Why Twitter is like Times Now

One reason I stopped watching news television about a decade back is because of its evolution into a “one issue channel”. On each day, a channel basically picks a “topic of the day”, and most discussion on that day is regarding that particular topic.

In that sense, these “news channels” hardly provide news (unless you bother to follow the tickers at the bottom) – they only provide more and more discussion about the topic du jour (ok I’m feeling all pseud about using French on my blog!). If you’re interested in that topic, and willing to consume endless content about it, great for you. If not, you better look for your news elsewhere (like the <whatever> o’clock news on the government-owned channel which at least makes a pretence of covering all relevant stuff).

One thing that made Twitter attractive soon after I joined it in 2008 was the diversity of discussions. Maybe it was the nature of the early users, but the people I followed provoked thought and provided content on a wide array of topics, at least some of which I would find interesting. And that made spending time on twitter worthwhile.

It’s still true on a lot of days nowadays, but I find that Twitter is increasingly becoming like a modern news channel such as Times Now. When there are certain events, especially of a political nature, it effectively becomes a one-topic channel, with most of the timeline getting filled with news and opinion about the event. And if it is either an event you don’t care about, or if you’ve moved on from the event, Twitter effectively becomes unusable on such days.

In fact, a few of my twitter breaks in the last 2-3 years have followed such periods when Twitter has turned into a “one issue channel”. And on each of these occasions, when I’ve joined back, I’ve responded by unfollowing many of these “one-issue tweeters” (like this guy who I don’t follow any more because he has a compulsive need to livetweet any game that Arsenal is playing).

That Twitter becomes a one-topic channel occasionally is not surprising. Basically it goes like this – there are people who are deeply passionate or involved in the topic, and they show their passion by putting out lots of tweets on the topic. And when the topic is a current event, it means that several people on your timeline might feel passionately about it.

People not interested in the topic will continue to tweet at their “usual rate”, but that gets effectively drowned out in the din of the passionate tweeters. And when you look at your linear timeline, you only see the passion, and not the diverse content that you use Twitter for.

Some people might suggest a curated algorithmic feed (rather than a linear feed) as a solution for this – where a smart algorithm learns that you’re not interested in the topic people are so passionate about and shows you less of that stuff. I have a simpler solution.

Basically the reason I’m loathe to unfollow these passionate tweeters is that outside of their temporary passions, they are terrific people and tweet about interesting stuff (else I wouldn’t follow them in the first place). The cost of this, however, is that I have to endure their passions, which I frequently have no interest in.

The simple solution is that you should be able to “temporarily unfollow” people (Twitter itself doesn’t need to allow this option – a third party client that you use can offer this at a higher layer). This is like WhatsApp where you can mute groups for just a day, or a week. So you can unfollow these passionate people for a day, by which time their passion will subside, and you can see their interesting selves tomorrow!

Of course it’s possible to manually implement this, but I know that if I unfollow them today I might forget to follow them back tomorrow. And there are countless examples of people in that category – who I unfollowed when they were passionate and have thus missed out on their awesomeness.


The problem with premium ad-free television

I watched snippets of the just-concluded ICC WorldT20 final using an illegal streaming service, which streamed content drawn from SkySports2.  The horrible quality of the streaming aside (the server seemed to have terrible bandwidth issues), the interesting thing to note was that it was completely devoid of advertisements.

With the quality of cricket coverage in India currently being abysmal due to the frequent cutting for advertisements (I remember getting thoroughly pissed off with the cuts for advertisements before the replay of a wicket was shown during the India-Australia series earlier this year), it made me think about the economics of a separate premium service that is ad-free.

The infrastructure for delivery is in place, given that internet-based legal streaming services are fairly common now (the likes of HotStar). Internet-based delivery also makes it easy to charge pay per view, so payment is also not a problem. This raises the question of whether it is a good idea for channels to monetise the demand for ad-free cricket by providing the service through online streaming, leaving the mainstream broadcast to be monetised via advertisements.

While in theory this appears like a good idea, the problem is with the kind of people who will migrate to the new service – they will be people who have the ability and willingness to pay for a higher quality broadcast. Such people are likely to belong to two overlapping categories – loyal fans of the game and people who can afford to pay a premium.

It is unlikely that the union of these two sets will comprise of too high a proportion of the overall viewership of the game, but the point is that these are the two groups who are likely to be most lucrative to advertisers – the loyal fans watch regularly and the people who are able to pay have more disposable income.

Moving such customers to an ad-free online channel might reduce the supply of advertisements which can be used to reach them, and this might not make advertisers happy. And given that television channels have cosy relationships with advertisers (or at least media buyers), they are unlikely to piss them off by moving the most lucrative customers to a premium platform.

Of course if this segmentation (between ad-free and free broadcasts) is implemented, it will also impact the price of advertisements in the free broadcast. That will need to be taken as an input while setting prices for the ad-free service. In other words, pricing is going to be a challenge!

If some television channel wants to work on this, I’m available for hire as a consultant. I’ve done a fair amount of prior work on pricing and dynamic pricing, am pretty good at quantitative methods and am in the course of writing a popular economics book.

Bleg: News sources

I’ve decided to take yet another social media sabbatical (long time readers know I do this once in a while), and since I’m currently living abroad, one of the downsides of this is that I now have no direct access to news (social media did provide news, but came along with extremely fierce commentary and outrage).

I use Flipboard to curate some news, but the way I’ve been curating it of late means that I don’t get much news about India. Online editions of newspapers are there, but I find that most simply use them to archive stories, and the curation that is present in newspapers is missing.

So I’m basically looking towards curated sources of news that i can read and be satisfied that I know what’s happening in this world. I currently subscribe to two newsletters – the Economist Espresso that arrives in the morning and tells me all that’s happening in the world, and Matt Levine’s newsletter that arrives in the afternoon (Europe time) and tells me everything that’s happening in world markets.

Do any Indian newspapers have good curated content in the form of newsletters? Or any third party newsletter aggregators in India? Do let me know (by leaving a comment here or reaching me directly – if you don’t have my contact details, you can use the contact form on this blog). Thanks in advance.

The Economist and the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

I’ve been a subscriber to the Economist for the last couple of years and quite enjoy reading that newspaper. There are weeks when I don’t manage to go through the week’s edition, but there are certain weeks when it forms a large part of my reading. I quite like the paper, and I subscribe to the daily “Espresso” issue on my mobile phone.

I have only one problem – a lot of their writing about India is biased, and filled with Sominisms. I mean their business pieces are pretty good, like this profile of Welspun. But their political coverage is generally biased by their correspondents’ dislike for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and hence not particularly objective.

I had recently carried a copy of the newspaper to read on my way to a quiz, where I met Baada. Baada was surprised that I read the newspaper, since it was so obviously biased in its coverage of Indian politics. “I agree that India coverage is biased”, I said, “but its worldwide coverage is really good. Hence I read it”.

Recently I came across the “Murray Gell-mann Amnesia effect“. It is named after the physicist, and claims that you will trust the rest of a newspaper even though you know that its coverage of your domain is shit. And thinking about it, I’m wondering if I should continue trusting The Economist.

Currently, I believe that the Economist’s coverage of Indian politics is shit, but I continue to read the newspaper for its other coverage. But what if everyone believes that the Economist’s coverage of their domain is inadequate? If that is the case, does it still make it a good paper? Should I use the fact of the Economist’s coverage of Indian business being better as a mitigating factor?

The problem is that there is no other paper that gives a nice concise view of what is happening in the world (FT is too voluminous given its frequency), and that makes the Economist good. But if their coverage is biased by their correspondents’ views in every country, it is not that trustworthy any more.

The only option I can think of is to continue reading the newspaper, but to “add salt to taste”. Every time I read a political story set in some country, I should keep in mind that the correspondent might be biased, and adjust my views accordingly. That way, I can consume the paper’s curation and analysis while not getting influenced by its inherent biases.

My tryst with Kannada media

So about a month or so back, I wrote up an essay on why the much-maligned TenderSURE project is a right step in the development of Bangalore, and why the Chief Minister’s comments on the issue were misguided and wrong.

Having written it, considering it worthy of a better forum than NED, I shared it with my Takshashila colleagues. They opined that is should get published in a Kannada newspaper, and Varun Shenoy duly translated the piece into Kannada. And then the story began.

We sent it to PrajaVani (which has published several other Op-Eds from other Takshashila people), but they summarily rejected this without giving reasons. We then sent it to UdayaVani, reaching it after passing some hoops, but then they raised some questions with the content, the answers to which had been made quite clear within the text.

I think Mint has spoilt me, in that I assume that it’s okay to write geeky stuff and have it accepted for publication. Rather, it is possible that they’ve recruited me so that they can further bolster their geek quotient. Last week, for example, I sent a piece on Fractional Brownian Motion, and it got published. A couple of years back I’d sent a formula with Tchebyshev’s inequality to be included in a piece on sampling, and they had published that too.

When translating my piece, Varun thought it was too geeky and technical, and he made an attempt to tone it down during his translation. And the translation wasn’t easy – for we had to find Kannada equivalents for some technical terms that I’d used. In some cases, Varun expertly found terms. In others, we simply toned it down.

Having toned down the piece and made an effort to make it “accessible”, UdayaVani’s response was a bit of a dampener for us – and it resulted in a severe bout of NED. And so we sat on the piece. And continued to put NED.

Finally, Varun got out of it and published it on the Takshashila blog (!!). The original piece I’d written is here:

A feature of Bangalore traffic, given the nature of the road network, is that bottlenecks are usually at the intersections, and not at the roads. As a consequence, irrespective of how much we widen the roads, the intersections will continue to constrain the flow of traffic in the city. In other words, making roads narrower will not have a material impact on the throughput of traffic in the city.

And Varun’s translation is here:

(Update: I tried to extract Varun’s piece here but it’s not rendering properly, so please click through and read on the Logos blog)

Read the whole thing, whichever piece you can understand. I think we are on to something here.

And on that note, it might make sense to do a more rigorous network-level analysis of Bangalore’s roads. Designing the graph is simple – each intersection (however small it might be) is a node, each “road segment” is an edge. The graph is both directed (to take care of one-ways) and weighted (to indicate width of roads).

We’ll need data on flows, though. If we can get comprehensive data of origin and destination of a large number of people, we should be able to impute flows in each segment based on that.

And then we can rigorously test the hypothesis (I admit that it’s still only a hypothesis) that bottlenecks on Bangalore’s roads are intersections and not roads.

NRIs and the double narrative bias

By definition journalism suffers from the narrative bias. In other words, in most conditions, only the spectacular is newsworthy. To take a popular example, “dog bites man” will never make news because of its sheer predictability – it simply doesn’t add any information content.

As a consequence, journalism “suffers” from what I call the “spectacular bias”. A spectacular event is much more likely to be reported compared to an unspectacular one. This has several implications.
Firstly it leads to distorted and suboptimal choices. For example, following the two fires in Volvo buses in 2013-14 people stopped traveling by buses of that particular make. This was irrational because even after those accidents Volvo buses continued to be safer than buses of any other make. Yet, the fact that Volvo buses had been involved in the accidents were. Ade the focus of reports and that led to irrational responses. Related to this, I usually ask in lectures I take if anyone has seen a headline that says “Ashok Leyland bus catches fire,people die” and if not, if it means that Ashok Leyland buses never catch fire.
Now that it is established that journalism suffers from the narrative bias and spectacular bias, let’s take it one level further – what about people who get their news exclusively from social media? Let us assume that news that is shared widely on social media is a subset of news that is reported in the mainstream media (it is a reasonable assumption that anything that trends on social media will get immediately picked up and reported by the mainstream media).
What kind of news will these people (who get news exclusively from mainstream media) consume? If a news item makes it big in the social media then it implies that the news item has something about it that is spectacular, and something that is spectacular relative to anything else that is reported. Now considering that news itself is a collection of spectacular stories, what this implies is that what gets shared on social media is spectacular when compared to other spectacular stories, or these stories are doubly spectacular!
Considering that news itself can cause significant irrational decisions among people, imagine the kind of impact that consumption of news solely via social media can have! Without going into merits of the news, we can safely argue that it leads to irrational decisions and opinions.
Now let us consider one such class of people who mostly consume news via social media (we are making a leap of faith here). Temporarily going into anecdata territory, let me quote examples of possibly irrational behaviour by NRIs here. First there is this relative who left India about a decade back. About a year or so back he started this Facebook community called “Bangalore – Water Issues and Solutions” . None of his actions or statements from earlier had indicated that he has any interest in this topic.
Then there is my wife who has been living abroad for the last seven months. Glancing at political status messages on her Facebook feed you see the Uber rape case, Leslie Udwin’s documentary “India’s daughter” and the case of the death of IAS officer DK Ravi. Clearly spectacular among the spectacular. Or take my own case – I’ve been out of India for more than a week now, and lacking good traditional sources of getting news from back home (websites are too cumbersome, I’m relying on social media too).
The consequent “double narrative bias” (since what you consume from social media undergoes two levels of narrative bias) means that NRIs, lacking good sources of news from back home, are likely to have a warped view of the happenings in India. This implies that their idea of India is likely to be largely shaped by this bias and unlikely to be representative of what’s actually happening (I’m by no means giving a clean chit to resident Indians here, since several of those too suffer from this double narrative bias. But proportions are smaller than that for NRIs).
From this point of view the decision by the current government to extend online voting rights to NRIs needs to be called to question – since there is good reason to believe that their idea of India suffers from two levels of narrative bias (NRIs are currently not barred from voting but they need to travel to India to cast their votes. A change in this rule has been proposed).
This concept also helps us understand why political views of NRIs is likely to be much more polarised than that of the general Indian population (as exhibits note both the campaign to deny current Prime Minister Narendra Modi a visa to visit the U.S., and the reception he received when he ultimately went there). Their view is shaped by double narrative bias which leads to suboptimal opinions.
This double narrative bias also presents a good business opportunity – for media houses to target the diaspora. While most Indian publications have websites these are just repositories of news, and only news that has been widely shared gets mileage. This ends up reinforcing the double narrative bias.
What we need instead is a daily quick bite of news that can be consumed easily. This might lead to several NRIs to subscribe, so that they can get a quick understanding of what’s happening back home. (The economists espresso is a good template to follow for this one). And can serve to eliminate at least one level of narrative bias!

Rajat Gupta’s affiliations

Why the fuck does every single article that talks about this describe insider trader Rajat Gupta as a “former Goldman director”? Why not ex-McKinsey CEO? Or current P&G Board Member? And especially given that his insider trading was partly at Goldman’s expense?

Media is crazy