Twitter’s Tough Love

Last week, when #RIPTwitter was trending, I had a chat online with a few valued members of my PLN about what the proposed changes meant for us. I wrote about the discussion in my previous post, because it was a great example of a PLN in action. For those not aware, ‘leaked’ information led us to believe that Twitter was going to change their traditional chronological timeline to something closer to Facebook’s arrangement, where posts that are ‘most popular’ as measured by a secret algorithm appear first, rather than the most recent.

Those of us using Twitter as a learning tool rather than as a social news tool greeted this news with some sceptism; what would be considered ‘popular’ by Twitter? Would this mean the antics of the Kardashians and other B grade celebrities would start clogging our feed? Why should Twitter decide for us what we should read first?

It was with some relief that Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO, posted the following tweet in response to the massive uproar that led to #RIPTwitter trending globally:

twitter postYou can see from the number of retweets and likes that Twitterers were happy to hear this.

However, it appears that this tweet was not entirely true, as late last week the changes came through anyway. They are not (yet) mandatory – when the new ‘improved’ version appeared in my tweetstream, it had a little ‘X’ (remove) button in the far right hand corner, and when I clicked it, a window appeared to ask if I wanted the change removed, and did I like the change. You can read more about Twitter’s plan in this (somewhat biased) article from Fast Company. This request for feedback is more than followers of Facebook ever receive, as change after change is rolled out automatically Zuckerberg’s world.

Whether the change becomes a permanent feature or not, it once again reminded me that when it comes to the free tools many of us take advantage of as part of our PLN, we are not actually customers – we are a by-product of what these company’s actually trade in – information. The popular phrase “When something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product,” attributed to a Metafilter discussion group user blue_beetle, sums this up in a meme-worthy statement.

Used under a CC BY licence with thanks to Geek and Poke
Used under a CC BY licence with thanks to Geek and Poke

While there are a lot of hard core discussions about the reality of this statement that you can follow up on, I tend to see it more as a guideline. Here’s a breakdown of why I think it’s an important one to keep in mind.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google need to make a profit, and yet access to the tools they provide is not how they make it. They are in the business of information; whether they are using it for advertising revenue or more nefarious purposes as this article suggests, data about their users is where the money is at. That’s undebatable. The only real way to keep your data completely private is to not use these services. So in this way, we are not (as we tend to see ourselves) customers of these companies, upon whose goodwill these companies rely.  Therefore, as a user (and not a customer) we can expect to have changes foisted upon us.

We have two choices; we either accept the changes, or stop using the services. Sometimes, the changes are such that we do decide there are other apps out there which can do the job just as well, and we jump ship. Other times, we stick with the changes, and just get used to it. Check out how much Facebook has changed over the years, and you realise just how quickly we can adapt.

Click the image to see the evolution
Click the image to see the evolution

These two choices both require the same thing; flexibility. We need to be flexible enough to either identify a new service and transfer our skills to its new requirements, or flexible enough to adjust the way we use the tool to take into account the changes. I have written about the ‘perpetually in beta’ world of the internet before- almost three years ago, when the massive redesign of Flickr caught me unawares – and back then I commented:

We must develop in ourselves (and teach our students) a level of fluency with tools and websites that allows us to confidently cope with constant change, find alternate tools or contact those online who can help us. This level of digital literacy comes from not only familiarity with the way things online generally ‘work’ but also the development of skills that can be transferred from tool to tool. The best way to do this is through ‘playing’ with as many different tools as possible, trying things out, investigating why things don’t work as they should and accepting that in the online world, nothing is static (or particularly reliable!).

Three years later, this holds true. The reason for my post is to remind myself and others of the fact that if participating in the online world, nothing will stay the same for long. It is the ability to transfer our skills and work with the change instead of against it that will be a skill employers will look for, and what’s more, it will be a skill we will all need to cope in this society. Developing a PLN, constantly improving our digital literacy and seeing ourselves as learners, with a growth mindset instead of seeing ourselves as a ‘finished product’ will be what we need to do.

What are your thoughts? How do you stay up to date in a constantly changing world? Tweet me, or comment below – I’d love to continue the discussion!

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