Start Up No.1961: Twitter cuts another 200 jobs, Vertu’s weird Web3 phone, Boris Becker ‘in the game’, a BritGPT for UK?, and more

A tweet going viral
If you’re smart enough, you can reverse engineer Twitter’s algorithm to make your tweets go viral. Use with care, though.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Non-infectious. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. On Mastodon: Observations and links welcome.

I remembered how awful it is to go viral • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick decided to figure out what makes stuff go viral on Twitter these days, from first principles:


I recently noticed Musk doing a very specific trick that is mainly done by teenage tweetdeckers trying to sell dildos and promote Telegram channels for hentai, NFT spam bots, and, of course, weird tech guys making long threads about growth-hacking their open relationships using their Notion second brain or whatever. He was replying to his own tweets.

Extremely cringe, but useful for me in trying to reverse engineer how this extremely broken website works now!

So my hypothesis went like this: Twitter is using invisible subreddits via Topics to algorithmically organize tweets. Because the For You page isn’t chronological anymore, viral tweets can’t be as timely as they used to be. They have to be kind of evergreen. It helps if they’re commenting on something that’s already going viral. And it really helps if you post a thread, reply to yourself, or create some kind of discussion in the replies. There also seems to be a bigger emphasis on video now.

My first attempt at gaming the algorithm was this thread about the dangers of AI. It was a long thread about a topic that I knew Twitter was tracking, AI, and it was a hot take that generated a lot of replies. And it worked! It’s the first tweet I’ve had break 1,000 retweets since November 2022.

Cool, but I wanted to try it again and lean even further into the algorithm, which meant I needed to find a video that was already going viral and getting a lot of quote tweets, reply to a bunch of replies, reply to myself, and make sure it was something totally evergreen. And if you want to go viral it’s always best to focus on something you sincerely care about, so, when I saw this video about Marvel movies going viral and getting lots of quote tweets, I decided to jump in, as well. My tweet wasn’t hugely popular initially, but I spent about 45 minutes replying to people who commented on it. Then I closed the app and didn’t check it until the next day.


Yes, you guessed. His conclusion:


Anyways, I can safely say I understand how Twitter works now. It’s basically just Reddit moving at the speed of Tumblr. Which is pretty sad tbh.


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Twitter Blue head Esther Crawford is out at Twitter • The Verge

Emma Roth:


Twitter product manager Esther Crawford no longer has a job at the company following yet another wave of layoffs, as first reported by Platformer’s Zoë Schiffer. Crawford headed up various projects at Twitter, including the company’s Blue with verification subscription as well as Twitter’s forthcoming payments platform.

Alex Heath of The Verge confirmed Crawford and most of the remaining product team were laid off this weekend, leading to speculation that Twitter’s owner Elon Musk may be about to install a new regime at the company.

In a recent interview, Musk said, “I need to stabilize the organization and just make sure it’s in a financially healthy place in that the product roadmap is clearly laid out” before guessing that “before the end of the year” would be a good time to find a replacement for himself as Twitter CEO.

During her time at Twitter, Crawford emerged as one of Twitter’s most prominent product managers under Elon Musk’s leadership, and notably tweeted a picture of herself on the floor of Twitter’s office in a sleeping bag and eye mask. “When your team is pushing round the clock to make deadlines sometimes you #SleepWhereYouWork,” the tweet reads.


The NYT says that around 200, out of 2,000, were fired. There’ll be a lot of schadenfreude at Crawford’s departure: she wasn’t popular among ex-Twitter staff for her relentless upbeat approach to Musk’s slash-and-burn school of management. Though she hadn’t updated her Twitter profile on Tuesday (it still read “product @Twitter”), she did acknowledge her firing with a tweet saying “The worst take you could have from watching me go all-in on Twitter 2.0 is that my optimism or hard work was a mistake. Those who jeer & mock are necessarily on the sidelines and not in the arena. I’m deeply proud of the team for building through so much noise & chaos.”

To which the Aussie pixelatedboat replied, with sarcasm you’d only recognise if you know his normal tweets, “Thank you, all your hard work is reflected in the current twitter user experience.”

The replies to Crawford’s tweet break down pretty clearly into “Silicon Valley startup types who believe work should consume you” and “people who think you’re allowed a life beyond work”.
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We tried Vertu’s ‘Web3’ phone. It scared us • WIRED

Andrew Williams:


Why won’t Vertu die? It’s the cockroach of phone companies. The once huge LG made its smartphone exit in 2021. HTC and Sony are just about clinging on by their fingertips. And yet the ultra-niche Vertu just recently announced a phone as bold and bombastic as anything it has made to date: the Metavertu. 

It starts at £2,787 ($3,330), then tops out at a mind-boggling £34,534 ($41,262) for the borderline offensive Himalaya Alligator Leather 18K Gold & Diamond model. And that may not even be the most eye-opening part. Vertu markets this thing as the “world’s first Web3 phone,” a claim that would set off alarm bells had they not already been ringing since first sight of the Vertu name.

Why? Over the years, Vertu has been responsible for some of the most tasteless and gaudy phones to roll off a production line. It started off as a Nokia side brand in 1998. Those early years gave us some undeniably striking phones, like the relatively elegant Vertu Signature from 2003. 

By 2012, Nokia’s phone market share had dropped from heights of 50.8% to under 5%. Vertu was sold to a private equity group, then bounced between owners from Turkey and China.


Now, it’s basically selling rebranded ZTE handsets. However, to use the Web3 aspect..:


Vertu demands you supply not just your real name and either your drivers license number or passport number to use Vshot, but a picture of its information page and a picture of you holding your ID. You’re left waiting up to five minutes with the load bar spinning before you’ll see this bizarre info request, too.

If this doesn’t make you worried, it should. Vertu’s terms of service claims this ID is required by the People’s Republic of China, and goes on to leave one with the impression that maybe you shouldn’t bet the bank on any “due diligence” from Vertu in checking the apps made available through the Dapp store, among other worrying clauses. The entire poorly written script doesn’t quite reach the levels of “if you use this software, you are on your own should something go wrong,” but let’s just say it is very different from the T+Cs pages you’d expect from any “normal” app store. We’re certainly not in the Google Play Store anymore.

Never before have I used a phone where I felt so unsafe, one that feels like it could be used to scam me—though, to be clear, I have no evidence that it is. This really is a Web3 phone, then, just perhaps not in the sense the aspiring crypto bros hoped for.


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Boris Becker: ‘I’m still in the game. Just have to play better’ • Financial Times

Henry Mance got the first English interview with the former Wimbledon champion, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for tax evasion (but served just “eight months and six days”, he says):


His lawyer said his career earnings were $50mn.

“I was not careless. I had good investments with the car dealerships, with real estate. I was cash-poor and asset-rich. You have a divorce, you have another one. It goes quick! It wasn’t that I was spending it on the Ferrari and the gold Rolexes. It wasn’t also that I was poor. I had a lot of income, but I had a lot of expenditure. I’ve financed three families.”

He tells me that his dream was to become a billionaire and buy a football club. He denies reports that he lost £10mn investing in Nigerian oil. He did buy a 12-bedroom villa in Mallorca, and spend £22,000 a month renting a house in Wimbledon. He was “maybe too generous” with gifts. During his trial, he was seen entering Harrods. “That photo is actually wrong. I was hiding from the paparazzi. I never shopped at Harrods.”

As for the unauthorised payments for which he was sentenced, “I used that money to pay my ex-wife child support, to support my wife at the time, to pay rent, to pay for my doctor for my knee surgery, and to pay for my lawyer’s bill that advised me that I can do that.

“The British justice system is brutal — for everybody! Including for me. I’ve paid back in the region of €16mn for [failing to repay] a €3.5mn loan. Don’t ask me my opinion because I might get arrested again . . . I lost my house in Germany, my flat in London, my house in Mallorca.”

Has he learnt his lesson? “What lessons should I have to learn? That I have to be careful with my money. Yes. Should I have better advisers? Yes . . . When I’m at my best in tennis, who do I listen to in my matches? I listen to myself. I’m going to start listening to my common sense, instead of having these tens of advisers and lawyers. I’m actually pretty good with numbers, believe it or not.”

Later, when I check his figures for the charges he faced and the jail time he served, I find they are off: he faced 24 charges, not 29, and spent seven months and 17 days inside.


A remarkable fact: he’s 55, and his left knee, right ankle and both hips are replacements. That’s what playing pro tennis on hard courts does to you. Mance says he was one of the most fascinating interview subjects he’s ever spoken to.
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UK needs its own ‘BritGPT’ or will face an uncertain future, MPs hear • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


The UK needs to support the creation of a British version of ChatGPT, MPs were told on Wednesday, or the country would further lose the ability to determine its own fate.

Speaking to the Commons science and technology committee, Adrian Joseph, BT’s chief data and artificial intelligence officer, said the government needed to have a national investment in “large language models”, the AI that underpins services such as ChatGPT, Bing Chat and Google’s Bard.

Without such technology, the nation would struggle to compete internationally in future, he said.

“We think there’s a risk that we in the UK, lose out to the the large tech companies, and possibly China, and get left behind … in areas of cybersecurity, of healthcare, and so on. It is a massive arms race that has been around for some time, but the heat has certainly been turned up most recently.”

Dame Wendy Hall, who co-chaired the UK government’s AI review in 2017, concurred with the need to develop a BritGPT. “If we don’t do it, we just become a service industry country,” she told MPs. “But in the UK, we can harness the technology, use that to drive the economy and grow jobs.”

The computing power required to perform cutting-edge AI work is expensive, MPs were told, which prevents the UK’s leading researchers in the field from competing directly with large, well-funded US companies.

“University researchers are at risk of being left behind,” said Nigel Shadbolt, the chair of the Open Data Institute, “because their access to the kinds of [computing power] you need is not organised terribly systematically. We’ve got to think about we can sustainably guarantee our access to that.”


A national investment in LLMs? I suppose the idea is that rather like JANET, the high-speed internet system that links universities, you could fund an LLM system that would be available to researchers there. But that’s not a commercial system. Would you rent it out on a timeshare system? But then what’s the difference between that and a bigger one such as OpenAI will have? And just as a reminder, OpenAI has had more than a billion dollars of investment, and Microsoft is pushing another $10bn into it over the coming years. Meanwhile Britain has striking nurses and doctors.
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International Baccalaureate lets pupils use ChatGPT to write essays • The Times

Nicola Woolcock, Education Editor:


Children will be allowed to quote from work generated by ChatGPT in their essays, a leading qualification body has revealed.

The International Baccalaureate said it will not ban the AI chatbot, which can be used for plagiarism, suggesting it was similar to dealing with cheating parents and essay mills.

Matt Glanville, head of assessment principles and practice at the IB, said children can use work generated by ChatGPT so long as they do not pass it off as their own.

In the long run, he said the qualification would heavily reduce its reliance on essays because other skills were now more important than essay-writing.

The IB is taken by thousands of pupils each year at more than 120 British schools. Glanville said those working in schools or assessment should be excited rather than terrified by ChatGPT and “embrace it as an extraordinary opportunity”. He likened it to spellchecking software and translation apps.

He said: “The clear line between using ChatGPT and providing original work is exactly the same as using ideas taken from other people or the internet. As with any quote or material adapted from another source, it must be credited in the body of the text and appropriately referenced in the bibliography.

“Essay-writing is, however, being profoundly challenged by the rise of new technology and there’s no doubt that it will have much less prominence in the future.


Seems reasonable to me. (IB is about equivalent to A levels, except there are more subjects.) You might as well get children used to how the world is going to be when they’re adults, and pretty much no adult has to write long essays.
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Classes resume Monday after ‘encryption event’ in Minneapolis schools • Sahan Journal

Becky Dernbach:


Minneapolis Public Schools will open for in-person instruction as usual Monday, after a week of disruptions from “technical difficulties” and snow.

In an email to families and students, Minneapolis Public Schools described the technical issues as an “encryption event.” 

What is an “encryption event”?

“I don’t have any specifics past that,” a district spokesperson told Sahan Journal.

The problems affected the operability of systems including internet, phones, cameras, badge access, copiers/printers, and building alarms, the district said in its email to Minneapolis families. All of these systems have been restored, or soon will be. Some systems may still be down Monday as the district assesses protective measures.

…The “encryption event” resulted in the shutdown of many Minneapolis Public Schools systems for a full week. But due to a fluke of timing, the technical difficulties did not cause any missed instructional days.

On Monday, schools were closed for Presidents’ Day; Tuesday was also scheduled as a “non-school day” for parent-teacher conferences. Then, because of a predicted snowstorm, Minneapolis Public Schools announced e-learning days for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The technical difficulties did not affect the programs needed for e-learning, like Google Classroom, the district said.


This one got squeezed out yesterday, but I love the idea of renaming “ransomware” an “encryption event”. A bit like saying Chicxulub was an “asteroid event”.
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GoDaddy says a multi-year breach hijacked customer websites and accounts • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:


GoDaddy has revealed that its network suffered a multi-year security compromise that allowed unknown attackers to steal company source code, customer and employee login credentials, and install malware that redirected customer websites to malicious sites.

GoDaddy is one of the world’s largest domain registrars, with nearly 21 million customers and revenue in 2022 of almost $4bn. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said that three serious security events starting in 2020 and lasting through 2022 were carried out by the same intruder.

“Based on our investigation, we believe these incidents are part of a multi-year campaign by a sophisticated threat actor group that, among other things, installed malware on our systems and obtained pieces of code related to some services within GoDaddy,” the company stated. The filing said the company’s investigation is ongoing.

The most recent event occurred last December when the threat actor gained access to the cPanel hosting servers customers use to manage websites hosted by GoDaddy. The threat actor then installed malware on the servers that “intermittently redirected random customer websites to malicious sites.”

“We have evidence, and law enforcement has confirmed, that this incident was carried out by a sophisticated and organized group targeting hosting services like GoDaddy,” company officials wrote in a separate statement published on Thursday. “According to information we have received, their apparent goal is to infect websites and servers with malware for phishing campaigns, malware distribution, and other malicious activities.”

A separate event occurred in March 2020, when the threat actor obtained login credentials that gave it access to a “small number” of employee accounts and the hosting accounts of roughly 28,000 customers.


Given the installation of malware, my guess would be that this is commercial hackers looking to take over (or hack into) web users’ systems.
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Zombie newspaper sites rise from the grave • Twin Cities Business

Dan Niepow:


What happens when a newspaper dies? Apparently, in some cases, its digital ghost lives on in mysterious, unrecognizable forms.

Minneapolis neighborhood newspaper the Southwest Journal shuttered at the end of 2020, but its web domain continues to post fresh content under the auspices of a Delaware “SEO company” whose leader lives in Serbia. Though the site still includes a few legacy Journal articles now under fictitious bylines, all of the most recent posts are more or less junk content evidently designed to manipulate search engines. There’s a Feb. 10 article about handling raw chicken. Another article highlights the “10 most popular bitcoin casino games.”

While there is a recent article on creating “a breathtaking rock garden” written from the perspective of someone purportedly living in the East Harriet neighborhood, the site’s content, generally speaking, is no longer in line with the Journal’s longstanding coverage of South Minneapolis neighborhoods.

The “Contact Us” link at the bottom of the site pointed to an email address connected to an entity known as Shantel LLC.

According to its own website, Shantel LLC is an “SEO company” from Delaware, and, as of Feb. 17, its homepage read, “Let’s make the internet a great again!” The company said it specializes in “writing services, SEO optimization services, and similar SEO-related services.” (Shantel LLC’s website was utterly emptied of content around the time this article published, but archived versions of the site include that same company description.)


(Just pausing here to wonder who on earth is searching for “bitcoin casino games”. Isn’t bitcoin and all the associated malarkey enough of a casino?) The problem of newspaper domains, of course, being that they may have high trust, or be bookmarked by some people.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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