Tag Archives: Edward Tufte

Social Networks Aren’t Social

Social networks are not really social—they’re informational. While they may appear to be social, and perhaps we flock to them and participate in them because we feel a need to socially connect, the real currency is information. Whereas we might go to a bar, a cocktail party or a dinner and spend 90% of our time talking about things that are not important to us, just to maintain and keep alive that social ‘space’, and 10% exchanging really usable and useful information, online the percentages are probably inverted.

Looking at my Facebook inbox, the last 10 exchanges have been about arranging to meet a professional acquaintance who is about to move to Indonesia, chatting with a casual acquaintance about why they’re quitting their job, getting information from a professional acquaintance about her deleted blog, a request to appear on a radio show from a close friend, offering advice to a professional acquaintance about furthering their career, requesting help from a professional acquaintance about interviewing her boss, and then a handful of inconsequential exchanges with friends and semi-friends. These exchanges are data-rich, in the words of Edward Tufte, whereas the average real-world conversation is much less so.

(I’m not talking about enjoyability here, and this is not to say that social interaction isn’t important. They’re of course more fun—it’s really hard to get drunk with someone on Facebook—and In many ways the data that comes out is more useful, because it comes after vital ‘social greasing’—wine, song, ambience, comfort, shared intimacies—that lubricate the lips. I’m just talking ratios.)

This all sprung to mind reading some great notes that Ethan Zuckerman is taking at Picnic08, who quotes from a panel discussion that includes Linda Stone, Jyri Engeström, Matt Jones, Addy Feuerstein and Philip Rosedale. Jones, the founder (should that be foundr?) of Dopplr, reckons we should let go of the idea of friendship in many social tools and just focus on the exchange of information:

He quotes Merlin Mann, who describes the new feature on FriendFeed which allows you to pretend to follow a friend so you won’t create an awkward social situation, “This is a major breakthrough in the make-believe friendship space.” There are many rich ways we can build social relationships online, but we’d do better to focus on the information we already exchange, the “wear we leave on social objects”, rather than forcing make-believe friendship.

I reckon he’s right on the money there. Many of us try to create a distinction between Facebook friends and LinkedIn friends, but it’s getting harder and harder. I keep Facebook only for those people I’ve met, but increasingly, as my tight network of friends new and old thins out the people I’m adding are loose acquaintances.

The relationship we have is based on trust—after all we knew each other, once—but the usefulness trumps the warm fuzziness. We hope to make use of our renewed acquaintance, and. perhaps, we’re not so shy about exploiting it.

This was what I thought would happen on LinkedIn.  My policy there was to add pretty much anyone who wasn’t trying to sell me life insurance, a house or a bank. But at least for me it hasn’t really worked. Being LinkedIn buddies doesn’t really seem to be enough to create a connection through which business can flow. (This despite, theoretically, everyone wanting to know a journalist if only so they can pimp their product.)

The bottom line? I don’t think make-believe friendship works, and I think social networks will fail if they focus on that. It’s not about finding new friends. It’s about facilitating the exchange of information through existing ones: sharing websites, job offers, invitations, photos, whatever will help or entertain your friends and acquaintances.

Of course, friendships are strengthened through these exchanges, but it’s not the ‘friending’ that is doing it, it’s the information.

…My heart’s in Accra » Picnic08 – The future of social networks

PS Just spotted this from David Weinberger: “But sites like Facebook aren’t about information. They’re about self, others, and the connections among them.” Sounds like we’re not in agreement, but I’d say we are: information, in this case, is talking about the personal data one puts up on these sites. I’m talking about the information that is exchanged on these sites: the trading that takes place, the process. The difference is between the photos a hairdresser puts in his window display and what actually goes on inside the barber.

Europe’s Top-heavy Leagues

Lg-spain Spanish Primera Liga (48%)
Lg-bundesliga German Bundesliga (54%)
Lg-epl2 English Premier League (47%)
Lg-france French Ligue 1 (47%)
Lg-greece Greek Ethniki Katigoria (6%)
Lg-holland Dutch Eredivisie (25%)
Lg-italy Italy Serie A (24%)

Lg-champ English Championship (29%)
Lg-scot Scottish Premier League (29%

This doesn’t have a lot to do with technology, but it’s an excuse to play around with sparklines, Edward Tufte’s approach to feeding data into text in the form of small data-rich graphics. And they might tell us a bit about soccer, competitiveness and which country is the powerhouse of Europe. (These ones are done with Bissantz’ excellent Office plugin.)

What started me off here was the comment on the BBC website that English soccer, while strong at the top (Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal), drops alarmingly in quality. Is there really no competition in the English Premier League? The absence of English clubs in the final 4 of the UEFA Cup would seem to indicate it’s true.

But I thought another way of exploring it would be to grab the points gathered by each team in each of the main European leagues, and then plot them as a simple sparkline, each bar indicating the points one by each club in the table. The steepness and evenness of the sparkline gradient should give a pretty clear impression of which leagues are split between great clubs and the mediocre rest.

Visually, Spain is clearly the most competitive league (with the exception of England’s second league, the Championship, which has an impressively smooth gradient.) The German Bundesliga comes second, with the English Premier League third. All the others, frankly, look too top heavy to be regarded as having any depth (Italy doesn’t really count as it’s in such a mess at the moment.)

The figures in brackets show how many points the bottom club has as a percentage of the top club, a figure that’s not particularly useful as, for example in Greece, the bottom club Ionikos doesn’t seem to has won only two games in 26.

Sparklines, Charts Reduced to the Max

I’m a huge fan of Edward Tufte’s Sparklines, although I have to confess I haven’t used them as much as I should in this blog. Here’s a couple to illustrate what they’re all about: Wifi and media coverage. But the problem has been a shortage of tools to automate this. Here’s another, from Andreas Flockermann, founder of
BonaVista Systems – Sparklines, Dashboards, Charting for Excel and Microsoft Business Intelligence
who has created something called MicroCharts (cool name) — “charts reduced to the max” (cool tag.)

I’m going to try it out.
 

The rise and fall of the Internet cliche

I thought I would try out Edward Tufte’s sparklines idea as a way of presenting some research I have been doing into how the mainstream media has been covering technology over the last decade or two. I went through Factiva (part-owned by Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, and my paymaster), noting down the number of references each term got in a year (not as swift an exercise as one might hope. There must be an easier way of doing this.) Some of the results are in a column due out tomorrow in the Asian and online WSJs (Friday).

Anyway, here’s some material there wasn’t room for, along with a stab at a sparkline or two:

Who calls the Internet ‘the information superhighway’ anymore? Sadly, some still do – mentions have been static the past four years at about 1,000 per annum – but that’s a distinct improvement over 1994, when it was cited on Factiva a record 16,447 times. Since then editors must have started issuing edicts, because usage more or less halved in subsequent years. ‘Electronic mail’ started getting mentions as early as 1972 but took a quarter century to fall out of editors’ favor for the snappier sounding ‘e-mail’. From a high of 13,637 mentions in 1996 it has been falling steadily: Last year it was mentioned only 4,552 times against 1,577,582 for e-mail. Some terms, unfortunately, are more resilient. ‘Cyberspace’, for example, took longer than ‘information superhighway’ to hit the mainstream (in 1994 it received a third the number of mentions) but continued to enjoy journalistic approval right up to 2000, when a staggering 26,226 editors failed to spot its cringe-making quality and allowed it to enter copy. Since then, it’s gradually fallen from grace, but not fast or far enough: Last year it popped up nearly 9,000 times. Ugh.

Then here’s the same data in sparklines format (thanks to Mathew Lodge’s excellent Adobe Photoshop script for making it possible for a design doofus for me to be able to get something like this out. My fault it’s not a very good example of the genre. Suggestions very welcome for making better ones). Still, I think it shows up some interesting features of how, at least in the case of the first two, one cliche has given way to another over the past decade.

Mentions in Factiva, 1986–2004:

Sparkline for SuperhighwayInformation Superhighway
Sparkline for Cyberspace3Cyberspace 
Sparkline for Electronic mailElectronic Mail

What the data doesn’t show is that this was the first reference to ‘electronic mail’, back in January 1972:

Pres Nixon proposes development and demonstration of electronic mail system…
21 January 1972, New York Times Abstracts – Pres Nixon proposes development and demonstration of electronic mail system to provide routine overnight mail delivery between stations and 1-hr priority delivery

Whatever happened to that?

Getting Dumb With PowerPoint?

I’m a fan of Edward Tufte, the guru of charts, but I’m still not sure about his view of PowerPoint. The New York Times Magazine has another article on his recent polemic against Microsoft’s presentation software. Tufte claimed, as the NYT piece says, that Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension, infusing PowerPoint with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”


Not that Microsoft gets it either: NYT quotes Simon Marks, the product manager for PowerPoint, as saying that the opposite is ‘data density’, shoving tons of data at an audience. You could do that with PowerPoint, he says, but it’s a matter of choice. ”If people were told they were going to have to sit through an incredibly dense presentation,” he adds, ”they wouldn’t want it.”

NYT’s conclusion: If you have nothing to say, maybe you need just the right tool to help you not say it.