Indie Microblogging by Manton Reece

Influence and reposts

“It was a land of vast silent spaces, of lonely rivers, and of plains where the wild game stared at the passing horseman.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Paul Kane travelled down the Saskatchewan River, sketching and painting Native Americans. It was one of multiple trips he undertook to the Pacific northwest in the 1840s. He would make watercolor paintings of landscapes, capturing a snapshot of the trip in a time when there were few photos.

Along the way he would write in his journal. The journal entries were short snippets of text, not unlike microblog posts, with dates for when the traveling party arrived or departed villages, and who they interacted with:

made a sketch of the Buffalo feeding in a valley called long grass

He returned home with hundreds of drawings. Paul Kane used them as the basis for new oil paintings, people’s first glimpse of the American West.

December 2001, 150 years after Paul Kane made those trips, I looked into a print of one of his portraits on my wall and snapped a photo with my camera. I synced the photo to my Mac and uploaded it to the Mirror Project.

Between then and 2006 when the Mirror Project went offline, over 30,000 photos were uploaded. The photo uploaded to the Mirror Project immediately after mine was by Derek Powazek. Derek was the one who had registered the domain name, adding to the project started by Heather Champ, with further improvements by Aaron Straup Cope. That photo by Derek was one of dozens he posted, a moment in time, capturing a trip to Boston to catch up with old friends.

The Mirror Project was like a community photo blog. Every post was a microblog post: just the photo, the location, and a few sentences of text. It was a platform that gave people a reason to post photos of themselves to strangers.

There were no trends or influencers. It was years before the iPhone was announced.

Instagram was designed around making it easier to share photos of the experiences we were excited about. The amazing place we visited, the beautiful sunset, the delicious food. In an interview with Stella Bugbee for The Cut, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom talked about how that was a goal of the platform:

When I’m on my bike, I go across the Golden Gate Bridge and it’s full of people taking selfies. And I’m sure that drives them to want to go, because they have to show people they visited San Francisco. But I think broadly, you’re having an experience, and the joy of that experience you want to go share with people you love. And I think that’s great. That’s why we created the platform.

There was an explosion in the quantity of photos being taken and shared online. With photos being shared to both friends and strangers, we think about the quality of the photo much differently than if we were just keeping the photo for ourselves or sharing it with family. We don’t need to impress our family with the perfect shot.

When Instagram was smaller, it might not have seemed much different than the Mirror Project, or Flickr. It was a way to upload photos and share them with friends. But instead of keeping that community feel, Instagram started a subtle shift to reward high-follower accounts indirectly: those people who had such a large audience that they had influence over the spending habits of their followers.

Summer Bedard documented this shift for Adjacent, a journal from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU:

Suddenly in 2010, everyone had a camera with them all the time because you could have both a camera and a cell phone called “the iPhone”. So now, everything was photographed. Every moment from the magical to the mundane was an opportunity to share something. The tiny photo sharing space on the internet, once populated only by tech nerds and photography enthusiasts, now included Aunt Michelle, Cousin Becky, and all the high school friends you thought you left behind on MySpace. Then came the brands.

This depressing post by Paul Reiffer tells the story of how Instagram “influencers” are disrespecting and ruining special places. It’s a gift to be able to capture and share a beautiful scene, but it becomes corrupted when it’s all about “me” and the number of likes, and not the place itself:

These weren’t people wanting to enjoy the view – or even capture the scenery to share and enjoy well into the future with friends. These are people so obsessed with their own sense of self-importance for the sake of a few instant “likes” on their social media profile that they find it perfectly acceptable to trespass, steal, disrespect the workers and their land – all in the name of “influencing”.

Back in the 1840s, there was a sense of authenticity to Paul Kane’s paintings. But they were also sometimes exaggerated, bringing out the most dramatic view. His paintings walked a fine line between respecting the subjects and exploiting them.

The same can be said of the perfectly-staged shots on Instagram. Something gets twisted when the photo’s only purpose is to feed the like and retweet counter. When a photographer gets so obsessed with getting the shot, especially at remote places they may never return to, the scene loses its authenticity.

And it goes further than that. The race for the most likes and retweets feeds into an algorithm that has negative consequences for the community. Reposts have become part of the problem.

Twitter has retweets. Facebook has sharing. But Instagram had no built-in reposting. On Instagram, there was no instantaneous way to share someone else’s post to all of your followers.

The first version of Instagram was built by a very small team. They had grown slowly and expanded the UI thoughtfully. I think the lack of a repost feature was deliberate.

Sarah Frier confirmed this in her book about Instagram, No Filter:

If Systrom and Krieger wanted to fully copy Twitter’s concepts, it would be obvious, at this point, to add a reshare button, to help content go viral like the retweet did. But the founders hesitated. If what people were sharing on this app was photography, would it make sense to allow them to share other people’s art and experiences under their own names? Maybe. But in the interest of starting simple, they decided not to think about it until post-launch.

When you have to put a little work into posting, you take it more seriously. At the end of 2016, there was a debate about the role of fake news stories, a topic we’ll return to in Part 6. I wonder if fake news would have spread so quickly on Facebook if it was a little more difficult to share an article before you’ve read more than the headline.

Instagram is just photos. Landscapes and people, buildings and food, not just images that are screenshots of text. Real photos are inherently more immune to controversy than news headlines.

It’s not easy to build software that encourages good behavior. When I look at my Instagram timeline I see beautiful photos, hand-drawn art, and snapshots of everyday life. I see the very best of the world. It’s not the full truth, but it’s all true.

Instagram was no accident. The only question: was it unique to photos, or can the same quality be applied to microblogging?

There is a connection between influencers and ads. Platforms can reward and encourage influencers, such as how YouTube sends personalized “play button” plaques to video creators when they reach 100k subscribers and other milestones.

As influencers promote products, it blurs the lines between real content and ads. Native advertising becomes an accepted part of the experience instead of a jarring break from reading or watching content.

Social networks like Facebook (and Twitter) are designed to reward the sensational video. The timeline algorithm, “like” counts, and quick re-sharing — these all contribute to surfacing both the best and worst content. Whatever drives engagement.

And that comes from their massive scale. Jeffrey Zeldman wrote about how ad-based services like Twitter need as many posts as possible:

Twitter, for instance, needs a lot of views for advertising to pay at the massive scale its investors demand. A lot of views means you can’t be too picky about what people share. If it’s misogynists or racists inspiring others who share their heinous beliefs to bring back the 1930s, hey, it’s measurable. If a powerful elected official’s out-of-control tweeting reduces churn and increases views, not only can you pay your investors, you can even take home a bonus.

Anything that threatens that scale, threatens to disrupt how the algorithm amplifies engagement. With fewer posts and less relevant ads, it threatens their business.

In leaked audio of an internal Facebook meeting, Mark Zuckerberg said he would fight if Elizabeth Warren was elected president and her justice department tries to break up Facebook:

We care about our country and want to work with our government to do good things. But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.

But Mark doesn’t have to tip the scales on purpose. The platform amplifies the controversial. Charlie Warzel expands on this in an opinion piece for The New York Times:

Yes, Facebook’s willingness to let politicians lie sets a worrying precedent. And yes, lack of oversight into the platform’s decisions opens up a host of plausible election interference conspiracies. But Facebook’s essential threat to democracy isn’t that Mr. Zuckerberg will intervene on behalf of his preferred candidate — it’s more fundamental than that. Mark Zuckerberg need not intervene, because Facebook, the platform, will do so instinctively. With its algorithmic mandate of engagement over all else, Facebook has redefined what it means to be a good candidate — and provided a distinct natural advantage to those who distort the truth and seek to divide.

Being a “good candidate” is no longer about long, thoughtful speeches on policy. It’s about short, retweetable sound bites.

Chris Wetherell, who worked at Twitter on the retweet feature, talked to Alex Kantrowitz at BuzzFeed News about how the retweet was like handing a loaded weapon to a 4-year-old. The retweet was a powerful force that required very little work or thought, with wide ripple effects as a tweet spread quickly. Chris said:

It did a lot of what it was designed to do. […] It had a force multiplier that other things didn’t have.

Alex continued in his article:

But the button also changed Twitter in a way Wetherell and his colleagues didn’t anticipate. Copying and pasting made people look at what they shared, and think about it, at least for a moment. When the retweet button debuted, that friction diminished. Impulse superseded the at-least-minimal degree of thoughtfulness once baked into sharing.

Alexis Madrigal explored the impact of retweets for The Atlantic. Anger spreads fast via retweets, as Alexis said leading Twitter to feel “feel frenetic, unhinged”. As an experiment, Alexis disabled all retweets for everyone he was following:

Retweets make up more than a quarter of all tweets. When they disappeared, my feed had less punch-the-button outrage. Fewer mean screenshots of somebody saying precisely the wrong thing. Less repetition of big, big news. Fewer memes I’d already seen a hundred times. Less breathlessness. And more of what the people I follow were actually thinking about, reading, and doing.

Seeing more of what people were actually thinking and creating gets us back to Instagram, still focused on photos, with nothing like the retweet. It’s ironic that Instagram, the platform that more than any other has been so consumed by influencers, is naturally resistant to the viral spread of news. The UI matters.

Next: UI impacts behavior →