Link From Twitter

Twitter have damaged their phone app by adding a feature. This is a problem software is particularly prone to, so let’s sift through it.

I was surprised to find Twitter useful. It had originally seemed a concentration of the least interesting ingredients of online culture: celebrities wittering moments from their shadow lives in a medium where smalltalk was enforced by a strict character limit. That’s not wrong, but it is incomplete. Twitter can be rendered functional, for me, by following interesting people, who link in depth, and by dropping anyone who emits more than two dozen undirected tweets in a week. 

Despite my faddish embrace of the medium du jour, two of the best discussion groups I am a part of are still closed mailing lists of mutual friends. It is also easy, with mail, to copy other random people that might care. This electronic mail thing really seems to have a future. Someone should look into that.

With this use pattern, and the primacy of the smartphone in a busy life, a fair proportion of the times I find something cool on twitter involves mailing a link.

Until recently, the email composed by twitter consisted of a link, my default signature, and an empty subject. This wasn’t great. Typing a subject, like typing anything on the phone, is a bit of a pain. Blankness is lousy microcontent, a terrible breach of information etiquette for a platform focused on short semantic bursts. Feedly – heck even Safari, dog that it is – at least has the sense to use the title of the web page in question.

Twitter fixed this bug. The latest version of the app sets email subjects to “Link from Twitter” and, as well as the link, adds a note to “Download the official Twitter app here. The fix of course is worse than the bug. Not having a subject just looks careless, like leaving your fly undone. “Link from Twitter” looks like somebody paid you €5 to tattoo an advertisement on your arse and then moon out car windows.

The time spent to delete that guff and replace it with something more meaningful is time wasted. Pretty much anything would be more meaningful to most recipients, who care about what was sent, not how it was sent. The empty subject is better. The subject “lol” would even be better, as at least it tells the audience about the content instead of whether it was sent by carrier pigeon or whichever. This is true even if you drink from the twitter firehouse; then you waste even more time.

If Twitter really thought it was important to squeeze some self-promotion into my email, they would find a way that added to my user experience. Why are people using the tool in the first place? It’s for snippets of content in a social network context. I don’t care that something came from Twitter, but I might care that it came from a particular user on Twitter. Maybe quote the tweet the link originated from, or mention the @user. Maybe link back to that tweet. Maybe I followed a few onward links, and am mailing that, so provide a breadcrumb trail of that history with a chain of vias. Do neat things that bring people into your conversation. Don’t make my email look like a spam. And don’t waste my time.

I Wore A Descriptive Robot Ethical Onion On My Belt

Via the fortuitously broken RSS feed of Intimate Machines, a short academic overview of Robot Ethics / RoboEthics. Intimate Machines is Glenda Shaw-Garlock’s blog, currently in hibernation, possibly thesis-related. While the overview itself is pretty smooth, the major ethical documents in this nascent field seem to be jolly tedious for a subject that lets us answer questions about the morality of electroshock robot camel jockeys.

It’s not the latest output, but the Euron Roboethic Roadmap (PDF) will serve well enough as an example. Firstly, it’s not really a roadmap, which implies some sort of high level direction: it’s more an exhaustive bullet-pointed list of every permutation in which ethics and robotics might intersect, with the more interestingly science fictional ones glossed over in order to seem serious. The project is almost entirely descriptive, and there are no ethical guidelines here of the type a researcher might use to get their project past a roboethics committee. The first proposed national prescriptive guidelines, due to come out of Korea in 2009, seem to have been abandoned with a change of government. (In the meantime, Jamais Cascio has useful early stab.)

Its not clear if this descriptive tediousness, which is hardly inherent to academic writing, is unintended or deliberate policy. Supporting the unconscious side, the prose does have some of the word-counting desperation of an engineering student essay on Othello. Contrariwise, writing is produced with an audience in mind. Rather than researchers – for whom ethical guidelines might include some sort of moral stance – the institutions of public policy seem more clearly in mind. In the case of the Euron roadmap, one’s reminded of the bureaucratic house style of the likely regulator, the EU. Perhaps robot ethics has coloured itself in grey as a kind of self-defense mechanism: robotics researchers want to show they’ve done their homework, thought long and hard about if they are doing the right thing, and are safe and somewhat dull custodians of the world’s mechanized retarded geniuses and flying killing machines. Think of it as the Abraham Simpson school of rhetoric: win by boring your opponents to death.

I don’t think that will quite be adequate.