Just because it’s ‘trending’ doesn’t mean it’s true

This morning’s Observer column:

On 27 September, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced up to one another in the first of the televised presidential debates. Most observers concluded that Clinton had come off best. She was better prepared, they thought, and towards the end Trump seemed rattled and rambling.

Needless to say, this didn’t stop the Trump campaign team from using the phrase “Trump Won” in ads even before the debate ended. Aha, you say, that’s American politics for you: you get what you pay for. And in these circumstances, every candidate says that she or he has won anyway, no matter what happened in the debate.

But then something interesting happened. The hashtag #TrumpWon went viral on Twitter and in a few hours had reached the top of the global trending list. Trump was on to it like a shot. “The #1 trend on Twitter right now,” he tweeted, “is #TrumpWon – thank you!”

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The triumph of hope over experience

This morning’s Observer column:

There is something irresistibly comical about the spectacle of two CEOs announcing a friendly takeover. The two chaps (for they are still generally chaps) stand side by side, grinning into the cameras. The proud new owner explains what a great outfit his latest acquisition is, how pleased he is with the deal, extols the “synergies” that will magically materialise once the marriage is consummated and expresses his undying admiration for the poor schmuck who is now his latest subordinate.

The schmuck, for his part, declares his undying admiration for his new boss and his deep respect for the gigantic organisation into whose maw he is about to disappear. He, too, is “incredibly excited” by the new horizons that are now open to him and his colleagues. The marriage is a very good deal for both organisations – a win-win outcome no less. The fact that he omits to mention how much he has personally made from the deal is tactfully overlooked by his admiring media audience.

Last week’s announcement of Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn followed this script to the letter…

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Whither Twitter?

My comment piece in today’s Observer.

If there’s one thing Wall Street and the tech industry fears, it is the idea that something potentially profitable might peak or reach some kind of equilibrium point. Endless exponential growth is what investors seek. Whereas you or I might think that a company with more than 300 million regular users that pulls in $710m in revenues is doing OK, Wall Street sees it as a potential zombie.

At the root of the dissonance is the fact that Twitter is a public company. At its flotation in November 2013 it was valued at $32bn, a figure largely based on hopes (or fantasies) that it would keep modifying its service to attract mainstream users, that its advertising business would continue to grow at a phenomenal rate and that it would eventually be bigger than Facebook.

It didn’t do all these things, for various reasons, the most important of which is that it wasn’t (and isn’t) a “social networking” service in the Facebook sense. At the heart of the distinction is the fact that, whereas it is easy to give an answer to the question “What is Facebook?”, the answers for Twitter depend on who you ask…

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Incivility and its implications

Very perceptive essay by Umair Haque about the long-term implications of online incivility. Sample:

We once glorified Twitter as a great global town square, a shining agora where everyone could come together to converse. But I’ve never been to a town square where people can shove, push, taunt, bully, shout, harass, threaten, stalk, creep, and mob you…for eavesdropping on a conversation that they weren’t a part of…to alleviate their own existential rage…at their shattered dreams…and you can’t even call a cop. What does that particular social phenomenon sound like to you? Twitter could have been a town square. But now it’s more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit. And while there are people who love to dive into mosh pits, they’re probably not the audience you want to try to build a billion dollar publicly listed company that changes the world upon.

The social web became a nasty, brutish place. And that’s because the companies that make it up simply do not not just take abuse seriously…they don’t really consider it at all. Can you remember the last time you heard the CEO of a major tech company talking about…abuse…not ads? Why not? Here’s the harsh truth: they see it as peripheral to their “business models”, a minor nuisance, certainly nothing worth investing in, for theirs is the great endeavor of…selling more ads.

They’re wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Abuse is killing the social web, and hence it isn’t peripheral to internet business models — it’s central.

It is. Of course the reason why the proprietors of social networking services don’t want to tackle it is that doing so would imply that they were responsible for what gets published on their platforms, and that might imply legal liability for it in the longer run.

Facebook: the unique self-disrupting machine?

Interesting post by M.G. Siegler:

Reading over the coverage of F8 this week, one thing is clear: Facebook the social network isn’t very interesting anymore. I think we’re on the other side of its peak, even if we can’t perceive that just yet. The interesting parts of Facebook are now Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus.

They are slowly becoming Facebook. A federation of products, not the social networking stream.

I think we’ll look back and believe that Facebook, like Apple, is a company that did a great job disrupting itself before others could. And they did it all through smart acquisitions — people forget that even Messenger was an acquisition way back when. Just imagine if they had been able to buy Snapchat as well…

Facebook’s ageing population


The fact that teens are allegedly departing is not what matters. What matters is the much more stable demographic that Facebook is now acquiring. Teens are fickle. These folks are not. And if FB becomes their dominant mode of communication, then the resulting network effect will be very powerful.

Facebook moves in on LinkedIn

Well, well. According to this BBC story (which itself is based on a Financial Times story), Facebook is moving in on LinkedIn’s territory:

Facebook is building a network for professionals to connect and collaborate on work-related documents, the Financial Times reports.

Facebook at Work will look similar to its existing social network, but users will be able to keep their personal profiles separate, the paper says.

They also would be able to chat with colleagues, build professional networks and share documents, people said to be working on it told the Financial Times.

This is a difficult one for some of us. I mean to say, I loathe and detest LinkedIn, which I think is one of the most obnoxious ‘social’ networks I’ve seen. On the other hand, I’m not too enamoured of Facebook either. But I’m not surprised that LinkedIn’s shares were down today after the news broke.

In a more detached frame of mind, there might be something interesting here in terms of network theory. For example, are the ties that bind Facebook users stronger or weaker than those that link LinkedIn users?

Why Facebook is for ice buckets and Twitter is for what’s actually going on

Tomorrow’s Observer column

Ferguson is a predominantly black town, but its police force is predominantly white. Shortly after the killing, bystanders were recording eyewitness interviews and protests on smartphones and linking to the resulting footage from their Twitter accounts. News of the killing spread like wildfire across the US, leading to days of street confrontations between protesters and police and the imposition of something very like martial law. The US attorney general eventually turned up and the FBI opened a civil rights investigation. For days, if you were a Twitter user, Ferguson dominated your tweetstream, to the point where one of my acquaintances, returning from a holiday off the grid, initially inferred from the trending hashtag “#ferguson” that Sir Alex had died.

There’s no doubt that Twitter played a key role in elevating a local killing into national and international news. (Even Putin’s staff had some fun with it, offering to send human rights observers.) More than 3.6m Ferguson-related tweets were sent between 9 August, the day Brown was killed, and 17 August.

Three cheers for social media, then?

Not quite. ..

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