Twitter algorithms

July 2, 2017

These are my rules for making Twitter more useful.

My goal, on Twitter, is a combination of finding fun and interesting stuff and to expose myself to (certain) other points of view. At work we have training on bias, unconscious and otherwise, and on techniques for reducing it and countering it. One of the instructors mentioned that you can’t just wish unconscious bias away; apparently repeated exposure to normalizing examples is required, but it takes time (this is yet another disturbing/annoying way that our brains resemble neural nets for machine learning; in this light, unconscious bias is just the result of a lifelong biased training set.)

So as a rule, by default, if I see a post from an interesting woman, interesting PoC, interesting LGBTQIA person, I try to be a little more receptive to pushing the follow button. Lately I’ve decided, if it’s someone from another country I don’t necessarily hear from, that ought to count, too.

My subject bias is bikes/transit/housing, tech-especially-security, Boston area, Florida, liberal politics, science, cute animals.

But everywhere you go, especially politics and often science, you find trolls. I can’t even tell if they’re really people, and there’s a lot of them. I won’t learn anything from them, they won’t learn anything from me, it’s annoying to see someone wrong on the internet and not reply, but that’s a total waste of time. I tried blocktogether.org and that worked pretty well once I had imported a couple of lists, but then I heard mention of something called “blockchain”, not the distributed ledger algorithm, but instead a Chrome extension for bulk blocking.

So now, if I’m reading replies to an interesting tweet and I see some especially trolly comment, I visit the troll’s profile, and if it also looks especially trolly, then I select their followers. If I see that several other people I follow also follow the troll, maybe I stop there, I scan a few of the followers to see if they also look slightly troll-aligned (and remember, I’m not sure if these are real people or networks of bots) and if they are, then I click the “Run Block Chain” button and wait. For someone with more than about 10,000 followers, this will eventually error out for some reason, but it does add the ones that it scanned before the error. Twitter block chain is open source so I have a prayer of figuring the bug out if I really cared and fixing it in my copious free time but for now it works well enough and few trolls have that many followers.

Block chain will not block someone you’re already following, but inevitably you’ll pick up someone who you’d follow if you knew about them (@soledadobrien follows 338k accounts, including quite a few trolls). Sooner or later you’ll notice someone you’re following approvingly quote-tweeting someone you’ve blocked (this doesn’t happen that often, but it happens) and when that happens, I look through the block to see who it is, maybe unblock them, maybe follow them (this morning it was @deborahblum).
I’m a little nervous that I’m blocking lots of people I might otherwise follow if I knew about them, but after passing 100k blocked accounts the troll chatter is vastly reduced and that’s a real improvement.

One amusing side-effect is that this method bootstraps itself; once you accumulate a few troll-followers in your block list, you’ll find that any new troll’s followers include quite a few that you’ve already blocked, right now around 50% for me. You can use this to quickly sanity-check whether someone you think might be a troll is likely to be one; if a scan of their followers shows a lot of already-blocked accounts, perhaps the rest are worth blocking as well.

It would be lovely/interesting to do something more nuanced — for example, @deborahblum has 17 followers that I “know”, @soledadobrien has 48 followers I know, that could be a rule for not blocking someone in a followers list. It would be interesting to see how many people on my existing blocklist have more than N “discriminating” (not @soledadobrien) followers that I know, maybe review/unblock/follow some of them. (This smells like a sort of 2-sided pagerank to me.)

Someone might ask “why block, why not mute”? I don’t want to see these people, and I don’t want them to see me. There are other people who are actually harrassed on the internet by networks of trolls; I think this is one way to blunt the effectiveness of those networks.

I use the mute button when someone that I’m following goes off on some tedious unrelated tear and I just don’t want to hear about it for a while. It would be nice if muting had a built-in time limit.

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