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Blocked on Twitter / Am I just bitter?

Tempting tho’ it was to end that title with “You can’t get fitter / Than a Kwik-Fit fitter,” I’ll move right along. An odd thing happened this morning – I woke up and found that the writer & broadcaster Andrew Collins had blocked me on Twitter, following a conversation we had yesterday.

I thought there was a point worth exploring for a blog post – that of celebrities who are happy to use Twitter when it benefits them but rankle when their audience dares to be anything less than celebratory about their output, as well as the difficulty of engaging (as a mere punter) with people you like and remaining sufficiently critical of whatever they have to say. However, the difficult thing is to ask the question without sounding as if there’s a bitter tinge to anything I say.

I passive-aggressively respond by failing to provide a photo credit. TAKE THAT COLLINS!

So to be clear – I was already writing some notes on the topic with regards to Johann Hari. In case you’ve missed it here’s a summary.  Now, I quite like his writing, I like the passion and invective as well as his hunger for facts. But the reasonable side of my brain also notes that he’s occasionally wayward in both evidence and style – call it artistic license or personality at one end of the scale or inaccuracy / following an agenda at the other. Is it possible to like someone’s writing even though you know they aren’t 100% “correct”?

Of course it is. Writing is not (always) like science. Science communication needs to be accurate because it concerns the transmission of facts; but facts alone simply do not win arguments outside of evidence-based practitioners like scientists. So there’s a need for some art – and Hari does his job well. This article is a good example – some good use of economics and history, packaged in a way his audience is likely to understand it. But at the end, he loses it a bit and gets all shouty. That’s his style, and it’s very effective. And then you read someone else’s take on the article and wonder if it was as good as you thought it was. And let’s face it – there is rarely such a thing as “100% correct” when you’re not talking about maths or physics.

But if you’re style is passion, don’t be surprised when the naysayers react passionately when you fuck up. You can’t hold other people to high standards and expect people to just instantly forgive you. I was especially surprised that a lot of the people who usually are first in line to bash inaccurate reporting were also first in line to defend Hari. Why? Because they tend to agree with his point of view. (It’s also wholly valid to say that Hari’s mistakes are not on a par with those who falsify / ignore evidence to support their point of view, a position I agree with, but the boy did wrong and admitting it doesn’t weaken his talent). This blog post from the excellent David Allen Green pretty much sums it up for me re Johann Hari, by the way.

Similarly, I like Andrew Collins’ broadcasting & writing. He’s pretty funny, has some interesting stuff to say about films and his 6 Music stuff with Richard Herring is excellent, as are the podcasts. He also is a defender of homeopathy, which I loathe. That does not (nor should it) stop me finding the rest of his work worthwhile. If I read the Guardian, I may be in line with 50% of its opinions; the fact I find the other 50% unpalatable is no reason not to read the rest. There’s barely anyone you will ever meet and call a friend that you agree with 100% on everything.

The great thing about Twitter is that it gives people a chance to discuss their work in a way that has rarely been possible before. Some are good at commenting on their own blog / newspaper website pieces and responding to criticism. Some never do. My feeling is that, in this day and age, you need to do it. No work goes without question, nor should it. If Melanie Phillips is to have the freedom to spout complete crap, then the crowd should have the right of reply. When your work is published to a potential readership in the millions, it’s irresponsible to be misquoting evidence and downright wrong to be fraudulent. People being able to challenge, clarify, respond – that’s just what happens in a free society, right?

If you write on a site with a big audience, the rules are different; you have an audience which is using you as a shortcut to opinion and information. Good writers are those that can take a complex issue and translate it for the rest of us. Not everybody is an economist or a scientist or a politician, and those issues need some explaining for most people – and that is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Social media should help sort the wheat from the chaff. In the past, a writer could get by with a modicum of skill and written charisma; they could present something as a fait accompli and most of their audience wouldn’t know any better. Now, however, those in the crowd that know what they’re on about can challenge those assertions and the discussion around it becomes as informative as the original article.

So, then, Andrew Collins. Why would anyone post this?

Innocent enough

Note the question mark at the end. Almost looks like it’s inviting a discussion. Either you post something about what you’re working on to invite discussion or you do it because… what? You think people are just interested without comment? Isn’t that the equivalent of “I’m having a coffee” type status updates? “Look at me! I’m interesting by virtue of my very existence!”

OK, we all do it. I’m as guilty as anyone. But I don’t care if someone wants to pick me up on it or criticise me for it. I’m posting in public so I must surely expect it, right?

So, I politely (I thought) questioned the validity of a writer for a big site reviewing Top Gear when they’ve never watched it before. This is a series that has run for years, so what’s the point of a review based on watching one episode? Context is everything – the examples I mentioned in reply stood up as far as I was concerned. Have a look at Collins’ timeline for details – I’d Storify it, but I’m blocked. Haha. 

But what I find amazing is how personally he took it – and how I was then “a Top Gear fan” and, basically, an utter arse for even daring to question his work. I don’t mind a bit of Top Gear, despite the fact I think 2/3 of the presenter team are total arseholes. Same deal as with reading a newspaper or liking Andrew Collins’ work… but I’m no fanboy, and I wasn’t defending Top Gear, I was questioning the editorial policy of reviewing based on one person’s watching one episode  – surely then it becomes about the writer (and their experience) rather than the subject in question? Maybe that’s OK, but I didn’t see Collins in the same bracket as, say, Charlie Brooker, where the experience is all about him personally.

I don’t doubt that there are circumstances where mere “broadcast” is suitable for Twitter, but it’s not really making the most of the format. News feeds as broadcast work fine, but human beings on Twitter become part of the bigger conversation. If you don’t like talking to people or can’t stand criticism then it’s a strange place to put yourself. Everything has a price and the price of gaining profile, traffic and adulation on the one hand is being open to criticism and questioning on the other.

Let’s be clear about this – if you give, you receive. Both the good stuff and the bad. Blocking people is fine for spammers, but if you don’t like someone’s opinion, just ignore it. Or unfollow them. I prefer to follow people from all walks of life – I like to know what people who don’t naturally agree with me think – it’s a big world and restricting your field of vision seems rather narrow-minded. In this case, I think it’s a little bit babyish / Stalinist to block someone simply because you don’t agree with their point of view.

Of course, the rule is: don’t feed the trolls. But I wasn’t trolling, even if I was being marginally cheeky. If I wanted to troll Andrew Collins, I’d have mentioned that, by homeopathic principles, his watching one episode probably imbues him with the knowledge of the entire canon of Top Gear works…

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Best practice in spam beats a lot of social media agencies

The concept of “survival of the fittest” applies to marketing as much as anywhere. Marketers need to stay one step ahead of both their audience and their rivals in order to reach a competitive advantage. And spammers, like the porn industry, are rapacious in their quest to make use of new technologies to gain that teensy extra percentage of traction.

No guns were bitten in the making of this image

This is as subtle as spammers usually get

Spam is usually seen as “throw mud at a wall and hope some of it sticks” discipline. According to a recent study  it takes around 12.5 million emails to generate c. $100 of Viagra sales, which is a lot of mud being chucked at a lot of walls.

Twitter spam is a trickier business. For a start, mere link spamming is likely to get an account blocked & banned pretty quickly, but spammers set up so many accounts – and so quickly – that they are back in the game before you can say “0 followers, 97 tweets”. My spidey sense starts tingling the moment I check out a new follower and see they’re following a load of people with no followers in return. These usually have a profile pic of a woman aimed at a particular demographic (some are saucy, some are not – segmentation in practice), and you can usually tell it’s spam from the fact the profile name and the user name are different. It’s a quick press of “block & report spam” and we all go on with our lives.

So I was quite impressed with one account that hooked me in unawares. Sometimes when you get followed by someone that looks vaguely interesting you figure you’ll follow them and they might turn up the odd interesting comment in the Twitter stream from time to time. A little background music, if you will. Last week, I was followed by “Cool Like Linsey“. She had some pretty good little quotes going on and seemed to be in conversation with some of her followers. I blindly followed.

And then I got a little non-Follow Friday shout:

Oooh I feel special

Getting my attention

Well, hey, that’s nice I thought. I mean, I’m an interesting guy, so why not? Ego stroked, I went on my way. A few days later I noticed her giving similar (i.e. exactly same copy) shouts to others. And the penny dropped.

This is about reducing attrition. By giving me a seemingly genuine follow shout-out I think “Oh I’d better not unfollow her. She was nice to me.” I am a sap, obviously. Brands are slow to repost content or retweet stuff from their followers as they worry about highlighting users who may turn out to be off-message or degenerate. So they err on the side of caution and stick to a bit of conversation without the stamp of approval a retweet may give.

Here, then, is an account which does pretty bloody well at masking its true intent. It’s pretty much best practice in Twitter spam as of today. The account pumps out decently-researched historical / philosophical quotes:

"I may need to procreate with this deep and meaningful, yet utterly saucy, woman"

I am a sap.

But then, just for a few hours at a time, there’s links to a couple of apps / ads for eyeglasses. And then it’s back to shouting out for follows for her followers and quoting away. Smart stuff.

In this way, you can see how spammers are going to evolve to match market expectations just the way a brand or corporation or anyone else does. She (? Who knows if it’s male, female or bot?) focuses on her audience, targets her content to a narrower niche and drops the marketing in smaller, less noticeable chunks. And she’s now rotating the copy in her follow shout-outs too.

The truth is, as social media practices go, this beats an awful lot of agency-led / PR-savvy brand accounts out there. Eventually accounts like this will die off, although someone like this will have clearly evolved whatever is effective elsewhere long before that happens.

Targeting, copy adjustment, a degree of subtlety and creativity.

At this point you have to ask, “Is this spam? Or just… marketing?”

I hate it, but some degree of respect is due.

 

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The Madness of Crowds: Twitter, 4Chan & Chaos Theory

We all know what chaos theory is, right? That whole schtick about a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan followed by an Indonesian volcano erupting a few days later and so forth, yeah?

Well, that’s a bit simplistic and a bit misleading, as examples go. Chaos theory is all about how a tiny event can have seemingly unrelated consequences somewhere down the line – but those events are connected. Trying to imagine the series of events that causes a butterfly flapping to set off a volcanic eruption is a bit much. But if you imagine said butterfly flap causing a small bit of air to move, and in turn that movement triggers more movement and so on, until you get to a point where a tornado may or may not form… we’re getting closer.

Why is this relevant? Because Twitter, that’s why. (And Anonymous / 4Chan but we’ll get to that in a bit). This week the marvellous Graham Linehan, writer of Father Ted (one of the greatest British comedies ever) and the nearly as brilliant IT Crowd, decided to have a bit of a laugh. As a comedy writer, this seems quite natural. So he tweeted the following:

Silly, really, but worth a chuckle. Reminded me of Chris Morris saying (live on Radio 1) that he “would let listeners know if there was any news of the death of Michael Heseltine” – but without specifically saying he was dead. Cue the predictable fawning followed by uproar. Marvelous fun.

But then it goes a bit mad. People often see what they want instead of reading something carefully. And then you get tweets like:

“So, apparently OBL was a fan of The IT Crowd? @dalehernando + I were in an episode of The IT Crowd. OBL saw my face. Mixed emotions” tomadolph May 7, 2011 at 18:58

And

“If you’ve never seen The IT Crowd, please don’t let the fact that a mass-murdering terrorist leader watched it put you off. It’s still great ” Lennon_Scented May 7, 2011 at 19:26

And these little shifts in the story get carried by the wind. And the butterfly’s wing wafts them every further afield, until suddenly it’s a story that appears in the mainstream press and everyone goes a little bit meshugah. This kind of thing isn’t new – we used to call it “Chinese whispers” – but Twitter as a medium really enables this kind of spread. Once upon a time, this kind of thing spread from group of friends to group of friends via any number of method. A hundred years ago, it might have been people talking over the garden wall; more recently it would have been “down the pub,” and now it can be over Facebook or Twitter. I can remember when every year at Glastonbury there would be some huge rumour that would start in the camp sites in the morning – you’d wake up and hear people shouting “Thatcher’s dead!” and so forth, and the rumour would persist for the weekend ‘til you got home. That was until smartphones became ubiquitous and people could check the veracity of such claims in seconds. The only difference is the time it takes to spread – what once took weeks now takes seconds.

It’s like seeing Chaos Theory, which should take reams of data spread over vast stretches of time to identify, but happening all speeded-up like a Benny Hill sketch. Follow the path of any story and it takes on tiny embellishments, changes of meaning and people’s own interpretation of the original story; then people comment on someone else’s analysis of the original story until you’re so far from the original facts that you have no chance of really grasping them.

Take a football phone-in on the radio. You listen to an opinion that’s based on a commentary they’ve heard on the radio (which is, in turn, just the commentator’s opinion of what he / she is seeing). The host adds in their take, you react, spin your own interpretation of the point of view and then repeat it to your friends down the pub / on Twitter who then repeat it to someone else… but with all the authority of having been there in person and watched the game from the bench. See also: Match of The Day. If you have watched 8 minute long highlights of a 90 minute game, your opinion that “Lucas was shit and kept giving the ball away” may not actually be as close to the truth as you think.

And so the strange movements and minute changes that, over time and space, become enormously significant once again look like our theoretically chaotic friend. Only unlike the sodding butterfly, this is an effect you can actually see.

And then there’s Anonymous. If you don’t know what Anonymous is, I don’t feel that keen to be explaining it as (a) it’s hard, (b) describing something that is the sum of millions of moving parts, all changing, breathing, reacting and crashing into each other is always going to be inaccurate and (c) I am scared of them. But I shall try. Anonymous was born out of the 4Chan message board. 4Chan is the ultimate in free speech – there are no rules and you don’t have to post under a name (most posts are from “Anonymous” although some people do choose a moniker). Posts range from discussions to Photoshopped images and range from the inane to the pant-wettingly  funny to plain creepy or shocking. Such is freedom – people can be total arseholes and they often are.

Anonymous as an “entity” (term loosely used) is when the hive mind decides to come together to pursue a common cause; it’s as if there is a tipping point (fuck off Gladwell fans, I don’t want to hear it) is reached where a point of view reaches critical mass and action is demanded. Whilst some have tried to portray Anonymous as a politically-minded entity, it is really nothing of the sort. That title indicates an agenda that is cast in stone, and as far as Anonymous is concerned the only underlying ethic that ever tied it all together was that they were “doing it for the lulz” (lulz = LOLs / laughs btw). In other words, they’re having a bit of a giggle. I first remember seeing Anonymous about 5 years ago when they started on the great Habbo Raids. This involved mass invasions of Habbo (an online kids’ virtual world kind of thing) and, shall we say, behaving somewhat inappropriately. Childish, but it made me laugh. Later came more serious matters: a white supremacist website Tom Cruise seen "shitting pants" with ragebelonging to Hal Turner got hit with a distributed denial of service attack (DDOS), costing him thousands in bandwidth charges; YouTube got hit with hundreds of porn uploads; any number of frankly silly, yet rather amusing, activities.

And then there was Project Chanology which was when the hive mind took on Scientology. When a video of Tom Cruise talking Scientology bullshit was uploaded to YouTube, the Church Of Scientology claimed copyright infringement to get it taken down. And this is the kind of attack on free speech that really gets 4Channers / Anonymous types going. And there was a war. Likewise, when Blizzard (makers of World Of Warcraft) announced that posting on their forums would require people to post under their own names rather than behind a pseudonym, Anonymous types proceeded to demonstrate the value of anonymity on the internet by hacking & posting private details of Blizzard employees and their family members. Blizzard backed down.

The fact is, when a consensus arises within Anonymous, they act. But how they get to that point is fascinating (although difficult for the casual observer) to observe. In 1991, Loren Carpenter, a leading computer engineer set up an experiment to show what a hive mind can achieve. The results were fascinating. (Stop @ 11:28 if it doesn’t stop itself)

The fact that everyone doesn’t just indicate “up” or “down” is an amazing demonstration of the hive mind. And it doesn’t just work in “yes” or “no” decisions (although that is how the individual works) but there is a point where consensus is seen as representing the group desire and accepted by the whole. And that is kind of what happens with Anonymous.

Whilst some things they do seem predictable, others fly in the face of reason. Take the delightful Westboro Baptist Church, the “Christians” that like demonstrating at soldiers’ funerals and reminding people that their God hates fags. Anonymous had already taken aim when Pastor Fred Phelps sent a message to Anonymous that laid down a challenge, goading them that they wouldn’t be able to take WBC down. And a few attacks on the WBC, over and above what was already happening, did seem to take place. And then this happened.

When some anonymous (small ‘a’) hacker goes on a news programme and purports to represent the collective, there seems to be a debate that rages on the various forums, followed by an acceptance / rejection of the “spokesman” in question. More have been disavowed than accepted, for sure. And that person’s legitimacy and platform then falls away. Think about how this would have happened had it been a club or society or organisation. There would be meetings, agreed messages, votes, appeals, whatever – a lengthy process. But these Anonymous decisions seem to happen in almost real time.

But what gets me most is how unpredictable it is. I thought when I saw the WBC goading Anonymous “Woah, get the popcorn, this is going to be fun.” And then there was this outbreak of outstanding rationality which delivered a far more humiliating blow to Phelps and his mob than any DDOS attack. But it could have gone either way – and that’s the chaos stuff. I watch marketers dropping links / videos that are clearly (to me) marketing dressed up as community postings and think “pah.” But sometimes stuff gets through. The likes of Digg, Reddit & Stumble represent potential marketing gold because of the huge potential audience but gaming the system is almost impossible as you just can’t predict what exactly the community reaction will be. Can technique improve the chances your submission will get upvoted? Yes. Can it guarantee it? Nope.

All communities over a certain size are subject to this unpredictability because once you reach a certain size there can be no single defining characteristic that overrides all other personal concerns to keep people unified. That’s why you can see enough of a political party during an election campaign to vote for them, but a couple of years later when you’ve seen all their policies in action you realise you don’t agree with X% of their activity.

Chaos theory lives large in our lives in all kinds of ways; Twitter and other social media just lets us see it writ large. But the lesson is that you can’t always manipulate things to be the way you want them to be. Some things are just… unpredictable.

 

 

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