The unlamented decline of the platform formerly known as Twitter

According to the BBC, Elon Musk recently shared “an antisemitic conspiracy theory, calling it ‘actual truth’.” Of course, Musk has denied that he’s antisemitic. And no doubt he’ll insist that he’s just a free speech advocate. But his remarks are yet more evidence that platform decay has progressed quite far on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. It’s no longer a social media space, it’s a cesspool.

I actually spent some time on Twitter, during the second year of its existence. I liked it at first because it allowed me to post to my blog using my phone (I couldn’t afford one of those fancy new smartphones). I soon discovered that Twitter’s biggest strength was in polemic and diatribe, with a subsidiary strength of news-without-nuance. Not my jam. But that mix attracted a lot of people, especially (from what I could see) people who were a generation younger than I: tail-end Gen Xers and older Millennials.

I get the impression that most of the people lamenting the ongoing demise of X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, are still from that age group. Without realizing it, they’ve gotten to the age where it’s hard to let go of the familiar, hard to adopt something new. It’s hard for them to watch X turn into a cesspool of hatred which is now led by an antisemitic conspiracy theorist. They lament the loss of what they once had.

Here’s some advice from someone who’s ten or twenty years older: Don’t go around lamenting the loss of something that no one else cares much about. If you do, you’ll sound like the Boomers lamenting the Sixties — which weren’t all that great to begin with, so that lamenting them just makes Boomers look faded and sad.

There are many problems in the world worthy of lamentation: antisemitism, racism, conspiracy theorists. The demise of Twitter is not one of them. It’s time to move on.


I get most of my online news from I’m also a regular online reader of Religion News Service, which covers the news beat I’m most interested in, the role of religion in culture.

But I’ve put off subscribing to other online news outlets. If I want local news, I’ll go out and buy a print copy of the Boston Globe and the Quincy Patriot Ledger. But an online subscription? No thanks. The Globe and Patriot-Ledger websites are ugly, riddled with ads that hold no interest for me, and the stories I actually want to read are too hard to find.

Then today, just by chance, I stumbled across the Christian Science Monitor website. The old days when the Monitor was a daily are long gone — it’s at best a weekly now — but I quickly discovered some great journalism on their website. The story that grabbed my attention, and made me want to subscribe, was titled “Americans have a right to guns. How about to public peace?” Rather than framing the story as a partisan issue of Democratic gun control advocates vs. Republican gun rights advocates, the Monitor frames this as a story about peace: how do we achieve peace in our neighborhoods? As a pacifist, I found this refreshing.

So I subscribed. And almost immediately found a long feature article from last June titled “When $1 billion isn’t enough. Why the Sioux won’t put a price on their land”, part of a series of articles, “Reparations debate: Mending the past, forging the future.” Here again, the Monitor combines a refreshingly different perspective with good solid journalism.

The Monitor isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but for someone like me, a subscription is definitely worth the money.

Google is even more evil than I knew

Cory Doctorow wrote a lengthy blog post on how evil Google has become. I already knew that Google search results have declined in quality over the past few years. But I didn’t realize how bad it’s gotten. Here’s how Doctorow describes it:

“When you send a query to Google, it expands that query with terms that are similar – for example, if you search on ‘Weds’ it might also search for ‘Wednesday.’ In the slides shown in the Google trial, we learned about another kind of semantic matching that Google performed, this one intended to turn your search results into ‘a twisted shopping mall you can’t escape.’

“Here’s how that worked: when you ran a query like ‘children’s clothing,’ Google secretly appended the brand name of a kids’ clothing manufacturer to the query. This, in turn, triggered a ton of ads — because rival brands will have bought ads against their competitors’ name (like Pepsi buying ads that are shown over queries for Coke). …

“As [Megan] Gray points out, this is an incredibly blunt enshittification technique: ‘it hadn’t even occurred to me that Google just flat out deletes queries and replaces them with ones that monetize better.‘ We don’t know how long Google did this for or how frequently this bait-and-switch was deployed.” [emphasis added]

In short, Google is far more evil than I expected. Once again, in bigger type:

Google just flat out deletes queries and replaces them with ones that monetize better. — Megan Gray

Next time you use Google to search, remember that. Google is going to replace your actual search query. You will not be searching for what you wanted to search for. You will be searching for something that will make Google more money.


Back in 2015, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) developed a WordPress theme for congregational websites. It was one of the best things the UUA has done in the past 25 years, because the theme made it super easy to build an excellent website in just a few hours.

Unfortunately, the UUA WordPress theme hasn’t been updated in three years, with no indication that it will ever be updated again. The design is beginning to look outdated. The theme relies on plugins that are now outdated, making it difficult to use the latest improvement in WordPress such as the Gutenberg block editor. We’ve been using the UUA WordPress theme in Cohasset, but it’s getting to the point where we feel like we have to start looking for an alternative.

So I’ve been looking at congregational websites to see what others are doing. I looked at the website of Temple Beth Israel in Northfield, N.J., because an old friend is rabbi there — love the site, but they hired a web design firm to make a custom WordPress template for them, which we can’t afford. Ditto with Grace Cathedral in San Francisco — another great site, but again we can’t afford a custom WordPress template. For a minimalist look, Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., uses a customizd version of the Kale WordPress theme. The Kale theme is free, but I’m sure they paid for the customization, which we probably can’t afford. The UU Congregation of Atlanta, Georgia, uses the Divi theme, which costs $89 a year. We can probably afford that, but it looks like Divi is complicated enough that we’d have to hire a WordPress developer, which we probably can’t afford.

Turning to websites we could maybe afford, Second Unitarian in Chicago uses the Cream Magazine theme, giving their site a nice straightforward look. The theme is reasonably priced at $49.

Um. Yeah. That’s it.

That’s the only UU congregational website I’ve found so far that looks good, and seems affordable.

But if you know of a great congregational website using an inexpensive WordPress theme, please put the URL in the comments….

Email notifications

Every once in a while, someone asks me if they can get notified by email when I post something on this blog. There are several solid email notification solutions for WordPress that charge a fee — but I can’t justify spending any more than I already do on this website. And all the email notification solutions I’ve found take time to set up and maintain — but I’d rather spend the limited amount of time I have on writing blog posts rather than on maintaining an email list.

These days, most of the web is devoted to making money. Websites are either trying to promote a business or a nonprofit, or websites are trying to show you advertisements. Those people who make money from their websites — by showing you ads, or by promoting goods or services, or by soliciting donations for a nonprofit — are more likely to have a marketing budget and staff time they can devote to their website. But on this website, it’s just me, with no marketing budget.

I wish RSS were still a viable option for reading blogs, but it’s not. I guess your only option is to check this site regularly for new posts.

But even if there are no email notifications here, there are no ads, either. And no gobbling up your personal data and selling it….

Noted, with embarrassment

“I think…that one-sided views are the easiest to express pointedly and with rhetorical effectiveness and that a pervasive human temptation is to content oneself with striking half-truths rather than to seek the balanced whole truth with the persistence and energy needed for success.” — Charles Hartshorne, Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers: An Evaluation of Western Philosophy (SUNY press, 1983), p. 80.

Hm… I think that describes much of what I read on the web, and almost all of social media. It certainly describes way too many posts on this blog….

The non-neutrality of “AI”

Whatever you call it — “artificial intelligence,” “machine learning,” or as author Ted Chiang has suggested, “applied statistics” — it’s in the news right now. Whatever you call it, it does not present a neutral point of view. Whoever designs the software necessarily injects a bias into their AI project.

This has become more clear with the emergence of a conservative Christian chatbot, designed to give appropriately conservative Christian answers to religious and moral questions. Dubbed by the software engineer who constructed it, it will give you guidance on divorce (don’t do it), LGBTQ+ sex (don’t do it), or whether to speak in tongues (it depends). N.B.: Progressive Christians will not find this to be a useful tool, but many conservative and evangelical Christians will.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Muslim software engineers are working on a Muslim chatbot, and Jewish software engineers are working on a Jewish chatbot. Then as long as we’re thinking about the inherent bias in chatbots, we might start thinking about how racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, etc., affect so-called AI. We might even start thinking about how the very structure of chatbots, and AI more generally, might replicate (say) patriarchy. Or whatever.

The creators of the big chatbots, like ChatGPT, are trying to pass them off as neutral. No, they’re not neutral. That’s why evangelical Christians feel compelled to build their own chatbots.

Mind you, this is not another woe-is-me essay saying that chatbots, “AI,” and other machine learning tools are going to bring about the end of the world. This is merely a reminder that all such tools are ultimately created by humans. And anything created by humans —including machines and software — will have the biases and weaknesses of its human creators.

With that in mind, here are some questions to consider: Whom would you trust to build the chatbot you use? Would you trust that chatbot built by an evangelical Christian? Would you trust a chatbot built by the Chinese Communist Party? How about the U.S. government? Would you trust a chatbot built by a 38-year-old college dropout and entrepreneur who helped start a cryptocurrency scheme that has been criticized for exploiting impoverished people? (That last describes ChatGPT.) Would you trust a “free” chatbot built by any Big Tech company that’s going to exploit your user data?

My point is pretty straightforward. It’s fine for us use chatbots and other “AI” tools. But like any new media, we need to maintain a pretty high level of skepticism about them — we need to use them, and not let them use us.

It’s not just me

Seen in the blogosphere: “…internet search is broken these days….”

I’m so glad others have noticed this.

Internet search is broken in many ways. Like this: Sometimes I don’t want searches that only apply to the U.S., or another smaller geographical region. And I don’t want any search to point me to websites obviously pirated from other sources and rewritten by crap “AI” tools. And if I put something in quote marks, I don’t want search results that don’t include that exact search string. And if I search for a given search string and add “” I don’t want to see search results from other domains. And so on….

Let us name it … ASS

People talk about “artificial intelligence.” They get corrected by people who say, It’s not intelligence, it’s “machine learning.” But actually machines don’t learn either. All this false terminology isn’t serving us well. It obscures the fact that the humans who design the machines are the intelligences at work here, and by calling the machines “AI” they get to dodge any responsibility for what they produce.

In a recent interview, science fiction author Ted Chiang came up with a good name for what’s going on:

” ‘There was an exchange on Twitter a while back where someone said, “What is artificial intelligence?” And someone else said, “A poor choice of words in 1954”,’ [Chiang] says. ‘And, you know, they’re right. I think that if we [science fiction authors] had chosen a different phrase for it, back in the ’50s, we might have avoided a lot of the confusion that we’re having now.’ So if he had to invent a term, what would it be? His answer is instant: applied statistics.” [quoted by, originally in, emphasis mine]

Applied statistics is a much better term to help us understand what is really going on here. When a computer running some ChatBot application comes up with text that seems coherent, the computer is not being intelligent — rather, the computer programmers had assembled a huge dataset to which they apply certain algorithms, and those algorithms create text from the vast dataset that sounds vaguely meaningful. The only intelligence (or lack thereof) involved lies in the humans who programmed the computer.

Which brings me to a recent news article from Religion News Service, written by Kirsten Grieshaber: “Can a chatbot preach a good sermon?” Jonas Simmerlein, identified in the article as a Christian theologian and philosopher at the University of Vienna, decided to set up a Christian worship service using ChatGPT. Anna Puzio, who studies the ethics of technology at the University of Twente in The Netherlands, attended this worship service. She correctly identified how this was an instance of applied statistics when she said: “We don’t have only one Christian opinion, and that’s what AI [sic] has to represent as well.” In other words, applied statistics can act to average out meaningful and interesting differences of opinion. Puzio continued, “We have to be careful that it’s not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion…. We have to be careful that it’s not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion.”

That’s exactly what Simmerlein was doing here: averaging out differences to create a single bland consensus. I can understand how a bland consensus might feel very attractive in this era of deep social divisions. But as someone who like Simmerlein is trained in philosophy and theology, I’ll argue that we do not get closer to truth by averaging out interesting differences into bland conformity; we get closer to truth by seriously engaging with people of differing opinions. This is because all humans (and all human constructions) are finite, and therefore fallible. No single human, and no human construction, will ever be able to reach absolute truth.

Finally, to close this brief rant, I’m going to give you an appropriate acronym for the phrase “applied statistics.” Not “AS,” that’s too much like “AI.” No, the best acronym for “Applied StatisticS” is … ASS.

Not only is it a memorable acronym, it serves as a reminder of what you are if you believe too much in the truth value of applied statistics.

A new way to do social media?

A couple of weeks ago, The Verge published an article by David Pierce that asks the question, Can ActivityPub Save the Internet?

As David Pierce points out in his article, the ActivityPub protocol has the potential for making social media more like email (in a good way). Email is an open protocol. If social media ran like that, you could post on Facebook and your friends on Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, and TikTok could all see your posts; they could also react to your posts and respond to them.

This could change the way websites work, including this website/blog.

Especially now that WordPress is working on implementing the ActivityPub protocol. Since something like a third of all websites are based on WordPress, that’s a big portion of the web that could wind up being compatible with the ActivityPub protocol. WordPress is also looking at a few other, similar open protocols such as Nostr and the AT protocol, so it seems likely that they will implement some kind of open social media protocol.

This makes me think seriously about installing the ActivityPub plugin on this blog. If I do, you’ll be able to follow this blog from Mastodon, and also from Medium, Tumblr, and Flipboard, all of which are integrating with ActivityPub protocol in various ways.

So… when I can find the time… I’ll install ActivityPub on this blog and see how it goes….