how the exact same features and tools can have drastically different effects on different platforms and communities. Even in the Before Times, the Twitter poll never produced this level of collaborative meme making. There were funny polls and some light hacking of them, like the “click to see results” thing people figured out, but the vanilla extract meme is like the fifth or sixth huge trend to spawn from Tumblr polls. So the question then becomes why? Why are polls doing so well on Tumblr?
My theory is that because the community has spent so many years asynchronously fighting with one another very violently there’s actually a real desperation for consensus. Users want to find out what other users are thinking, but if they directly communicate they’ll get into a huge fight. So polling is like a safe way to come to some kind of community-level agreement.
Anthony Fantano Is Feuding With Everyone Right Now
Three’s trend, but two is, uh, perfect for an item in an internet culture newsletter. I wrote about this a little bit over the weekend. Anthony Fantano, arguably one of the most well-known music critics left in the US, is in some kind of weird fight with both the rapper Logic and notorious screamo maniac Ronnie Radke.
I think it’s interesting that Fantano’s (fairly diplomatic and lukewarm) album reviews are getting pushback at the same time that barn-burner Pitchfork reviews are going viral again. The assumption during the 2010s was that because of the newfound immediate access to pop culture — the ability to stream all music and watch all movies and binge every show — we would no longer need arts criticism. Which, looking back on it, was an outrageously crazy thing to believe! And, in fact, I’d argue that the sheer glut of culture we’re being buried under right now means criticism and curation and aggregation are more important than ever (not just because I do those things in Garbage Day every week). Which is to say that I think new big cultural critics are emerging and people are beginning to get fired about it again.
These writers, or vloggers, or streamers are going to be strewn across different platforms, using those sites as tools to convey their point for style rather than utility, and they’re going to start going viral in unpredictable ways as we instinctively treat what they’re saying with more importance. Bookmark this and come back and read when Hipster Runoff launches a Twitch channel.
A Really Good Tweet
This was dropped in the the Garbage Day Discord by lesspopmorefizz.
Some Stray Links
“Why is every character suddenly an ‘antihero’ now?” (I wrote this one!)
P.S. here’s Hobbit mode.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***
https://ainowinstitute.org/ hi Ryan, just wanted to share this link on this institute regarding your last garbage day on AI implications- might have a little more interesting research than brookings :) thx!
I bought something from RIISE and have stayed on the mailing list as I like to hate read their emails. The formatting is mind bending and included are articles like, “The lazy person’s guide to making a huge impact on climate action (without leaving the couch)" and “8 non-depressing climate books that won’t ruin your weekend vibes". TBH fake oil company seems right in their wheelhouse.