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Posted on April 19th, 2011 by Nicole Kobie

Berners-Lee: Stop foaming at the mouth, Twitter


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.

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14 Responses to “ Berners-Lee: Stop foaming at the mouth, Twitter ”

  1. Medbob Says:
    April 19th, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    144 characters is not long enough to develop a cogent point.
    The format itself is a form of filtering to the smallest idea atoms.

  2. Medbob Says:
    April 19th, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    How long does it need to be to communicate a single idea with support?

  3. Nick Vidal Says:
    April 19th, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    I recommend ISS/IM (Instant Syndicating Standards):

  4. Mike Says:
    April 19th, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    How about structuring discussion by topic instead of time? MIT folks are doing this at

  5. Tim's Long Lost Cousin Says:
    April 19th, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Tim – we at SecretSocial can’t agree more.

    Encourage serendipity. Encourage meaningful conversations. Build a better social web.

  6. Alex Says:
    April 19th, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    A dislike button and a gradient between like and dislike would be start…

  7. Luis Guillermo Restrepo Rivas Says:
    April 19th, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    If Berners-Lee had calculated the effect the Web would have, he would have known that things as Twitter and Facebook will appear.

  8. mitali Says:
    April 20th, 2011 at 3:58 am

    ”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?”
    - We have this system. Its called Quora. Would love to hear Sir Berners-Lee’s opinion on Quora.

  9. Simon King Says:
    April 20th, 2011 at 6:26 am

    If this wasn’t so weird I am sure people would not believe it. Suffice to say that I must have been channeling Sir Berners-Lee about six months ago when I launched an idea that will go live on Tuesday April 26. Intelligent conversations between people who are not necessarily friends of topics that go beyond what you had for lunch and when you checked into the local bar. So cool to get validation from a legend days before our launch!

  10. Mauricio Says:
    April 20th, 2011 at 8:41 am

    It’s not just the length of the messages, but the structure. It is very tedious to follow the ‘conversation’ between two people over time.
    The writer should also be able to feature or hide replies depending on how much they contribute to his conversation.
    I am trying to address some of these problems with (coming soon)

  11. Alistair Says:
    April 20th, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Well, it’s a bit like talk-back radio – most people who can be bothered calling in either feel very strongly about something, or are lonely/bored and just want to feel like someone’s listening.

    Forums, and blogs to a certain extent, do much more to really connect people and build community. There are businesses online who are supported mainly by the feeling of community on their forums.

    FB and Twitter don’t really support conversations, it’s more about output and reaction to that output. The quality of those interactions aren’t the focus.

  12. Tom Says:
    April 20th, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Who cares what this puts thinks?

  13. cburt Says:
    April 20th, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    This trend just reflects the fact that Twitter is becoming popular, and so all the mouth-breathers are showing up. This shouldn’t be surprising. If you want to have nuanced, civil discourse you’ll need to chose your partners wisely and have it in a fairly closed forum.

    Twitter is more for trading pointers and simple ideas, and influencing the course of the vast meme soup. Of course it’s going to be a bit polarizing. It’s far better than mass media.

  14. asdf Says:
    May 12th, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    @Tom – RE: “Who cares what this puts thinks?” [sic]

    I do, and so should you.

    Without this “puts” [sic] as you put it, you wwwouldn’t be here.
    Sir Tim Berners-Lee is one of the few people who in my opinion truly deserve to have the title “sir”.

    Go and hang your head in shame.


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