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When Complaining Online Is Worth It

The big tech companies are finally listening to user gripes, but is there a hidden cost? Plus: Uber gets into the scooter business and Facebook responds to Congress.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, Kim Kardashian West tweeted that she had the ear of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and that she was using her platform to request the long-debated edit button.

Kardashian West may feel like she’s on a bit of a roll, after possibly being responsible for persuading President Donald Trump to commute Alice Johnson’s sentence. Maybe she found a new calling as something of an advocate, and she wants to give the internet a gift. But there are two problems: For one, an edit button is not a gift; it would hugely disrupt Twitter.

The other problem is that it might actually happen. Lately, social networks have appeared to be listening to users’ complaints. Since the internet has existed, collective complaints about chain emails, comic sans, the loss of the Facebook Wall, and the updated Instagram logo have inspired outrage and Change.org petitions. And that’s usually where things end. Big social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat weather user criticism until it dies off and then don’t change anything because they don’t have to. Users continue to log in. The cycle has been predictable — until recently.

Last week, after BuzzFeed published a post about the obnoxious Messenger notification that appears when you are connected to a new friend, even if they did not send you a message, Facebook killed the feature. This was so effective that BuzzFeed issued a call to arms, asking readers for their biggest digital gripes.

Shortly before that, Facebook announced that it was axing Trending, the terrible news section that contributed more to the spread of misinformation than to keeping users informed — and a source of much complaint. Snapchat, after a revolt over a terrible redesign, will roll back a number of features and return others that it took away, to quell users’ anger. Finally, after years of user begging, Instagram has plans to introduce a mute button. Instagram went so far as to hold a meeting with reporters to talk about the feed and solicit feedback on what features they’d like to see (or see killed). Our own Alyssa Bereznak was there, and several Ringer staffers assisted her by sending in a variety of ideas for the social network, including but not limited to: cut notifications about someone being on Instagram even though they’ve had an account all along, allow slideshow posts to have vertical and horizontal images, and, of course, revive the chronological timeline. Also, stop starting carousel posts on a random image that is not the first in the set.

Again, user complaints are hardly new, but now the social networks appear to be listening, even seeking out criticisms in order to address them. The internet outrage cycle — yell, use, concede, forget — is being upended. It is crucial to stay this fight. In 2010, when The Social Network was released, Zadie Smith wrote about the importance of resisting the world that Mark Zuckerberg, and, more generally speaking, programmers, had built for us. She quotes programmer-philosopher Jaron Lanier:

These designs came together very recently, and there’s a haphazard, accidental quality to them. Resist the easy grooves they guide you into. If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!

So struggle we must. Yet don’t lose sight of what remains the same. Yes, Instagram will get a mute button and Facebook will stop sending unnecessary Messenger notifications and Twitter will consider an edit button (please, please no) but will they fix user privacy? Will they fight troll armies? Will they take down alt-right accounts and ban anyone who threatens or harasses others? Addressing UX complaints is easy, but the action helps shield them, if only temporarily, from inquiries about how to address far more complicated issues. Don’t become placated by the quick fixes or what seem like wins; keep pressing for more privacy features, for more inclusive language. Don’t stop asking the companies shepherding our virtual existence to keep women safer, to tell us exactly how our information is being used, and to explain why they shouldn’t be considered media entities.

“Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder,” Smith went on to ask in her 2010 essay. “Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. ‘Blue is the richest color for me — I can see all of blue.’ Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what ‘friendship’ is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?”

Tech ICYMI

Moment of Inevitability: Uber wants in on e-scooters

E-scooters are infiltrating sidewalks and bike lanes at a startling pace, and now Uber, which has a history for busting into cities regardless of approval status, wants in. According to Axios, the company wants to launch an e-scooter service in San Francisco. Uber had previously expressed interest in e-scooters, but now it’s submitted an application for its service.

Best Light Reading of the Week: Facebook’s answers to Congress

Psych! Light it is not, but tearing into Facebook’s 454 pages of answers to Congress after Zuckerberg’s testimony is rewarding. When he appeared before lawmakers in April, you may remember that he often had to tell senators he would have to get back to them with answers to their questions. Well, the answers are here (PDF 1 and PDF 2), and you can read them at your leisure. Among the revelations: Facebook knows when you need to charge your phone and uses eye-tracking technology to see where you’re looking on your screen.

Loser of the Week: internet users

This week saw two decisions that will worsen internet infrastructure for consumers. First, net neutrality was officially killed after procedural delays extended its life. The FCC and its chairman, Ajit Pai, were able to repeal the Obama administration rules, and the rollback will begin. The biggest change for users will be that internet service providers will be able to control loading and streaming speeds. They will also be able to favor their own sites. This won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

The Time Warner–AT&T merger was approved. More mega-mergers of the sort will probably follow, eventually leading to bulky, less flexible TV packages. Also, with the elimination of net neutrality, AT&T can offer better speeds to its customers when they’re accessing Time Warner content.