(AUTHOR'S NOTE: None of this happened. Skip to end for update. Overall point is still interesting so read for that. Or don't because maybe this blog post doesn't exist. Maybe I'm not real. Maybe I'm just another dumb Internet meme sucking up your time)
Ross Luippold over at Huffington Post Comedy has a great replay of the Twitter interactions between comedian Kyle Kinane and Pace Foods that went down this weekend. The exchange centers on the fact that Pace was auto-favoriting tweets mentioning its product, and that made for the favoriting of pretty ridiculous tweets.
It all started when stand-up comedian Kyle Kinane, who counts the likes of Patton Oswalt and Marc Maron as fans, noticed that the Twitter account for Pace favorited a 10-month old tweet insulting their salsa.
Left unsaid in Ross's overview and underpinning why such exchanges were funny in the first place are two basic problems in the design and architecture of Twitter. Allow me to elaborate/rant at length.
First, "favorite" has always been the wrong term for that Twitter action.
"Favorite" implies enjoyment and endorsement of content that stands out above the rest for being not just noteworthy but good. Orange is my favorite color. Kale is my favorite vegetable. Non-conflicted black republicans are my favorite non-existent political group. However, people don't actually use the Twitter feature to mean this in all cases. Often we're just remembering, marking, saving, flagging, storing, bookmarking or otherwise more neutrally noting a tweet. We are long overdue for Twitter to change the verb from favorite to something more neutral.
Know where else we've seen the misuse of verbs in social media? Facebook. "Like" needs to become something else. I don't "Like" when a friend posts that his uncle has just died. I empathize. I feel. I support. I don't like. It's especially problematic with Facebook Pages. I don't like Mitt Romney. I chose to follow his page to keep tabs on what he was up to (someone had to). A like is not an endorsement.
And don't get me started on "friend." Facebook has done more to destroy the meaning of the world "friend" than all the rumor-spreading, backstabbing, and two-faced behavior of the world's people combined.
There's something odd about these social platforms being so neutral in so many of their operations (seemingly) in that they don't endorse movements per se; they want to get out of the way and let users express themselves. Yet they force a non-neutral stance on every user when they make language choices such as favorite, friend, like across a set of interactions that can and do mean so much more than that. Facebook takes the cake because it has forced us into "liking" brands then goes back and sells our likeness in an ad for that brand saying we actually like the brand! Way to juke the stats, Facebook.
Second, favoriting activity is public and social if your Twitter account is public. This is overly simplistic and bad.
In the Security and Privacy section of your Twitter account settings, you're allowed to make your entire account private. You can also choose to conceal the location of your tweets and determine if people can even find you on Twitter based on your mobile number or email address. Twitter could, and I think should, add an option to keep your favorites private. There's a role for you keeping a secret file of tweets you want to come back to. No doubt part of the decision to keep this activity public is to drive more activity. Favoriting is an entirely new category of interaction the company can track, report, and use to populate activity streams. Many people use Twitter in a read-only mode. Favoriting lives in the gray area between true lurker behavior and posting tweets like an addict (aka me). The added twist is that while the word and button design of Favorite on Twitter has remained the same, its meaning has changed dramatically.
Favorites used to only be visible for folks who visited your profile page and explicitly clicked on your favorites. They were technically public but practically hidden if not invisible. Now they act more like a mention, proactively alerting (snitching to?) the party whose tweet you've favorited about what you've done.
That's what happened with Kyle. In a sane and less noisy social world, he should not have even known that Pace had marked his tweet. Twitter created a social interaction where none was intended. They changed the meaning of the word favorite when they launched the feature then changed it again to make it a form of communication.
Who does this the right way? Instapaper, sort of. Your "likes" don't have to be publicly exposed. What I don't like is how they couple this choice with people finding you through connected services. Those are not connected choices.
There should be an experience of these services that doesn't force blanket meaning on our actions, or if they do, they do so with the lightest possible meaning and the clearest possibly explanation of consequences. When I like or favorite the first few times, the service should explain to me what that means and where this action lives on. "Like" sounds innocent, but it isn't. "Favorite" is innocuous until you're caught favoriting something offensive or dumb (like U.S. immigration policy).
There should be an experience that doesn't force our actions to be both public and social as well because in so doing they force us to answer for behavior that has largely been implicit or passive or silent or all three. We're pouring so much of our lives, our business, our politics into this machinery, but we're still learning how the machinery changes those lives and businesses and politics.
Just consider the physical books and magazines you've read. What if when you folded a page or highlighted a passage or placed a bookmark, that book reported your activity to the author and the publisher and told them that "Baratunde Is Over The Moon about page 43 in Mein Kampf" because "Is Over The Moon" is the way they've chosen to lable the action. That's what UX can do when it's done wrong, and a much much milder version of that is what happened to Pace.
I love Kyle Kinane. He's super funny and had a great and creative way of handling his exchange. He was performing. He was doing real Twitter comedy--not just tweeting out standup bits over Twitter as a transport layer, but using the native interactions of the platform to inspire creativity. He was speaking the language. However, in a world where social platforms use the right language and give us control over both the public and social settings of our actions, this incident would never have happened.
Update @ 17:39 2nd December 2013
Love this question from @HumorCode, and I tend to agree. I've re-read the above, and it's slightly more categorical and absolute than I intended. Twitter is fun. New types of interactions aren't always a problem. They are interesting and create new opportunities for expression and communication. I'm for all that.
More than a restriction on user interactions, I think what I'm calling for is clarity. I'm pretty sure (and certainly hope) that Pace might have set their auto-bot differently had they known it would proactively alert the users whose tweets it was favoriting.
Good followup point @HumorCode.
While we're at it, what substitute words could social platforms enable to replace these generic overly broad forced meanings?
Instead of Favorite and Like, I nominate
- Goddamn Love
- Grind Up On
What say the rest of you?
Update 17:52 2nd December 2013
Yes yes Bart. The well-funded Pace Foods corporation should have invested in humans and machines that knew better. That's the least interesting part of the story for me, but it's a valid point. Dear Internet, stop making valid points which expand and occasionally shift but never quite undermine my main point!
Update 18:01 2nd December 2013
Well ain't that some sh*t. The entire thing was a hoax pulled on Kyle. Pace account was fake. Life has no meaning. None of this matters. Nothing matters.
That's annoying to say the least. So strip out the part about Pace, and my overall point remains valid and interesting, I think. Favorite and Like are the wrong verbs. We need more understanding of our how actions ricochet through the digital ether.
I'm going to go burn something now.