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.





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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World Cup Fever and Social Media

9 06 2010

As previously seen at Biznology:

Fans celebrating the upcoming 2010 FIFA World ...

Image via Wikipedia

The upcoming 2010 World Cup in South Africa is being touted by FIFA and Twitter representatives as the event to slash all previous records in social media traffic. That’s a tall order, considering the US elections, the Beijing Olympics, the Oscars and even the Lost series finale were nothing to sneeze at in terms of frantic online real-time activity. Regardless of whether or not that bold prediction will be realized, the next 30 days of soccer madness will certainly bring a new way of experiencing the most widely-viewed sporting event in the world.

On June 11, the ball starts rolling at the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, marking the first time the World Cup is held on the African continent. It’s also the first time the popular tournament will be testing the open waters of Facebook and Twitter. Zuckerberg’s social networking service opened to the general public only in September 2006, and most people had never heard about Twitter when France’s Zinadine Zidane infamously headbutted Italy’s Materazzi in the finals four years ago. Social media was already pervasive back then, but mainly in the form of blogs, wikis, podcasts and video sharing.

Thus, most of the online impressions around that play developed not instantly, but minutes, hours, and days after it happened, and they were particularly prominent in YouTube, the big social media star at the time. My favorites–but perhaps NSFW–are the Coup de Boule song and this compilation of 114 parodies of the unusual, err, interaction.

Furthermore, most of us were still passive small screen spectators of the games, with mainstream media being the intermediaries between the athletes and the public. Now, several players have their own Twitter accounts, and are already commenting on what’s going on in the last days before the kick-off. I compiled a Twitter list of players—including some of the stars left out–in case you want to take a peek at their thoughts before and during the competition. Some teams, such as England and Spain, already banned the use of Twitter and Facebook, but others like Brazil and The Netherlands are ok with it.

Perhaps the most interesting bits won’t come from the players themselves, but from the people close to them. Shortly after the game where Real Madrid was eliminated from the UEFA Champions League on March 10, Kaká’s wife retweeted a post by one of his advisers calling Madrid’s coach a “coward”. Social media guidelines are not easy to enforce outside team boundaries.

If you are into social media, but not into soccer, you must be asking by now: why do I care about all this World Cup nonsense? You should care for at least two reasons. First, it will provide all of us a better opportunity to understand the reach and importance of Facebook and Twitter outside North America. Some reports indicate that nearly 50% of Twitter accounts and one quarter of Facebook users hail from outside the US. All the previous events driving high traffic in Twitter and Facebook were wildly popular with Americans and Canadians. As both the US and Canada have traditionally not been major soccer markets, we can for the first time observe the extent to what the rest of the world embraces the two services. Furthermore, the instantaneous nature of the play-by-play reactions and the unprecedented volumes will allow a much closer reading of regional differences in the use of social media, something that the Oscars or Lost can only give us a glimpse of. The “world game” has never been this worldly.





Individually smarter, collectively dumber?

8 12 2009

In my first corporate job back in Brazil, I was part of a large cohort of interns who end up all being hired together. We were young and well-connected, and always on top of everything that was happening in the company, from official stuff to the proverbial grapevine telegraph. Rumour conversations used to start like this: “I’ve heard from 3 different sources that…” My pal Alexandre Guimaraes used to joke that none of us had 3 different sources as we all shared the same connections.

Likewise, I often hear from my Twitter fellows that their RSS feed reader is now abandoned, as most of the interesting online things they find now comes from their tweeps. A quick experiment seems to confirm that trend. Here are the results of a Twitter search for “twitter feed reader“:

Search results for "twitter feed reader"

Search results for "twitter feed reader"

In my recent re-read of The Wisdom of Crowds, the following excerpt called my attention (highlight is mine):

(…) the more influence a group’s members exert on each other, and the more personal contact they have with each other, the less likely it is that the group’s decisions will be wise ones. The more influence we exert on each other, the more likely it is that we will believe the same things and make the same mistakes. That means it’s possible that we could become individually smarter but collectively dumber.

The first time I read that was many years before Twitter even existed, so it didn’t mean much to me. Now I can relate: I do feel that Twitter is making me individually smarter, as I can quickly consume a whole lot of info from news sources, geeks, NBA players, celebrities, friends and others. I find the Twitscoop cloud in TweetDeck a particularly good way to find what’s going on around the globe right now.

Twitscoop cloud

I used to see that cloud as a visualization of our collective intelligence. But perhaps that cloud is actually something much more humbling: the visualization of our own echo chamber, our herd’s brain. By being so intensely connected, we may be losing one of the most basic conditions identified by Surowiecki’s for a crowd to be wise: independence (the other 2 are diversity and decentralization).

Should we all stop using Twitter and Facebook now? Of course not. But maybe we should invest a bit more of our time going after the unusual, the unpopular, the offline, the old and the out-of-fashion. The core is boring, and the fringe is where real innovation and change tend to appear first.





Old media, new media, and blackouts

21 11 2009

As previously seen in Biznology:

Social media is often compared with traditional communication vehicles such as newspapers, radio and TV as antagonists where the new replaces or challenges the old. The blackout in parts of South America last week showed a different side of this relationship: a symbiosis between radio broadcasts and microblogging. I was in Brazil visiting family and friends during that event and witnessed what a major power outage looks like in the era of social media and our increasing dependency on electricity.

As a matter of fact, I had the unusual, err, opportunity of being in two of the top five power outages in history: I was in Toronto when the Northeast blackout of 2003 happened, and in São Paulo during the Brazil and Paraguay outage last week. The one in 2003, of course, happened before the “broadcast yourself” era, with plenty of daylight left, so my major concern back then was finding a pub with cold beer and some food.

Last week, the blackout started at 11 pm, and most people had no idea of how widespread the problem was. Try to imagine a city like São Paulo, with 18 million people and 6 million cars in its metropolitan area, with no traffic lights on a hot summer night:

São Paulo during the 2009 Blackout – Photo by Andreia Reis, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0

For most people in Brazil, the only source of information still operating was the good ol’ radio broadcasting. And, ironically enough, the major source of information for the radio stations was Twitter, as some cellular phone networks were still operating despite the outage. Through Trendistic, you can actually see the spike in Twitter with the use of words “luz” and “apagão” (“light” and “blackout”, in Portuguese):

The pop singer Madonna was in Brazil with her boyfriend Jesus Luz that same week, and inspired several tweets that night, the most common being along the lines of: “Blame Madonna for the blackout: she asked Jesus to turn off the lights”.

And if you were there too, you may want to buy this CafePress T-Shirt (“Blackout 2009: I twittered about it”)

Of course, as power was restored a few hours later, the other media channels started to catch up with the event, as can be seen in aggregators such as BlogBlogs. One of the interesting stories was that of a married man stuck in his lover’s house, as the garage door was power operated (article available in Portuguese only, sorry).

This fantastic video posted by Tiago Compagnoni in YouTube registered the whole blackout event is fast motion:

The next time I drop by WalMart, I’ll make sure to buy one of those hand-crank radio/flashlight combos, and perhaps some candles and matches too, just in case social media is not there to rescue me if I get (un)lucky a third time.

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Blog or Twitter?

8 12 2008

I haven’t blogged for quite some time now, and even my feed reader is covered by virtual cobwebs these days. Being busy is the first excuse that comes to mind – and I’ve been insanely busy in the last few weeks – but of course you always find time to do what you love. And I do love writing and reading blog posts and comments. On the other side, I’ve been twittering quite a bit lately, resembling the character in this gaping void cartoon that Andy Piper mentioned in a recent Web 2.0 presentation of his:


by Hugh MacLeod, gapingvoid

I was actually late to the Twitter party. My first tweet was dated April 16th, 2007 but I only started using it often a few months ago.

Switching completely from blogs to Twitter is very tempting. You may struggle to write a blog post from time to time, but you always have an answer to the question “What are you doing right now?”. That may result in tweets that go from mundane (“back to my dorm”), to cryptic (“VARIA: Files Antwerpen”), to bizarre (abracadabra and decaf???) to history-in-the-making, like in the Mumbai attacks. The atomic nature of Twitter holds an enormous potential that’s not fully realized yet. But does that mean that blogs are really dying?

Paul Boutin, from Valleywag, created some buzz when he wrote in the November issue of the WIRED magazine:

Thinking about launching your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug. (…) The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.

The trend towards minimalism in communications was nicely covered by Jeremy Kaplan (Time magazine) in his befitting short article Haiku Nation. If you find 140 characters too limiting, visit smithmag’s Six-Word Memoirs and you may find that the 1120-bit ceiling for SMS is plenty. Supporting his micro-writing argument, Jeremy lists the NaNoWriMo 12-word novel challenge, the 5-word reviews blog for London musicals and plays, and the always popular 4-word film review site (the reviews on Titanic are just hilarious).

And, of course, there’s a whole series you can find in YouTube shrinking popular movies to their bare essence, such as “Rocky in 5 Seconds”:

Nobody knows for sure if blogs will follow the way of the dodo and GeoCities, or if we are just witnessing the ultra fragmentation of media channels. I expect blogs to be around for a long time, evolving with the other social media, as opposed to being replaced by them. Blogging is still my preferred way of communicating as it allows one to more effectively construct an argument and have meaningful conversations. And of course, you can tell by the length of this post that being succinct has never been my forté ;-)








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