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Healthy Digital Environments

August 31, 2012

For the typical Internet user, a few entities control huge shares of the online experience. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Twitter make decisions about features and design that influence the digital behavior of millions (or billions, in some cases). Those effects, in turn, have significant repercussions in the “real world,” an increasingly obsolete term for a place that we can no longer cleanly separate from what happens on screens and travels through fiberoptic cables, and for which “meatspace” is probably now a better word. When Google changes its search algorithm, it’s changing what you see and what you find out about—that is, it’s tweaking your entire ontology, if ever so slightly (as if Google sneaks into your apartment and replaces one book on your shelf with something else). When most of these changes happen, you won’t notice any difference.

Of the companies listed above, some make more responsible decisions than others, recognizing that they control environments in which individuals immerse themselves for hours at a time. I’ve written here and here about the different environments that Facebook and Twitter create and the behaviors that each encourages, arguing that Twitter’s core philosophy of simplicity and transparency is much healthier and less manipulative than Facebook’s.

Now, Twitter appears to be diverging from its peers more profoundly. Every frequent Twitter user has noticed the “promoted” tweets that rise to the top of one’s timeline—a pillar of Twitter’s effort to earn advertising revenue. Twitter recently announced that it will target these ads by user interest, taking advantage of the wealth of data at its disposal. More importantly, however, Twitter will sever ties with third parties who want to build apps that run interest-based advertising at scale, retaining more control over how its users experience tweets. While that decision could be based on greed, it also reflects a desire to curtail apps that would turn Twitter into Facebook’s news feed: an algorithm-driven information stream that thinks it knows what you like better than you do and, at worst, is polluted by targeted advertising. The basic Twitter experience, aside from the occasional promoted tweet, has stayed remarkably free of those impurities, and Twitter as a company has resisted the temptation to complicate the elegant environment that it originally built.