Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a column I wrote back in November. I’m repeating it here because of connections to astroturing in the HBGary/Anonymous case.)

Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world.

The answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.

Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

(This is a longer version of my syndicated newspaper column)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world?

The answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.

The Unfriending Wind of Unfriending

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is my weekly syndicated column, hence lack of links. BBC podcast is here.)

It’s an odd world where a word like “unfriending” becomes so common that we all know what it means. And we’re not thinking of unfriending in the old sense of hostile where Walter de la Mare would say

Sighed not the unfriending wind,

Chill with nocturnal dew,

‘Pause, pause, in thy haste,

O thou distraught! I too

Tryst with the Atlantic waste.

By Atlantic waste, here, he’s not referring to the stream of Facebook updates that come your way. But he might have been, because it transpires that Facebook–now one of the biggest nations on the planet, even if it is virtual–is full of unfriending people who will unfriend people for the most trivial of things. Like the cyber equivalent of talking too much.

To unfriend someone on Facebook, by the way, is to remove them from your contact list so they can no longer see what you’re up to. To ‘unfriend’ someone  is to banish them from your Facebook world: Where once they could see your photos, read your wall of musing and generally be part of your life, they will find only a blank space, accompanied by a message that says something like:

People who aren’t friends with Bob only see some of his profile information.

There is none of the fakery and social nuance of real life here: You once were in, and now you’re out. Unless of course you’re so embarrassed when the person complains that you pretend you didn’t unfriend them at all, but that Facebook deleted your account. Technology’s an easy whipping boy.

The New Oxford American English dictionary last year made ‘unfriend’ its word of the year. We like to think that our social networking world closely mirrors our offline world. But it doesn’t. There’s no real-world parallel for something like unfriending–excising someone from your real life isn’t as easy as clicking on a blue “remove from friends” button.

So why do people unfriend people? A survey by a student at University of Colorado Denver Business School has revealed that most people unfriend other people, not because they don’t like them, but because they give them bad information. After surveying more than 1,500 Facebookers, Christopher Sibona found the number-one reason for unfriending is frequent, unimportant posts.

In other words, you can be a good friend to someone on Facebook by giving them good, but not too much, information. Most people, Sibona found out, unfriend people, not because they’ve been nasty to them or because they stole their iPod, but because of the stream of consciousness they tend to throw onto Facebook. In short: I’ll be your friend if you don’t talk too much.

(I have a slight problem with this research: Sibona used Twitter, not Facebook, to reach his audience, which I suspect tilts his findings. Twitter is an information network, and while his questions are about Facebook the responses will inevitably be only from those Facebook users who are also Twitter users. While I’m sure many people use Twitter and Facebook differently, there’s an inevitable bias towards those people who use them similarly. The other problem I have is that Sibona does not appear to be a major user of Twitter–he follows only five people, nor of social networks in general: His LinkedIn page, for example, lists only 33 connections. For someone to research social networks to this degree, once needs to have extensive experience of them. I’m yet to be persuaded Sibona has these credentials.)

What’s interesting about all this is a point that I’ve been making for some time: all social networks use information as their currency. Joining Facebook is not enough: You need to be seen to be on Facebook, and, most importantly, to be seen to be useful on Facebook. This means, at the very least, that you provide entertainment for your friends.

If we believe this research it would seem to suggest that Facebook is not, actually, what it seems. We thought Facebook was a place where we were able to maintain, create and expand friendships. But instead it’s an information exchange. True, some of that information is about our lives, and so could be the stuff of letters we might in the past have stuffed in our end of year update cards to friends and family, but it’s also a place where we catch up on things.

Indeed, other research has shown that a lot of the time what we read online–in other words, where we get our news–is based on what people recommend we read. On places like Facebook.

So it makes absolute sense that some people on Facebook choose their friends the way we might in the past have chosen what newspapers to read: read the most informative; throw out the fluff.

This detachment, this pragmatism and ruthlessness can be seen in other surveys. A study by Nielsen found that half of 500 youngsters it surveyed didn’t personally know all of their Facebook friends. And kids, it turns out, don’t like being friends with their parents on Facebook: nearly a third of teens surveyed would prefer to unfriend their parents–particularly their mothers–if they could.

But it’s also a reflection of the fact that we don’t yet quite understand what the reciprocal obligations are of accepting someone’s friendship on Facebook. It’s virtually impossible to reject an invitation to be buddies on Facebook if you’ve ever met that person, however long ago and however fleeting the connection. But now you’re friends, what’s expected of you?

I offer a case in point.

One evening I searched for some schoolyard chums on Facebook and connected to them. No harm done; after all, they’re probably thousands of miles away so the commitment is negligible. But one wasn’t: He makes frequent trips to my neck of the woods, and I occasionally to his. We failed to meet up a couple of times, until I realised that we never would.

One weekend I found myself in his town and he was enthusiastic about meeting up, but then blew me off three times pleading work–while openly organizing a poker game with his buddies on Facebook.

I decided enough was enough. So I hit the unfriend button. But from it I learned an important lesson: Just because people are your friends on Facebook doesn’t mean they’re your friends. Even if, once, they used to be.

Being Facebook friends was about all my friend was ready for. I don’t blame him, though I wish there had been a halfway house between removing him from Facebook and letting things go on as they were.

In real life we would just have not gotten in touch again. I suppose if we’re youngsters we would stop sharing our Snickers bars or something. But on Facebook there’s a finality there. No going back. Unless of course he realises I’ve unfriended him and asks what happened, in which case I’ll blame Facebook.

AboutFacebook

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Service column for newspapers, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I talked about Facebook’s brave new world of connecting your profile to all the other bits and pieces you leave on websites. I erred, and I apologize.

I thought that people wouldn’t mind the reduction in privacy that this would involve. At least I didn’t think they’d mind as much as a couple of years ago, when Facebook tried something similar.

But people did. And Facebook has been forced to respond, simplifying the procedures that allow users to control who can see what of the stuff they put on Facebook.

So was I really wrong? Do people still care so deeply about privacy?

Hard to say. Back then I said that we have gone through something of a revolution in our attitudes to privacy, and I think I’m still right about that. But I hadn’t taken into account that just because our attitudes have gone through wrenching changes doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with them.

Social networking—itself only a few years old—has forced us to shift our approach. When the Internet was just about email, that was pretty simple. We might balk at giving our email address out to weirdoes at parties with hair growing out of their ears, but that was no different than handing out our phone numbers, or home address.

But social networking is different. By definition the barriers are down, at least partially, because the network demands it. Networks require nodes, and that means that Facebook and every network like it needs to make it easy for people to find other people—including your folically resplendent stalker.

So already we’re talking a question of degree of privacy. And of course, we insist on these services being free, so the relationship we have with the purveyor of the social network is an odd one: Our investment in it is one of time, not money.

But nowadays many of us value time more highly than money, so we feel oddly possessive about our social networks. It’s not, I hasten to add, that we wouldn’t take our business elsewhere, as we did with MySpace and Friendster, but Facebook is somewhat different.

For one thing, the numbers are astonishing. Facebook has more than 400,000 active users—half of them logging on at least once a day. In other words, for many people Facebook has become email.

This has forced changes in privacy, because it’s impossible not to be private and be an active Facebook user. Unlike email, most Facebook activity is visible to other people. So I can, if I want (and I don’t, but can’t really help it), find photos of my nephew caressing a female friend, something I would have been horrified to allow my uncle to see when I was his age.

In part it’s a generational thing. We adults have no idea what it must be like to surrounded by cameras, transmission devices, mass media—an all-embracing Net–from our early years.

But does that mean that younger people are just more relaxed about privacy, or that they just haven’t learned its value? Much of us older folks’ understanding of privacy comes from having lived under snooping governments, or knowing they exist on the other side of iron or bamboo curtains. Or we read and could imagine 1984.

Or, simply, that we’ve had something private exposed to the public. I once had some love poems I had written at school to two sisters read out in front of the school when I foolishly left them behind on a desk. Since then I lock up all my love poems to people related to each other under lock and key.

Younger people, it’s thought, don’t care so much about this. They grow up in a world of SMS, of camera phones recording every incident, of having one’s popularity, or lack of it, measured publicly via the number of friends one has on Facebook.

This is all true, of course. And while employers may still be Googling potential employees, and looking askance at images of them frolicking, this is going to get harder to do when all their potential employees are on Facebook, and all sport photos of them frolicking.

This is part of a new world where the notion of privacy is balanced by transparency: Online is no longer a mirror image of offline, in the way email was just a more efficient postal service.  It’s now a place that one shares with lots of other people, and to play a role in it entails a certain visibility.

This is both the price and the reward of being online. There are bound to be things we’d rather keep to ourselves but we also recognize an advantage in such public access. Just as people can discover things about us, so can we discover things about them. A rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats. If you have an Internet connection.

In some ways this is deeply subversive, since it undermines the traditional structures of society. A teacher or speaker can be subverted by a back channel of comments among the class or audience to which he is not privy. Reality gets distorted, and traditional dominance undermined.

I was sitting in a hearing the other day where those being grilled by the legislators were maintaining a quite noisy twitter presence that stood in contrast to their respectful tone in the session. Two channels, both of them public, but both of them trains running on parallel tracks. Which of them is real?

Technology is moving ahead, and we’re catching up. But we’re catching up at different rates.

If an employer can’t make a distinction between an employee’s office persona and their, for want of a better expression, their personal persona, then they’re probably not very good employers.

Still, there are limits. The British man who joined a rampaging mob in Thailand and yelled at a passing citizen journalist hadn’t considered the consequences should that video clip end up on YouTube. Which it did and he now faces a lengthy time in jail.

Adolescents who share racy photos of themselves by cellphone are discovering the limits to transparency when those photos spread like wildfire. And one can’t help but suspect that not all school kids feel comfortable with the intensity of digital interactivity.

Which brings us back to Facebook.

Facebook is the thin end of a big wedge. We’ll probably look back and wonder what all the fuss was about, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong in questioning Facebook’s actions or its motives.

But we’d be smarter if instead of putting Mark Zuckerburg in the stocks, we took stock of what we really want out of these services, and what we really want to share and what we don’t. I suspect that we simply haven’t done that yet, and so we lash out when such moves force us to confront the new reality: that definitions of privacy and openness have changed, are changing, very radically and very quickly.

We’re All Kevin Smiths Now

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

A few weeks ago a gentleman of, by his own account, more than average girth was thrown off a Southwest Air flight between Oakland and Burbank.

Unfortunately for the airline this was no ordinary gentleman but Kevin Smith, director of such classics as Clerks and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and, perhaps more importantly, a man conversant with social media.

As he was unceremoniously removed from the flight because he was a “customer of size” and therefore a safety risk, he turned to twitter to vent his spleen.

The resulting fracas was what we in the nerdy world call a twitter storm. That is, one person is able to leverage the power of social networks to make a much bigger noise than would otherwise be the case.

Some commentators have suggested this is a new kind of customer: “a new kind of uglry customer who isn’t always right but insists on his right to share his feelings with us and his right to be heard”, as one Singaporean travel industry insider put it.

Of course, this isn’t the case. There have always been Kevin Smiths, it’s just they have not been able to convey their disquiet so effectively. Now they have, at their fingertips, the ability to express and disseminate their feelings.

I’m a Kevin Smith. We’re all Kevin Smiths. We’re all capable of knowing when we’ve been discriminated against—not, in this case, because of his girth but because he was not told before he got on the plane, or when he bought his ticket, that he wouldn’t be able to fly.

We’re all Kevin Smiths, and we’ve all got the tools of Kevin Smith. Perhaps not the colorful turns of phrase, but the means.

Now I’m not blaming Southwest here, at least at the corporate level. Actually they did all the standard things to try to put out this blaze. They tried to reach him by email, by phone, and then publicly by twitter, to apologize.

They blogged about it, about their policy and the lessons learned.

But their failure was to understand that information travels much faster now. So in the crucial hours—no, minutes—after Kevin Smith was dumped off the flight there was a chance to turn all this around.

It didn’t happen. Either those overseeing the Twitter feed didn’t see it coming, or they were at dinner, or they had to escalate the matter. Whatever happened, there was a chance to stop the storm before it had left the building.

In this new world, minutes count.

People in the leisure industry would do well to draw different conclusions than perhaps they are.

The temptation is to label Kevin Smith a noisesome celebrity and thereby both give him star treatment and to treat him as an unusual case.

He’s not. He’s a star, true, and he’s got a strong following, both online and offline. But his diatribe is just as likely to be echoed by others—indeed, the anger his supporters felt is as much to do with a sense of injustice as of having their hero treated shoddily.

In the old days we could write a letter to the CEO, or complain to the cabin crew, or write a letter to the local paper. Most of us wouldn’t bother.

But now we can. We can tweet about it, Facebook it, blog about it. It may not always snowball but it’s there, out there for millions of other people to find, indefinitely.

In other words: Not only do we have the means to vent our spleen, but we have access to everyone else’s vented spleen. No longer are we the lone eccentric to be tolerated or ignored, bought off with a $100 voucher or a free pass to the poolside barbeque.

We are validated.

So no, Kevin Smith is not the new kind of ugly customer. He’s everyman: He’s a customer who not only knows what he wants but knows that he’s not alone in wanting it. And that he can find a way of getting satisfaction in the most public way possible if he feels his rights are violated.

Not exactly good news for those companies that would rather we kept quiet or were bought off. But good news for those of us who have bitten our tongue and kept mum one too many times.

Skype’s New Dawn?

We talk about Facebook, twitter, MySpace and Friendster as the big social networks but we keep forgetting one that is far bigger than that: Skype. This from a Bloomberg piece on Skype’s vacillating fortunes:

Skype has soared in popularity since it started in 2003 and has about 548 million users worldwide—more than Facebook, MySpace and Twitter combined.

Pretty much everyone I know is on Skype—more so than Facebook—and their investment in it is greater: They had to figure out how to install software, set up a microphone, a webcam, create an account, and maybe even buy credit. More importantly, they can actually estimate its value to them, by counting the money it’s saved them, if they want.

We all know about eBay’s missteps with Skype over the past few years and the software could definitely do with a total overhaul. But now there are new faces involved—including Marc Andreessen, who knows a thing or two—I foresee huge opportunities ahead.

One is a route they’re clearly going to take: the enterprise. That makes sense, but it also means damping down Skype’s huge social reputation, since companies will tend to think of it as at best a frivolous time waster for its employees, at worst a security threat.

Still, it would make lots of sense to go that route, possibly creating a separate sub brand of Skype that built a wall between the existing network of users and the enterprise one.

But I think there’s a much bigger opportunity out there, one that was talked up back in 2005 but never left the ground. That was leveraging the free connectivity to allow an eco system of services to develop atop of it.

Consulting, translation, education, all that kind of thing.

This never really took off, but I think that may have had more to do with its execution, and the fact that the world wasn’t quite ready. Most people signed up to Skype for the free calls. They weren’t really interested in more than that.

And yet since then Facebook and other social networks have. (Taken off, I mean.) Doing, actually, pretty much the same thing. Setting up an account, adding your buddies to it, and then communicating.

But the potential of that network was never exploited. A few memory-hogging applications and a few desultory ads have been pretty much it.

Maybe now Skype can make the most of this. One is the eco system of services I mentioned, but there are also location-based opportunities, mobile opportunities, video opportunities.

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Of course, Skype has some ways to go to do this. The interface needs a serious rethink: It looks so 2000s.

It needs to add—or reintroduce—lots of features, like individual invisibility (being invisible to some people and not others), to encourage those who either don’t have it running or have themselves permanently invisible, to keep it there in their system tray.

It needs to lower some of its walls to allow interoperability with other chat clients, like Google Talk, and with services like Facebook and LinkedIn. Indeed it should throw open all its doors, so I can look up my friends on the Skype app and communicate with them using any or all of those services. Skype is the app is the network.

Then we might be back to those heady days of 2004-2005 when Skype looked like it was not just going to be the end of ruinous IDD phone monopolies, but that it might herald a new era of networking.

Making Networks Do the Work

I don’t get overly excited about plug-ins but I think Xoopit may have shifted us into a new gear.

As part of a course I teach on journalist tools I do a demo of Gmail. I talk about it being the new desktop. But I’m only showing the bare bones of the thing: labels, filters, colors, stars.

For a lot of them, that’s an eye-opener in itself.

But it’s once you start talking about gadgets where you can access your calendar, your documents, your chat, then it really makes sense.

All good, but not really anything different to Outlook. Just lighter and accessible from anywhere.

But the arrival of an updated version of the plugin Xoopit, I think, really pitches webmail, well Gmail, into a new zone.

It has some basic stuff which is kinda useful. At the top is a row of picture attachments from recent emails:

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Not that useful for me, but useful.

There are also links to videos and files: click on one and it takes you to a full listing of attachments, listable by type, date received, etc. You can even search by sender: 

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But still that’s not what impressed me, and convinced me we’re on the threshold of something brand new.

Read an email thread and Xoopit will pluck out those people involved in the conversation. It will display them on the right hand side of the thread. Not only that; it will try to grab their Facebook profile and image—even if you’re not connected to them on Facebook:

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At a stroke I can now see who I’m talking to (in this case avoiding the catastrophe of misidentifying a woman as a man) and also see who we have in common:

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To me this raises all sorts of possibilities. Suddenly my networks are beginning to talk to each other, to mine each other for data and work to close the gaps in them. I’m suddenly much better informed about the people I’m dealing with, without having to do lots of legwork.

Of course, this would be better if it was also searching LinkedIn (or maybe instead searching LinkedIn, in that I’d rather connect that way to a professional contact first.)

But it’s still the first time I’ve seen leveraging like this done in such a simple and unobtrusive way. It fits into my way of working rather than a lot of these network leveragers I’ve seen, which add to the clutter or try to automate things which should  be manual.

More on that anon.

For now, congratulations Xoopit. I count this as the first step in a bright dawn of social networks and contact lists working for me rather than the other way around.

And I think it’s further proof that Gmail—or Yahoo! Mail, or any of the rich featured webmail offerings—are actually a workplace in themselves, around which can be built all sorts of useful tools mining our other networks.

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.

Web 2.0 Ain’t About the Technology

Scoble makes some good points in a blog posting about why Microsoft, and more specifically his old boss Steve Ballmer, doesn’t get Web 2.0. I don’t agree with everything Robert says, but he has an understanding of this era of the web born of living and working in its eye the past seven years:

“There can’t be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That’s for sure,” Ballmer said.

When I worked at Microsoft I heard this over and over and over again from various engineers and program managers who STILL haven’t competed effectively with WordPress, Flickr, Skype, YouTube, or any of the other things over the years I’ve heard this “we can build that in a few weeks” kind of arrogant attitude attached to.

Why aren’t they succeeding? Because eBay is NOT about the technology. It’s about the community and unless you have something that’ll convince the buyers and sellers all to switch all at one moment you’ll never be able to take eBay’s market away. Translation: it’s too late and eBay has huge defensibility around its business because people won’t move away from it even if you demonstrate 5x better technology.

I think Scoble fuses two different phenomena here, but the point is a valid one. But a marketplace is not quite the same as a community. eBay is not really about the community, it’s about the marketplace. As anyone who has tried to move a physical market — a wet market, say — from one location to another has found, it’s not easy. eBay (and Amazon) are about first mover advantage. If you want to sell or buy something, you go to the place most likely to sell it.

Facebook et al are different. They’re definitely about community. But community is maybe the wrong word, because it carries with it connotations of permanence that don’t really exist. MySpace, Facebook etc may still be as big in a few years’ time, but somehow I doubt it. They’re social spaces that open and close like real spaces — less communities, more campsites. Campsites may be there for years, but the structures are impermanent and can, one day, move or disperse.

I agree with Robert, too, that people who use these services ain’t just kids. That’s the most interesting thing about Facebook, in my view: the Skype-like opening up to less techie, older users because of the untechie attractions of being able to find and communicate with acquaintances and ex-colleagues with whom they share loose ties.

Social networking has broken out of its narrow confines, and this has huge implications. But we should be careful before we assume that this will evolve in the same way social networking has evolved for the geek community: these new users won’t stick around for ever adding apps of less and less consequence and communicating with all their buddies via Facebook.

Eventually, everyone finds everyone they need to find on Facebook and bores of the services designed to keep them there. Then they’ll want to export the address book and the creative capital they’ve invested in Facebook and move it someplace else. If they are blocked from doing that, their interest in such tools will quickly wane. We geeks are happy to populate new social networks by repeating all the data entry necessary to make the sites worthwhile, but non-tech users will be less patient (or actually have lives offline.) For them it’s about the people; the apps are just a pleasant distraction.

Then there’s the money. Robert is right: Facebook is an advertiser’s dream. But it has yet to be proven that Facebook users (and we’re talking non-tech users here) are going to tolerate too much intrusiveness. Gmail has scared a lot of non-tech users away, based on anecdotal evidence, because of its intrusive ads. I think Facebook will similarly scare people away if it mines that user data too deeply.

This all said, it is a puzzle as to why Microsoft has ignored this new world. All its tools beg for greater interactivity and sharing, but why is it I use Microsoft only when I’m typing this (the free Windows Live Writer), or when I’m writing a Word document, or emailing it to someone? If I want to discuss the document, or collaborate on a spreadsheet, I turn to Google Docs. Nowhere does Microsoft try to make that process easier or more social. Think of all the opportunities missed in those simple actions.

Steve Ballmer still doesn’t understand social networking « Scobleizer