How Big is Google+?

I’m not convinced, based on anecdotal evidence but nothing more, by stories like these that Google+ is gaining on Facebook and overtaking twitter: 

But how to measure it? It’s not easy. 

One way, I figured, was to look at the most popular pages/profiles on the three services and compare them. This wouldn’t be perfect, but I thought would be as good an indicator as any at how mainstream Google+ had gotten, both in terms of followers of the main kinds of people, things and products popular on other services, but also indicative of how those brands/people felt about Google+. It might also reveal whether Google+ is attracting a different kind of person/product/brand/interest. 

Of course, it also doesn’t say a lot of things, Maybe the tail is a different shape on Google+. Maybe the layout of Google+ doesn’t so easily lend itself to following/liking/adding to circling/+ing pages. But it kind of does: in fact, Google+ is baked into so much other Google stuff these days that it’s hard not to like, as it were, pages, comments, stuff. I’d argue that it’s easier to do that. 

So I went ahead, selecting the top 20 pages on each according to SocialBakers. Most were celebrities, of course, and most overlapped — meaning they featured on more than one service. If they only featured on one, I dumped them (eg ‘Facebook for every phone’ is massive, 274 million Likes, but not really relevant to this exercise.) 

My conclusion in short: Google+ is way behind both Facebook and Twitter. No way is it getting close, at least based on this metric. (And only this metric, so far.) 

My longer conclusion: 

  • of the 48 profiles measured, only 8 were more popular on Google+ than on Facebook. 
  • of the 48 profiles measured, only 9 were more popular on Google+ than on Twitter. 
  • These includes photographer Thomas Hawk, Google’s Vic Gundotra and Larry Page, Richard Branson and, Hugh Jackson. A motley group. 
  • Most mainstream celebs had way more followers on Twitter than Google+: 
    • Britney Spears (4x)
    • Bruno Mars (9x)
    • Cristiano Ronaldo (7x)
    • Justin Timberlake (34x)
  • Most mainstream celebs had way more followers on Facebook than Google+: 
    • Barack Obama (12x) 
    • Beyonce (1,774x) 
    • Britney Spears (4x) 
    • Bruno Mars (20x) 
    • Cristiano Ronaldo (22)
    • Kim Kardashian (7x)
    • Lady Gaga (8x) 
    • Usher (8x) 
  • Quite a few celebrities don’t seem to have bothered with Google+ at all, as far as I can see. 
    • Eminem
    • AKON
    • Beyonce
    • Jennifer Lopez
    • Justin Bieber
    • Katy Perry
    • Linkin Park
    • Nicki Minaj
    • P!nk
  • Even those who score big on Google+ score bigger on other services. Here’s Google+’s Top 4 :
    1. Lady Gaga – 8x as many fans on Facebook, 5x on Twitter
    2. Britney Spears – 4x on Facebook and Twitter
    3. David Beckham – 5x on Facebook, but negligible on Twitter (unless you count his wife) 
    4. Snoop Dogg – 5x on Facebook, 2x on Twitter
  • Although it may not mean much, adding together all the likes/followers etc for the 48 profiles counted, the totals convey, I suspect, a pretty good idea of the difference in popularity: 
    • Facebook: 1.6 billion
    • Twitter: 612 million
    • Google+: 130 million
  • The number of likes (well, pluses/circles) that would get you top spot on Google+ — 7.3 million — would only rank you about 600th on Facebook (Oasis, say, or Cuddling.) 
  • Another thing to do might be to measure the activity on these pages — when last uploaded, likes/retweets etc — but that’s for another day. 

This is just a personal project, and not affiliated with my employer. I’d welcome thoughts and insights which help hone this approach, or ditch it in favour of a better one. 

Usain Bolt and Steroids – O’Reilly Radar

Usain Bolt and Steroids – O’Reilly Radar:

Good piece on why you should not only think before you retweet, but research what you’re about to retweet. And then probably not retweet it anyway: 

“Most of what you read in reputable publications is of questionable value, most of what you see shared online isn’t from reputable publications, and the things that make us want to believe something is true are not themselves signals of truth. “

(Via. http://twitter.com/timoreilly)

Social Media Phishing Hazards

As usual, I feel we’re not being smart enough about the way that scammers improve their skills. We demand everything to be easier, and they just reap the winnings.

What they’re exploiting is the fact that we use a lot of different services (twitter, email, Facebook), and services within services (those which use those primary services as authorisation—in other words, borrowing the login name and password) to make things easier for us or to offer ancillary services (backing twitter, measuring the number of Facebook friends you have in Angola, etc etc).

All of this leaves us vulnerable, because we tend to get overwhelmed by the number and complexity of the services we subscribe to. Scammers exploit this.

I found this message in my inbox the other day:

image

The text reads:

Hello,

You have 2 unread message(s)
For more details, please follow the link below:
http://twitter.com/account/message/20111007/?userid=789837192

The Twitter Team

Needless to say, the link itself goes elsewhere: http://lewit.fr/primitives.html which is, as far as I know, a phishing website (so don’t click on it.)

This scam isn’t new; this website talks about it last year—though they seem to have improved the spelling (it used to be ‘unreaded’).

This is clever, because while Twitter says we won’t send you messages like that, of course they do, all the time:

image

So it’s understandable why people might fall for this trick. (I don’t actually know what the trick is, but I assume that if you visit an infected website they’ll try to get as much malware on your computer as you can, so this is not (just) about grabbing your Twitter details.

What worries me is this: The usual defence against this, if Google or whoever is hosting your email hasn’t caught it, is to inspect the link under the link. In other words, to look at the actual link that the proffered link conceals. In the above case, the twitter.com/account etc link is really going to the lewit.fr page. But you’ll only know that if you mouse over the link and look at the status bar in the bottom of your browser, or paste the link somewhere else. If the link looks dodgy you know not to go there.

Or do you?

Take this email I received at more or less the same time:

image

It’s a request from backupify (an excellent backup service) for my twitter account.

The problem I have with it is this: The Backupify link in Step1 is actually this link:

http://mkto-l0091.com/track?type=click&enid=[etc] (I’ve removed the rest.)

How can I tell this is a legit email? Well it’s addressed to me, but spearphishing is pretty good these days. And chances are I’ve succumbed to backupify’s prodding to tweet to the world that I’m using their service, so an accomplished phisher need only harvest those twitter accounts which have mentioned backupify. Child’s play, in other words, to get into my account.

But the domain looks extremely dodgy. In fact a who is search reveals it belongs to a company called Marketo Inc which is basically an email marketing firm. So that suggests it is legi—or that their site has been infected. I have no way of knowing.

Now everyone uses these third party companies to handle bulk emails; that’s understood. But when you’re asking to ‘reauthorize’ an account this effectively means you’re handing over details of your account to a third party—a step that should be treated in the same way as reentering passwords or other sensitve account details. You shouldn’t be using a third party emailer for that.

I’m going to reach out to backupify and see what they say about this. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this, and I suspect it’s more widespread than one would like to think. For users, I think the lesson is clear: Don’t click on a link if you’re not sure. Go to the actual page of the service in question and check it out that way.

Locking Users In the Smart Way

DSC09945

I was directed to this excellent piece, A Victim Treats His Mugger Right : NPR, via Facebook last night.  And it made me realise how publishers don’t make the most of that kind of referral.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that nowadays we tend to get more and more of our reading from peer suggestions like this. Navigating News Online from the Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that while Google still accounts for 30% of traffic to the main U.S. news sites, Facebook is the second or third most important driver of traffic. And yet all news sites do to respond to that is put a Facebook like button on their stories and cross their fingers.

What they should be doing is create what I would call “corners”, but might also be called “series” or “seasons”. The same PEJ report notes that casual visitors to a news website account for the vast majority of visitors–USAToday, for example, a third of users spent between one and five minutes on the paper’s website each month. Power users–those that return more than 10 times a month and spend more than an hour there–account for an average of 7% of total users for the top 25 news sites.

This represents a huge failure on the part of websites to get users back, and spend more time there.

And I don’t see a lot of websites doing much about it. Which is a shame, because it’s relatively easy. You just need to think of your publication as a TV network, and your content as individual brands. Or, to continue the analogy, seasons.

If I start watching Archer, or Secret Millionaire and I enjoy it, chances are I’ll set my TV to record each episode. I like one bite; I want take the whole season. It may not be smart television, but it’s smart branding. But apart from columnists and a few other regular features, we don’t think the same when it comes to our content.

Take the NPR piece. It’s about a New York social worker called Julio Diaz who is mugged. He gives him his wallet, and then, invites the mugger to dinner. It’s a touching tale, and has been tweeted 635 times, shared on Facebook more than 200,000 times and has 92 comments. And, get this: It was published on March 28, 2008. More than three years ago. I didn’t even notice that when I was pointed to the story by a friend on Facebook. And I wouldn’t have cared: Once I started reading the story I was hooked, and listened to the recording all the way through.

This piece comes from a series called StoryCorps, a magnificent oral history project for which NPR is one of the national partners. Through three permanent StoryBooths and a traveling MobileBooth it has recorded more than 35,000 interviews since 2003. It has its own StoryCorps Facebook page, with more than 25,000 followers and a lively feel to it. (I recommend watching some of the animated accounts; they’re very moving.)

My point is this: StoryCorps is like a TV series, Loyalty is built around the brand itself: People know that if they like one item, they’re sure to like the next. And yet we do so little in our media products to make the most of this human desire to hear/read/watch more of something we like. Because we are news people, we think news is enough of a brand, we forget that for most people news is not in itself a reason to visit a news website. We are instead looking for more of what we may have liked before, and if we can’t find it, we won’t come back again.

Hence the dreadful statistics mentioned above.

So how to change this? Well, looking at the NPR page of the Julio Diaz story, we see a lot of the usual efforts to retain interest. There’s the most popular slot on the right, the related stories below, and then below that More From This Series. There are also links to subscribe to the podcast of the series, and to the RSS feed for this series.

This is all good. But it’s just the start. Let’s break down what these elements are:

  • The twitter/facebook like buttons are fine. But these are just ways of driving non-users to  to the same individual piece of content–in other words, this page.
  • The related links are ways of driving casual users to other internal content.
  • The podcast/RSS are ways of converting casual users to regular users of the content.

By defining them like this, it’s clear that only the last one really has any long-term objective to it. If we can get a user to subscribe to the podcast or the RSS feed, then we have actually got a loyal user–someone who is likely to spend more than a few minutes a month on our site, and to actually demonstrate some loyalty to our brand.

(Included in this last section is the Facebook page for a publication too, but I’m not going to go into that here.)

Now it’s probably no accident that RSS and podcasts are in steep decline. (Evidence for the decline is anecdotal, because usage of readers like Google Reader are still rising, but the rate of increase is falling, according to this piece on Quora; besides, a lot of other RSS readers have died off: Bloglines was closed down last September and NetNewsWire was sold earlier this month.)

Searches for the term RSS on Google have been falling steadily since 2006:

And podcasts haven’t fared much better. Their hey day was 2005 and 2006:

I think it’s no accident that both peaked around five years ago. That was the era of Web 2.0, and now we’re into the era of Social Media, which is dominated by Facebook and Twitter. Again, no accident that both use RSS, or used,  but have since moved on, or tried to move on.

The bottom line with both RSS and podcasts is that both have had their day. Both are a little too nerdy for most people: RSS is still way too tricky for ordinary users to master, and podcasts may be relatively easy to grab from iTunes, but still require a degree of managing that clearly doesn’t sit well.

Web 2.0 has moved on, and as social media has become more popular, and the tools for using it more user-friendly, podcasts and RSS have been left behind.

But, and here is the key point, Facebook and Twitter haven’t replaced them. RSS was/is a way for me to get your content to come to me. Facebook doesn’t really offer that, and neither, if you think about it, does Twitter.

For me to see your content I have to go to your Facebook page, or, alternatively, wait for it to pop up in my user feed. The latter is true of Twitter.

RSS allowed me to decide which of your content I liked–assuming you offered more than a single feed–and then to be able to access that on any device I liked. Podcasts were similar, but for audio and video. Now both are more or less dead, and, at least in terms of building loyalty to media channels, we’re not only back at square one, we’ve allowed other platforms–Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+–to place themselves between us and our reader.

I think this illustrates the weak thinking that media has tolerated. We need, somehow, to develop successor tools to RSS and podcasts that help us to build pipes direct to our readers/users.

Some people are trying this with iPhone/iPad/Android apps. It’s a start. But it doesn’t scale particularly well: The more apps there are, the less time people will spend on them.

And, more important, it’s still making a fundamental mistake by assuming that our readers are interested in us as a brand. They’re not. They’re interested in the channels we offer–thinking of them as seasons, I hope makes more sense, because we don’t just watch anything on a channel, we watch shows we like.

So we need to break down our content in this way, and then develop tools–apps, if you like–which cater to this desire and interest in content that is directly related (not automatically selected, or ‘may be related’) to the content that a user is interested in.

This is not that hard. NPR could build an app which helps to make it easier for anyone interested in the StoryCorps series to get all that content in a more straightforward way than RSS or podcast.

But it shouldn’t stop there. Measuring interest in a series should spur imaginative regeneration, repurposing and forking of content. The piece I mentioned, for example, had clearly resonated with the audience and should be paired with follow-up stories. Indeed, the StoryCorps corner of the NPR website should be a brand in itself, a community where editors regularly interact with readers and find ways to turn those casual users into regulars.

This is not rocket science. It’s simple math. At the moment we’re allowing other platforms to determine what people read on our website, and when they do drop by, we rely on HTML code, widgets and buttons to try to keep them.

Worst, we think merely about ‘keeping’ in terms of ‘sticky': distracting the reader by luring other stories in front of their nose until eventually they get bored, or go home, or die, or something. I use the same tricks to entertain my 9-month-old. We need to be smarter than this.

Thinking our content in terms of ‘series’ might be a good place to start.

How To Use Google To Get Round Super Injunctions

Screen shot 2011 05 23 at AM 06 45 41

As you may know there’s been lots of talk about a so-called super injunction taken out by a British footballer against revealing his name in connection with an affair he’s alleged to have had with a minor UK celebrity. One British newspaper has ignored the injunction, effectively identifying him. Twitter has also been abuzz.

It amused me to notice that Google has ignored the injunction, too, effectively.

With Google Instant autosearch on, start typing “super injunction footballer imogen” and the answer–or at least what everyone assumes is the answer will appear in the drop down list below. As I’ve illustrated above, but with the name blanked out.

I’ve talked about how to get the best out of this feature before. Check out Google Suggest: Your Company + Scam – loose wire blog

Osama bin Laden’s Death on Twitter

(Updated timeline to include subsequent accounts)

There was, by all accounts, no Internet or phone access to Bin Laden’s compound. Had there been, might he have known about the attack in advance from social media?

This depends on what was being said on twitter, and when. Although lots of people in Pakistan are on Facebook, twitter would have been more useful. There’s no clear timeline yet about when the US launched its attack on the compound. But had Osama’s people been monitoring the keyword ‘abbottabad’ (or people who had previously mentioned the word), which would have been smart, they would have known that something was afoot:

image

notice that ReallyVirtual’s tweets are half an hour before the first news reports of the crash. His first is at 00:58 am local time:

twitter guy

his second seven minutes later:

image

But would that have been sufficient warning?

Almost certainly not. By then the operation was already over, I believe. Here’s the timeline as best as I can figure (all times are Pakistan time, i.e. GMT +5, tweets come from ReallyVirtual unless stated):

00:00 (just past) Seal helicopter take off from Islamabad?
In Pakistan, it was just past midnight on Monday morning, and the Americans were counting on the element of surprise. As the first of the helicopters swooped in at low altitudes, neighbors heard a loud blast and gunshots (NYT)
00:35 ISL 5/2/11 First helicopters arrive on the scene, according to Pakistan news blog
NYT puts it, logically, a little bit earlier, as it called it a 40 minute raid)
00:32 Obama returns to the Situation Room for additional briefing. (Timeline- The Raid On Osama Bin Laden’s Hideout – NPR)
00:50 Obama first learns that bin Laden was tentatively identified. Shortly after the raid, Pakistani leaders are briefed of the actions. (NPR)
00:58 Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).
01:05 Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter :-/
? One of their helicopters stalled and could not take off. Rather than let it fall into the wrong hands, the commandos moved the women and children to a secure area and blew up the malfunctioning helicopter. (NYT)
01:09 A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S
01:10 As they took off at 1:10 a.m. local time, taking a trove of documents and computer hard drives from the house, the Americans left behind the women and children. A Pakistani official said nine children, from 2 to 12 years old, are now in Pakistani custody. (NYT)
01:30 Pakistan News: Helicopter Crashed in Abbottabad, Pakistan (story here, appears about a minute earlier)
   
01:30 No one is picking phone in Abbottabad, not even the landlines. (m0chin)
01:38 Just talked to family in Abbottabad, say they heard three blasts one after another, don’t know what really happened. (m0chin)
01:43 Hello sir, any update on the blasts? What has really happened? (m0chin)
   
01:44 all silent after the blast, but a friend heard it 6 km away too… the helicopter is gone too.
01:45 OMG :S Bomb Blasts in Abbottabad.. I hope everyone is fine :(  (han3yy)

Here’s a timeline courtesy of tiki-toki:

Seems that despite the fact that twitter broke news of the attack, the guys in the compound wouldn’t have been any better of if they’d been following it.

Sharing on Evernote

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Despite some competition, Evernote still owns the space where we save stuff we might need for ourselves. But is it up to the task of our increasingly collaborative world? I’ve gotten a bit confused about what can and can’t be synced and shared and with whom so I asked them. This is what I think I learned: (some corrections made after checking with Evernote)

Syncing between devices

  • If you’re a free user, anything you add on any device can be viewed (and edited) on any other device.
  • If you’re a premium user then you’ll be able to download and store offline all notes to your Android or iPhone.

Sharing notes

Notes can be emailed to other users.

As of today it’s possible to share a note with anyone via the web app (desktop apps soon) via the share button:

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which allows you to share via Facebook (and later Twitter etc) as well as via a link which can be pasted elsewhere. Others will not be able to edit this shared link, but any changes you make to the original note will update the shared page.

Sharing notebooks

(this is where I might be off the mark. Expect corrections)

  • Any notebook can be shared with any other user via any app.
  • One of you needs to be a premium user for others to be able to add to the notebook.
  • If you’re on the web app (just redesigned; very nice) and/or a Mac, any additions or edits any shared user makes will sync to the others’ devices. (Other platforms coming soon; the pre-release version of Windows includes this feature already.)
  • Any imported files or watched folders will also be synced between users if one of the users is premium.  (Free users are limited to to text, audio, images, and PDFs. If the contents of the shared notebook/watched folders are limited to those file types, then any user can share them. If the file types go beyond that, or if the sharer wants recipients to edit the content, then the individual that’s sharing the notebook must be Premium.)

Footnote

Three things I asked Evernote if they might work on:

  • Drag and drop doesn’t seem to work for copied text and images. Just copy some text from a page and drag it over into Evernote. It used to. Evernote answer: fair point. We’ll look into it.
  • I feel Evernote has fallen behind on the ability to extract the relevant content from a web page and copy that, without all the extraneous stuff.  Readability and Thinkery.me do this very well (the latter, brilliantly; a Chrome plugin lets you merely right click a link for Thinkery to rush off and grab the salient text and save it.) Evernote answer: fair point. We’ll look into it.
  • Revive the timeband. I loved that thing. Evernote answer: any 3rd party developers interested in doing it?  

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.