Social media can be decidedly anti-social, but is software the answer?

Social media allows us to engage with folks all over the planet, whether we’re relating news of a social uprising or just discussing the latest episode of Game Of Thrones. But it can also bring out the worst in our behaviour. Is software the answer to the social media dilemma?

Twivo, the creation of 17 year old Jennie Lamere has got a lot of attention this week. It’s a plugin for Chrome that allows you to set keywords you’d like to block for a specified period of time. Once that time has elapsed, any and all mentions of those keywords will reappear in your Twitter stream, but during the blackout phase, in theory you’re protected. Twivo hasn’t rolled out to the masses just yet — most reports peg it as being in “demo phase”, which is fair enough given it was the result of an entry into a hacking event in Boston.

Plenty of apps allow you to stream Twitter according to key words, and even block those topics you totally don’t want to know about, but Twivo’s particular interest is in TV show spoilers. The idea is that, as an avid Doctor Who fan (nobody doubted that, did they?), I’d add, say, The Doctor, Clara, and perhaps Cybermen (in reference to this week’s Neil Gaiman penned-episode) to my Twivo filter list to run from early Sunday morning (to avoid UK screening time) until 8:30pm Sunday night (Sydney time), and avoid spoilers that way while still remaining engaged with social media.

Oh look. Here’s a tiny teaser clip the BBC put out. Obviously, don’t watch it if you don’t want the tiniest of spoilers.

http://youtu.be/tll-H3pqlv4

Twivo is an interesting idea, but I’m still a little wary about the particulars, both in terms of how the filtering might adversely work, but also in what it says about us as social media users.

Firstly, the filtering aspect. What happens, exactly, if I filter “Doctor”, and then the world is over-run by a plague of zombies, and “Doctor finds cure for Zombie plague but you must get to Martin Place now?” is massively retweeted? I won’t see it (presumably), and then I’ll be a shambling brain-slurper. Sure, that would solve my problems of what I’m going to wear tomorrow, or indeed what I’m having for dinner, but it’s hardly ideal.

That’s an example stretched to its beyond-logical limits, but still, word-based filtering is rife with potential problems. The classic here has always been for “safety” filters that can’t discern between pornographic searches for breasts, and people searching for information on breast cancer or cooking chicken parts. I can also recall (and I’m going back a way here) a filter that promised to be able to discern between skin tones so that mucky pictures and pictures of ladies in bikinis would be filtered separately. As I recall (one of my magazine colleagues did the legwork) it didn’t work… and, indeed, couldn’t tell if an Anne Geddes picture was pornographic or not.

In other words, letting machines do the thinking for us might not be the wisest course of attack.

Then there’s the social aspect of social media. I got into something of a heated argument around this last Sunday night with a fan group that, once upon a time (i.e quite some time back) I’d been the vice president of with regards to spoilers and the time differences across Australia. I figured it’d be better for an Australian-wide group to perhaps hold off social media discussion until it had aired in WA. They admitted it was an issue, and one they’d discussed in some detail, but the membership had spoken, and immediate (that is, immediate Eastern states) tweeting it was. As I say, I was involved with them quite some time ago, so I wasn’t part of those discussions; it just seemed odd to me that they’d go down that route. We agreed to disagree on that topic… but it remains. There’s no absolute agreed statute of limitation on spoilers, on the one hand, and it utterly sucks to have something spoiled for you. Before you ask: First world problem? Absolutely.

On the other hand, humans are social creatures, and the power of social media is in the discussion aspect of it. Social media straddles an interesting space where it’s partly very narrowcast (in the way that you could run, say, a spoiler-filled forum, because you’re following those who interest you) and equally exceptionally broadcast. Get Stephen Fry to retweet something with a link in it, and watch the servers melt down. Not all of us have Fry’s immense power, but a single tweet can travel a very long way — and spoil things for those who may have otherwise enjoyed them.

The other standard response here is that “you shouldn’t be on social media until then”, but I don’t buy that entirely. Maybe for live sporting events, but not for things with shuffled broadcast availability. Heck, even if you do go down the pirate route, different people will have different times that their downloads finish.

There’s no easy answer, but what do you reckon? Do you filter your Twitter stream already? Do you run screaming from social media of all types while programs you care about (but can’t see for whatever reason) are screening? Is there a reasonable statute of limitations on spoilers generally?

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