Vestiges of Life: Blogging and Tweeting

18 12 2010

Last week, four different people from my post-IBM world told me in person that they read my blog regularly. While tempted to reply, “do you mean that abandoned thing that’s collecting virtual dust somewhere in WordPress land?”, or “oh, you are that one weekly hit I get in the stats”, I actually feel that I’m the one missing a lot by not blogging, even if nobody else ever reads a line of it.

When I started this blog, I named it “The Bamboo Raft”, with the high hopes that the posts here would be “floating around freely through places and thoughts”. Then, as always, reality sets in, and I found myself blogging very rarely over the last 2 years. Looking back, there’s a clear pattern where the blogger in me wakes up every 6 months or so with a renewed intent of doing it more often, as you can see in “Blog, Interrupted” and “The Bamboo Raft is a submarine”. This post is probably just the latest installment of that series. In my attempt to rationalize my poor blogging and twitter efforts, I’m resorting to a common theme here at this Raft: calling Darwin to my rescue.

Darwin and gradual change
Parody of the Shepard Fairey Obama poster
by Mike Rosulek (Feb 2009)

One of the main arguments used against Darwinian evolution is that the fossil record shows no evidence of the gradual transformation that is supposed to take place according to that theory. The counter-argument, of course, is that circumstances that allow fossilization to occur are extremely rare. Thus, trying to understand the history of life on Earth based solely on the fossil record is like trying to understand the original version of “The Brothers Karamazov” when you know only a half-dozen words in Russian.

As you can see in the diagram above, the fossil record does not register every single event that took place on Earth. That’s for computer logs:


Computer logs: definitely not like the fossil record

Over the last 5 years or so, several folks referred to blogging, then Facebook, then Twitter as tools that allow people to write their autobiographies in real-time. Some people are actually very good at that. Some have even been logging actions and thoughts ages ago, using the ol’ and good pen-and-paper. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau kept very detailed journals that resemble to some extent Facebook status updates or tweets, and used those to feed their more formal work. I love this excerpt from “Autobiography in Real-Time: The Journals of Emerson and Thoreau”.

Emerson used his journal, as Thoreau used his, primarily as a means of facilitating more finished work. It was where he both developed ideas and stored information; it was a place where entire phrases and sentences—sometimes even entire paragraphs—were preserved until the appropriate time for their removal and transfer into essays and lectures. But that’s not to say that there aren’t moments here that are not entirely fresh. Actually, all of it’s fresh. It’s the essays that are borrowed from recyclable material, and there are, of course, plenty of readers who would prefer to receive their Emerson in this form. To call these journals unselfconscious or uninhibited would be to demonstrate a severe misunderstanding of their circumstances; but to call them spontaneous and unimpeded would not be. At their best—at their most mature and august—they are Emerson’s stated alternative to the meek young man in the library—they are “Man Thinking.” The same goes for the journals of Thoreau, too, of course. These are two men of unsurpassed perception and eloquence who made it their life’s mission to look and see, and then to record and share what it was they saw.

As I’m light-years from having “unsurpassed perception and eloquence”, my blogging and tweeting objectives had to be much more modest. Instead of running a play-by-play narrative of what I do and think, I’m settling for just capturing vestiges of life: random glimpses of what’s here, there, and everywhere. Like this Toronto scene that caught my attention Thursday morning on my way to work:

Glenn Gould statue holding a Calla Lily in front of the CBC building

Thus, I see my irregular social networking activities as the fossil record of a regular person’s real life. It’s incomplete, uneven and full of gaps, driven more by serendipity and entropy, and less than by direction and discipline. A bamboo raft may, after all, be an appropriate name for what this blog has become.





Twitter and Politics

14 12 2010
Election night crowd, Wellington, 1931 

Image by National Library NZ on The Commons via Flickr

As previously seen on Biznology on Nov 9, 2010:

Back in the summer, I wrote a pair of posts about Social Media and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and Mike Moran talked about reaching your audience during that big event. Well, one can argue that elections and politics can generate passionate discussions that rival or even surpass those by soccer fans, and last much longer than the 30 days of the popular tournament. Following a Twitter list of World Cup players is entertaining, but a list of actual head of states can give us a unique glimpse on how diplomacy is shaping up in the Social Media space. If you want to know which heads of state are using Twitter, how active they are and their following/follower patterns, you came to the right place.

In the past month, I had the unusual experience of being in Brazil during the first round of the general elections (October 3), then back to Toronto during the mayoral election (October 25) and the second round of the Brazilian presidential elections (October 31). On top of that, the US midterm elections were a hot topic around the globe last week, making it almost impossible for me to ignore politics for the last 6 weeks or so. Naturally, politics is a hot topic, and not one that I’m particularly keen in discussing in this blog. Having said that, I find fascinating to analyze the social media layer that is permeating the political scene globally.

Inspired by a TechCrunch article on Twitter diplomacy prior to the G20 meeting in Seoul this week, I used the @davos/g20 list curated by the World Economic Forum as a starting point to visualize how the heads of state are using Twitter. Being from Latin America, I supplemented that list with a few other verified accounts to have a better view of regional politics as well.

I tend to write long and convoluted posts, but in this particular case, a picture is definitely worth a thousand words. So, instead of a navigating the troubled waters of political analysis, I’ll just leave you with a number of visualizations covering different aspects of the Twitter social networking dynamics among this very select group, courtesy of my niece, Gabriela Passos, who’s visiting me this month.

Some points to consider when looking at these charts:

  • They don’t show a complete picture: there might be more heads of state using Twitter, but I preferred to use a curated list from a reliable source as my main reference
  • The number of people followed by these accounts is relevant in at least one subtle, but important way: you can only send direct Twitter messages to people who follow you. By following a large number of Twitter users, these leaders open a private channel that may reveal interesting insights that they would not have access to otherwise.
  • The number of Tweets shown below is a historical cumulative total as of this writing, a metric that favors early adopters. A more interesting metric would be the frequency of tweets over time, but this would be too time consuming for me to get. I bet there will be some online tools covering that aspect some time soon.

The first infographic shows how active each of these head of state Twitter accounts are. It’s interesting to note that @whitehouse (1.8 million followers), @PresidenciaMX (150 thousand followers) and @Laura_Ch (11 thousand followers), despite being order of magnitudes apart in the attention they get, all tweet a lot. On the other side, @JuliaGillard, Prime Minister of Australia, only has 166 tweets, but a considerable number of followers.

Number of Tweets
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

The second set of charts reveals the followers / following pattern. France and Turkey tie on the low end, both of them not following anybody at all, while @Number10gov and @BarackObama follow over half a million people.

Legend for Twitter charts below
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

North America (Canada, U.S. and Mexico)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010


Central and South America (Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Europe (UK, France, Russia, Turkey)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Oceania (Australia), Africa (South Africa), Asia (South Korea)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Finally, the last diagram shows that, even among the head of states, you following your peer is not always reciprocated in kind. Cristina Kirchner, president of Argentina, follows a considerable number of her Latin American colleagues, but only two of them follow her back.


Cristina Kirchner follows / followers
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

One interesting side note: Seeing my niece creating all these infographics by hand, it became painfully clear to me that, despite all the efforts to develop better Social Networking visualization tools (Mashable has a good list here), we still have a long way to go to get the most from the information hidden under the surface in Twitter and elsewhere in the social media landscape.

After seeing the finished product, you can’t help but conclude that politics is but one more area where social media (and Twitter in particular) has become the place for activity that would have happened elsewhere, and has spawned activity that would not have happened at all.





On Leaks, Privacy and Social Media

13 12 2010
Logo used by Wikileaks

Image via Wikipedia

As previously seen on Biznology:

Last week, we learned more about world leaders and diplomacy than some of us would care to know – with revelations about Gaddafi and his nurse being the front-runner candidate for the most TMZ-like material made available, courtesy of Wikileaks. All the buzz and panic that ensued following the release of the US Embassy diplomatic cables motivated a colleague of mine to ask me: are social media’s mantras of transparency, information sharing and digitization of conversations, relationships and activities saving us or are they dooming us all?

Even though Wikileaks have been called “social media journalism” by some, the seeds that enabled their model were planted much before the age of Twitter or Facebook. Clay Shirky had already stated in his book Here Comes Everybody:

(…) in an age of inifinite perfect copyability to many people at once, the very act of writing and sending an e-mail can be a kind of publishing, because once an e-mail is sent, it is almost impossible to destroy all the copies, and anyone who has a copy can broadcast it to the world at will, and with ease. Now, and presumably from now on, the act of creating and circulating evidence of wrongdoing to more than a few people, even if they all work together, will be seen as a delayed but public act.

A clever Venn diagram was circulated over the Internet in late October, suggesting that nothing in the Internet is actually private. The picture below was based on that diagram:

“A helpful Venn diagram” – derivation work

I would argue that the Internet is not the culprit either. I still remember a good friend of mine saying in the early 1990s: “the only things that are really private are the ones you never shared with anybody”. Thus, a Venn diagram depicting privacy vs. the Internet would look more like this:

A relatively recent case of private information leaking to the general public corroborates that point-of-view: Tiger Woods’ challenging year started with verbal accounts of marital infidelity and a phone voice message. No email, no tweets, no Facebook status updates took any part in it. In fact, the now number 2 golfer in the world has finally turned on his Twitter account, seemingly to restore his public image. Ironically enough, by checking the Wikipedia entry on this subject, I learned that Woods and his former wife own a 155-foot yacht called Privacy!

Any concern that by adopting social media practices a company or person will be more vulnerable to this kind of exposure is not well supported by actual evidence. By adding transparency to conversations, relationships and activities, the use of social media may actually contribute to reduce opportunities for doing the wrong or the hidden thing in the first place. Furthermore, it puts you on the driver seat – the remaining question being how much of a good driver you are.

Perhaps we are taking ourselves too seriously here. To keep all this in perspective and also for a good laugh, I highly recommend you to read Julien Smith’s post, All social media experts “are actually the same person,” Wikileaks documents reveal. Here’s a sneak preview:

“Paul from Miami,” as he is identified in Wikileaks documents, appears to be the source of an entire industry of Twitter experts who seemingly give the same advice and yet somehow all have over 20,000 Twitter followers each. (…) Meanwhile, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange suggested more bombshells might be on the way. Speculation was rampant that “SEO experts” and “marketing gurus” might also all be sourced from a single individual, or worse, be “Paul from Miami” as well. Paranoia is on the rise.

Anyway, this is Aaron from Toronto, who I promise is not the same person as Paul from Miami, but on the Internet, I guess you would never know.

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Unskewing the Web: Curators as filters

11 12 2010
Sieves (40/365) 

Image by prettyflower via Flickr

As previously seen on Biznology:

This is my final post on the skewed Web. In the early days of Web 2.0 awareness, much was said about the new —now old—Web being all about participation: in the age of User-Generated Content, everybody and their mother became a publisher, leveling the playing field. An independent blogger could potentially be more influential than a New York Times columnist, and the role of editors in identifying and promoting relevant content would be seeing their last days. What was unclear back then was that social media was not only lowering the barriers for content creators: it would eventually enable a new breed of editors, the social media curators.

In my previous post, I cited Clay Shirky’s assertion that the Internet did not bring us an information overload problem: we just needed better filters. However, the wholesale online sieves, like Google Search and Digg, created a different kind of problem, a giant global echo chamber, where we all were becoming collectively dumber. An online world dominated by page rank and skewed crowdsourcing had the potential to dethrone TV as the ultimate idiot box.

As some of you may know, my academic background is in Biology–thus my frequent comparisons between life sciences and social media in my posts. Conservation Biology advocates that Biodiversity “is essential for the maintenance of vital ecosystem services, and ultimately for human survival”, and that we all need to focus on the conservation of all species, not only the cute ones. E.O. Wilson, renowned biologist and Harvard Professor, stated in his book “The Creation”:

“The pauperization of Earth’s fauna and flora was an acceptable price until recent centuries, when Nature seemed all but infinite, and an enemy to explorers and pioneers. (…) History now teaches a different lesson, but only to those who will listen. (…) The homogenization of the biosphere is painful and costly to our own species and will become more so.”

Likewise, the health and long-term viability of our knowledge ecosystems is dependent on diversity of ideas and opinions. Online content curators are playing an increasingly crucial role preserving that diversity beyond mainstream. But despite all the talk around online content curation, there’s still a long way to go.

Online content creators are well-served today. Gone are the GeoCities and “home page” days, where you pretty much had to build everything from scratch or rely on professional help to generate content. You can go fancy and rely on a Content Management System, or just open a Twitter account and go crazy, 140 characters at a time.

Online content curators, on the other side, are still poorly served. Robert Scoble has recently compiled a list of “The Seven Needs of Real-Time Curators”. One of my favourite online content curators, Bernie Michalik, uses a variety of social media channels to highlight interesting things he finds daily both in the core and in the fringes of the online world. However, very few of us are keen enough to write elaborated blog posts or to create neat websites about fringe subject matters. Most of us tend to only go for the quick and dirty: a quick retweet, or a shortened URL or a Facebook link, resulting in somewhat cryptic, hard-to-consume messages like this one:


Every time my wife sees my Twitter stream, full of messages like that, she says that it looks geeky and uninteresting. And she is right. Thankfully, a number of websites and apps are starting to make the online content curators’ life easier, the same way it happened to online content creators several years ago. Even Twitter and Facebook have recently made efforts to add a layer of translation, rendering links to photos and videos to more attractive thumbnails or embedded players.

The iPad app Flipboard give us a glimpse of what is coming. This is a snapshot of how the tweet above is rendered in Flipboard:


The newspaper format and the rendering of the actual content (as opposed to just showing a shortened URL) goes a long way to make tweets more consumable.

Social Media tools play a crucial role in lowering barriers to entry, allowing more people to become online content curators, and enabling diverse content to be easily absorbed and propagated. By avoiding the extinction of diverse ideas, content curator tools will increasingly become instrumental in preserving our global online knowledge ecosystem, a.k.a. our collective intelligence.

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A Skewed Web: Innovation is in the outskirts of social media

15 09 2010
Honeybees with a nice juicy drone

Image by dni777 via Flickr

As previously seen in Biznology:

As I discussed in my post last month, it’s a skewed Web out there. A multitude of online social filters were developed over the last 15 years to address our perennial information overload curse. From Google’s page rank, we went all the way to tag clouds, social bookmarking, Twitter trending topics and Gmail’s Priority Inbox, trying to find ways to make what matters float to the top. However, most of these social filters are based on some variation of a “majority rules” algorithm. While they all contributed to keep information input manageable, they also skewed the stream of information getting to us to something more uniform. Will crowdsourcing make us all well-informed drones? Ultimately, it may depend on where you’re looking at, the center or the fringe of the beehive.

Almost two years ago, Clay Shirky boldly stated that information overload was not a problem, or at least not a new one. It was just a fact of life at least as old as the Alexandria library. According to Shirky, the actual issue we faced in this Internet age would be that of a filter failure: our mechanisms to separate the wheat from the chaff were just not good enough. Here is an excerpt from his interview at CJR:

The reason we think that there’s not an information overload problem in a Barnes and Noble or a library is that we’re actually used to the cataloging system. On the Web, we’re just not used to the filters yet, and so it seems like “Oh, there’s so much more information.” But, in fact, from the 1500s on, that’s been the normal case. So, the real question is, how do we design filters that let us find our way through this particular abundance of information? And, you know, my answer to that question has been: the only group that can catalog everything is everybody. One of the reasons you see this enormous move towards social filters, as with Digg, as with del.icio.us, as with Google Reader, in a way, is simply that the scale of the problem has exceeded what professional catalogers can do.

While some still beg to differ about information overload not being an issue – after all, our email inboxes, RSS readers and Facebook and Twitter streams never cease to overwhelm us–we tend to welcome every step in the evolution of smarter filters.

The whole lineage of social filters, from Google’s page rank, passing through Digg and Delicious, culminating with Twitter’s trending topics, mitigated one problem–information overload–but exacerbated another one: we were all getting individually smarter, but collectively dumber. By letting the majority or the loud mouths dictate what was relevant, we ended up with a giant global echo chamber.

We were all watching Charlie biting Harry’s finger, and Justin Bieber trying to convince (or threaten) us that we will never, ever, ever be apart. That Ludacris video surpassed 300 million views in seven months in YouTube alone, taking their all-time #1 spot. An unverified claim about Bieber using 3% of Twitter’s infrastructure being passed as news by traditional media outlets is just the last example of how far we went down the madness of crowds road.

br />This of course is not a new problem. Back in the early 1980s, MTV was running Michael Jackson’s 14-minute “Thriller” video twice an hour. The trouble here is just the magnitude of it. A potential downside of this mass-media-on-steroids uniformity is that a homogeneous environment is not the best place for innovation to flourish. Borrowing from paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould: transformation is rare in the large, stable central populations. Evolution is more likely to happen in the tiny populations living in the geographic corners: “major genetic reorganizations almost always take place in the small, peripherally isolated populations that form new species.”

If you are looking for the next big thing, or trying to “think different,” or to be creative and innovative, you need to look beyond the center. The core will tell you what’s up, so that you’ll be “in the know.” The fringe will show you what’s coming next. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future is peripherally distributed.

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A Skewed Web: Are you an outlier?

14 09 2010

70/365 - It. Was. Amazing.

Image by BLW Photography via Flickr

As previously seen at Biznology:

Relying solely on social news or social bookmarking services such as Digg, Reddit, Fark, Slashdot, and Delicious might leave you with a very peculiar version of the world. A glance at the Twitter hot topics or Google Trends suggests that our collective Web brain is that of a tween. It’s a skewed Web out there, and sometimes you might just feel like you don’t belong. But is that real, or just a distorted view of the social media world?

If you believe that Google’s Zeitgeist is a good proxy for “the spirit of times” as its name claims, last year we apparently cared more about Jon and Kate and Twilight’s New Moon than about the presidential inauguration, and there was also a quite unusual interest in paranormal activity:

Google Zeitgeist (US) – 2009 News – Fastest Rising
Google Zeitgeist (US) – 2009 News – Overview

Also, a quick glimpse at the current Twitter trending topics, or the top 50 topics of all time (which, in social media terms, means since September 2008) may also leave you wondering about how wise the crowds really are:

Twitter Trending Stats (Source: TweetStats.com, Aug 7, 2010, 12:07 AM)
Twitter Trending Stats – “All time”: Sep 24, 2008 to Aug 7, 2010 (Source: TweetStats.com)

Collectively, our social media activity seems to be closer to People Magazine and Sports Illustrated than to The New York Times or National Geographic. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, it is what it is—and I’m as guilty of taking the occasional look at TMZ as the next person.

Is this definitive proof that users of social media are more interested in celebrities, athletes and gadgets than in politics, science and, you know, “serious stuff”? Well, not necessarily. Both Google Zeitgeist and Twitter Trending Topics show “deltas” of interest, subjects that for one reason or another are suddenly becoming popular. A quick look at Google Trends show that, for all its popularity in 2009, “New Moon” doesn’t hold a candle to other popular terms:

Google Trends snapshot (taken on Aug 7, 2010)

Furthermore, people obviously search for things they don’t know where to find. Sites you visit often are likely already bookmarked or just get resolved by your browser when you start typing related keywords in the navigation box.

So, before you lose all faith in humanity, or at least in the online portion of it, take a deep breath and think again. There is a social Web out there that is much more diverse than what is revealed byTwitter or Google trending topics. If you are an outlier, rest assured that you are in good company ;-)

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FIFA World Cup: Social Media Roundup

11 07 2010

As previously seen in Biznology:

The 2010 World Cup is not over yet (the final will start in a couple of hours), but the results for social media are already in–the World Cup has more than lived up to its billing as the biggest social media (and even Internet) event of all time, sur[passing the 2008 election of Barack Obama as U.S. President. While you wait for the big game on Sunday, you may want to check my Social Media highlights for the major sports event in the world.

Internet Buzz

So now that the 2010 FIFA World Cup, according to CNN (via Akamai), has been declared the most popular Internet event ever, let’s look at a snapshot of Akamai’s Net Usage Index as of this writing:

Akamai Net Usage Index

Akamai Net Usage Index

The Most-Tweeted World Cup Event

The CNN article mentioned above states that, despite the popularity of the World Cup, Twitter’s single biggest moment was still “the Los Angeles Lakers’ victory against the Boston Celtics at the NBA Championship”, which “generated a record 3,085 tweets per second as the game ended”. Naturally, a few days after, a World Cup game dethroned Kobe Bryant and friends. If you guessed that it was one of the US games against Slovenia or Ghana, you were probably close, but not quite right. That honor goes, surprisingly enough, to Japan’s win over Denmark, with 3,283 tweets per second.

Cala a Boca Galvao

For several days, a Brazilian Internet meme/prank dominated the trending topics in Twitter, requesting the lead sports commentator in Brazil to shut up. Read more about it at the New York Times and watch the video prank at YouTube.

VEJA - Cala Boca Galvao

Lead weekly news magazine in Brazil (Veja)
brings the #calabocagalvao meme to center stage
(via @dystyler)

Old Media vs. New Media

Rede Globo, the largest TV network in Brazil (and arguably the third largest in the world, behind just CBS and NBC) clashed with Brazilian coach Dunga, when he curtailed their privileges in the national team coverage. A Twitter campaign (#diasemglobo, “a day without Globo TV”) was asking Brazilians to boycott the TV station during a game and switch to the competition. Who won? It depends on who you ask. Some claim that the campaign was a success and responsible for a drop in audience, while others say that it made no difference whatsoever.

#diasemglobo

Players Using Twitter

My Twitter list of World Cup Players is updated with 56 players now. You may want to give it a try and see what the players are talking about using StreamGraph. Here’s a snapshot I took last night (just use @aaronjuliuskim/worldcup2010players as the keyword):

Twitter StreamGraphs - worldcup2010players

Visualization and Social Media

There are plenty of creative visualizations created around Social Media content especially for the World Cup, like this one based on Facebook activity, courtesy of the New York Times. You’ll find a good list at Mashable.com, but the Guardian’s World Cup 2010 Twitter replay is my favorite. It shows in a stunning way the fans’ reactions via the microblog service as the action developed for each game. You can feel all the pain in my Brazilian heart when you play the Brazil vs. Netherlands game. Here’s a snapshot of the key moment of the game: Felipe Melo (who’s in Twitter, by the way) losing his cool and getting a red card.

The Guardian - BRA vs. NED Game Visualization

Check out also the US games against Slovenia and Algeria to re-live the emotions of those two thrillers.

Finally, if you are into live visualization and have an iPad, I highly suggest you to follow the final match via LivePitch. It’s still a bit raw, but it can give you a glimpse of how we may be following the next World Cup. Hopefully Brazil can do better the next time :-)

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