One of my chief criticisms of Twitter over the years has been that the company would much rather talk about new features than actually ship them. “Twitter’s CEO keeps substituting talking for doing,” is how I put it in January, amid an extended podcast tour for Jack Dorsey in which the CEO acknowledged every possible criticism from every one of the company’s critics while doing little to address them. The problem has never been that Twitter doesn’t know what products to build — it’s that it has an awful lot of trouble actually building them:
At Twitter, good ideas languish for years. The expansion of a tweet from 140 to 280 characters required such bruising internal battles that the designer responsible quit in exhaustion after shipping it, I’m told. Other proposed features are abandoned when product managers realize that shipping them will need support from different divisions inside the company — requiring PMs to get buy-in from colleagues who are already busy with their own priorities, and who typically have little incentive to take detours.
At Twitter, no idea has languished for quite as long as a feature that would let users follow areas of interest in addition to regular accounts. One reason people have historically abandoned Twitter is the difficulty in figuring out which accounts to follow. A “topics” feature, if it were properly implemented, could take the guesswork out of building a list of such accounts. Instead of finding the best accounts that cover the NBA, for example, you could just follow “NBA” and let Twitter do the work.
It’s an idea that dates back to the company’s earliest days, and has long been in development. (“They were definitely working on this idea when I was there in 2016,” one exasperated ex-Twitter employee tweeted at me today.) Recently, Twitter invited me to its headquarters to let me know that the feature is now ready to launch, and will be available globally on November 13th. I wrote about it today at The Verge:
You will be able to follow more than 300 “topics” across sports, entertainment, and gaming, just as you are currently able to follow individual accounts. In return, you’ll see tweets from accounts that you don’t follow that have credibility on these subjects.
Twitter executives hope that Topics will make the platform more approachable for new and intermittent users and make it easier for heavier users to discover new accounts and conversations.
The story recounts my own experience with Topics, in which I augment an alternate account I had set up to follow pro wrestling with the “WWE” topic, to generally positive results. Generally speaking, the more heavily you use Twitter, the less valuable you may find Topics — power users tend to be really good at curating a perfect list of accounts to follow. But for new, casual, and lapsed users, I expect Topics to be a powerful tool for Twitter that could help the company grow its user base.
It’s the latest overdue but welcome feature that Twitter has shipped in recent months. Under the leadership of head of product Kayvon Beykpour, the company began removing abusive tweets faster; shipped a native app for MacOS; added a search feature to direct messages; turned its lists into swipeable timelines; and began letting you hide replies to your tweets. And that’s just what the company has shipped since September.
It appears that much more is on the horizon. On Monday, Dantley Davis, Twitter’s vice president for design and research, raised eyebrows with a tweet in which he said he is “looking forward to” the launch of several new features next year. They include: letting users remove themselves from conversations; preventing their tweets from being retweeted if they choose; preventing people from mentioning their user names without permission; and sending tweets only to a specific hashtag, interest, or group of friends.
In a follow-up tweet, Davis also suggested the company would begin labeling multi-tweet threads automatically.
On one hand, this is classic Twitter: lots of talk ahead of actions that could be months, if not more than a year, away. But thanks to the company’s recent track record, I’m much more inclined to believe it will follow through on that talk. For the first time in many years, the company is backing up its talk with action. Here’s hoping that it’s one Twitter trend that is here to stay.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Google announced a new accelerator program for startups working on sustainability products. The company is looking for eight ot 10 companies from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to take part in a six-month program early next year.
Trending down: Facebook announced a privacy mishap involving app developers inadvertently being able to access names and profile photos of users in certain groups. The company estimated roughly 100 “partners” may have accessed this information.
⭐ A year out from the 2020 election, a flood of fake news is already consuming Facebook, according to a new report from the human rights group Avaaz. But unlike in 2016, this fake news is not coming from Russia, but from within the United States, reports Vice’s David Gilbert:
While foreign actors may still try to influence the outcome of the election using social media, the mantle for spreading fake news has been picked up by everyone else.
The majority of the fake news was shared by individuals (39 percent) or non-official political pages (35 percent). Almost one-fifth came from what the researchers called “alternative media accounts” like Breitbart, while mainstream media posted 1 percent of the disinformation. Politicians themselves accounted for 6 percent.
The content was a mix of memes, photos that were taken out of context, and articles from fringe websites like American Herald Tribune, Patriots Unite, Trump Maga Reports, and Life News.
⭐ The Justice Department charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia. The case raises concerns about how tech companies can protect private information about users from repressive governments skilled in human intelligence operations, say Ellen Nakashima and Greg Bensinger at The Washington Post:
The case is noteworthy in that it targets a strategic Middle East ally, whose de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been linked by the CIA to Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
“The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users,” said U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”
California asked for a court order to force Facebook to hand over documents related to Cambridge Analytica. Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the company has refused to comply with subpoenas to provide more information regarding the investigation into alleged privacy violations. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Congressional lawmakers are analyzing thousands of pages of leaked Facebook documents containing internal conversations between Mark Zuckerberg and his senior staff. The review comes as antitrust investigations into Facebook heat up. (Sebastian Klovig Skelton and Bill Goodwin / ComputerWeekly)
Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t appear to be budging on Facebook’s policy to let politicians lie in ads. But he might consider limiting microtargeting, as many of his critics have suggested. (Dylan Byers / NBC)
Facebook’s controversial advertising policy isn’t just about allowing politicians to lie in ads, this op-ed argues. It’s about prioritizing these ads over organic speech. (Tim Wu / The New York Times)
Yelp executives, including CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, have been calling out Google’s anticompetitive practices for years. The accusations are finally beginning to get traction as antitrust probes gain steam. (Mat Honan / BuzzFeed)
The Filter Bubble Transparency Act (FBTA) is being billed as a law to fight opaque algorithms. But the proposed law doesn’t really do what lawmakers say it will. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
Democratic lawmakers proposed legislation to create a new federal agency to regulate the tech industry. The Online Privacy Act, sponsored by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), would create a new digital privacy agency. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
The Google walkout launched a new era of tech worker activism. Some tech employees are now as preoccupied with the social impact of the multibillion-dollar companies that employ them as they are with their own working conditions. About time! (Johana Bhuiyan / The Los Angeles Times)
The photograph and stock image site Shutterstock is the latest US company to bend to China’s censorship regime, blocking searches that might offend the country’s government. (Sam Biddle / The Intercept)
⭐ WhatsApp is rolling out global update to let users stop people from automatically adding them to Groups. The roll out was first announced in April, but it only got as far as India. Ingrid Lunden at TechCrunch describes why this is so important:
At its lightest or most innocuous, you are being added by tangential work contacts to annoying business chats, or groups of over-chatty folks coalesced around a particular interest. A nuisance, but not really the end of the world.
But at its darkest, people can get harassed, fake news can be spread, and you might get slammed with an offensive, shocking, disturbing image or two (or three). Given that the app is used by minors (as young as 13 in some markets, although I suspect many younger than this use it), other vulnerable people, and billions of others, Groups on WhatsApp need way better basic controls, usable by more than just those who read change-logs on app updates, or tech blogs.
More young teenagers use TikTok than Facebook, according to a new report from Morning Consult. Instagram and Snapchat still beat TikTok by wide margins, but the Chinese-owned video app has quickly become popular with Gen Z. (Sara Fischer / Axios)
Facebook’s longtime vice president of communications, Caryn Marooney, has a new job in venture capital. She’s now a general partner at Coatue Ventures, which recently launched a $700 million early-stage venture fund. (Kara Swisher / Recode)
YouTube launched a new product called Super Stickers that allows a select number of creators to earn additional revenue during live streams. The stickers are little cartoon characters that fans can purchase to show their support. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
Tumblr is launching a new group messaging feature to allow different fandoms on the site to chat more easily with each other instead of replying on reblogs. The “group chats” are public, but only approved members can send messages. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
Instagram pop-ups like the Color Factory and the Museum of Ice Cream are trying to conquer the experience economy. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Most billionaires aren’t relatable in any meaningful way. But when a billionaire makes a big show of quitting Twitter only to return a short while later, they have our complete sympathy. Here’s Marty Johnson in The Hill:
In a series of tweets on Friday, Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla, questioned the ”good of Twitter” and said that he was “going offline.”
Reuters noted that this isn’t the first time Musk, who has nearly 30 million followers on Twitter, has sworn off the site only to come back later. In June, he claimed that he had deleted his Twitter account, although his account remained active.
I’d say more about this but I’m going offline.