Berners-Lee: Stop foaming at the mouth, Twitter

19 Apr 2011

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the web, but that doesn't mean he loves everything that's on it -- and that includes Twitter and Facebook.

Sir Tim has a well-documented aversion to social networking, previously describing the walled gardens of Facebook and LinkedIn as one of the threats to the web. But those who prefer the more open-natured Twitter over Facebook shouldn't feel favoured by the web-creator's sporadic tweets -- he doesn't have kind words for the nature of updates being shared.

Speaking at a W3C conference in Oxford, he said he was monitoring tweets containing the word 'neutrality' when the FCC was voting on net neutrality earlier this year.  "Watching the Twitter stream go by, I noticed what people said -- people who understood what it [net neutrality] was and people who didn’t understand what it was --  all of the tweets were extreme," Berners-Lee claimed.

How do you design a form of Twitter, how do you change the retweet system, so that Twitter will end up gathering a body of reasoned debate?

"They were just foaming at the mouth, frustrated with how stupid President Obama was that he didn’t do complete net neutrality, or foaming at the mouth at how stupid President Obama was because he was sneaking this net neutrality thing in to take control of the internet before the next election so that he could win. They were all foaming at the mouth, furious."

Berners-Lee said there were sane tweets -- "hmm, there seem to be two sides to the net neutrality arguement" -- but those comments weren't being retweeted.  "One possibility is that Twitter, in that case, is a medium which was only amplifying the emotionally charged," he suggested.

With those criticisms, he set a challenge to attendees -- and I hereby extend it to the rest of the world.  "How do you design a form of Twitter, how do you change the retweet system, so that Twitter will end up gathering a body of reasoned debate?" he asked.

Stretching for Facebook friends

Berners-Lee had some suggestions for Facebook-style social networks, too -- and it wasn't just to do with open data and walled gardens.

Sir Tim said social-network systems are very good at introducing us to people we already know, letting us communicate very well "in our own little online dialect with our friends of our friends in a tightly knit bundle", but not at "stretching" our ability to meet new people. Consider your own friends list, and it's hard to say that isn't true.

How do we build the web so that every now and then it introduces us to people who are not friends of friends

"How do we build the web so that every now and then it introduces us to people who are not friends of friends," he pondered. For example, if you were a "white male geek living in London, speaking English, you’re Church of England, and you like fishing" and it introduces you to someone just like that, who likes skiing, "to see how that stretches you, to find how you can communicate with skiers, and try to explain to a skier why you spend all that time fishing."

Or, it might suggest someone just like you, living somewhere entirely different. "Could you actually count that person as a friend,  join a group a people who are bridging national divides? That might be more of a stretch. How could we make the web push people so that they break down barriers?" he wondered, calling for people to "make use of the web so it connects people together… and breaks down barriers more than it builds them up." Again, Berners-Lee issued a challenge for developers to create a social network that does just that.

"The real challenge of web science is being able to understand when you build a little system what the big effect will be," he added. "People don’t calculate what the big effect will be, they tend to just launch it and see what happens."

So rather than try to be the next Biz Stone or Mark Zuckerberg, create a system that doesn't just get a lot of users and make you a billionaire, but actually tries to make the world a better place. Yeah, it sounds cheesy -- but hey, it's what Berners-Lee did.

Read more

Blogs