I miss Google Talk

From the time it launched in 2005 until 2012 or so when it was folded into Hangouts, I pretty much lived my life on Google Talk. The standard operating procedure when I came home from work (back then, I used to have jobs) was to open up my computer, open Google Talk and then ping 5-6 people who were online then.

The beauty of Google Talk was that you know who exactly was online at what point in time. So when you sprayed around your “hey how are you”s, you could target them at people who you knew were (or at least appeared to be) available to chat. This meant this had a high hit rate, and you could have productive conversations.

The problem with other chat mechanisms such as WhatsApp is that there is no “online” and “offline” mode. For example, if i’m working and I’m getting stuck and could use a quick conversation, turning my status to “available” on a chat room can then be a magnet for people to ping me. Or I can see which of my friends is online using their statuses, and then ping them.

With WhatsApp, I need to guess who might be available for conversation at this point in time. And that means lots of messages sent out which get responded to at the most inopportune of times (when I’ve got back my flow of work thought, for example).

In yesterday’s business standard I read about this app (whose name I now forget about ) which is trying to restart this kind of chats, signalling “availability” and chat rooms. Hopefully something like that will take off!

Instagram targeting

Instagram is really good at what I call “one dimensional psychographic targeting”.

Essentially, based on the photos and videos (more likely hashtags) that you see, spend time on, like and comment, the platform figures out some of your interests and targets at you advertisements of products that serve these interests. And instagram manages to combine this with demographic information (where you live, etc.) to target advertisements better at you.

For example, of late I’ve been looking at a lot of weightlifting stuff on Instagram – I follow most of the coaches at my gym, and a few other handles that post fitness stuff. I’ve even posted a video of myself deadlifting.

As a result, Instagram has been following me with advertisements related to fitness, and the combination with demographics means I’m being served stuff I can get in Bangalore. For example, last two days I’ve been seeing ads of my own gym (!!). There are ads for whey proteins and healthy foods of all kinds as well.

This targeting is not perfect – for the last few months, ever since I returned to India, I’ve been bombarded on Instagram with advertisements asking me to emigrate to Canada (I don’t know what makes it think I want to move abroad again given I’ve just moved back home). The seemingly un-targeted mattress advertisements are everywhere. The shirt advertisements as well (though recently I uploaded a picture of my wardrobe on Instagram).

Nevertheless, this is a massive step up from what marketers were able to do a generation ago, where they could at best target based on a demographic. Marketers might have created elaborate psychographic or behavioural profiles of their target audiences, but when it came to advertising, the media available (newspaper, television and outdoors) meant that they had to collapse it into a demographic profile.

Instagram is not perfect, though. To the best of my knowledge, it can only target me on one “psychographic dimension” (“interested in weight lifting”, “interested in coloured chinos”, “likes Bangalore”) along with a multitude of demographic dimensions (I’m sure it’s figured out my gender, age group and maybe even caste, even if it exists in some vector somewhere and no human knows these classifications).

However, when you have created elaborate psychographic profiles, collapsing them into one dimension is still a simplification process. And so you get a reasonable degree of error in targeting. So I’m wondering what can be done that can enable advertisers to target me with more specific products that I might be interested in.

Finally, really how much are the likes of Charles Tyrwhitt, and some mattress brand whose name I don’t recall, willing to pay for their campaigns, given that their untargeted campaigns have beaten the highly targeted campaigns of the fitness guys and coffee companies to reach my eyeballs?

Social Media Addiction

Two months back I completely went off social media. I deleted the instagram app from my phone and logged out of Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook on my computer. I needed a detox. And I found myself far more focussed and happier after I did that. And I started writing more here.

My first month off social media was strict. No social media under any circumstance. This was necessary to get rid of the addiction. Then, since I came back from the Maldives trip, I’ve been logging into various social media accounts on and off (about once a day on average) just to see if there are any messages and to browse a bit.

I only do it from my computer, and at a time when I’m not fully working. And as soon as the session is over I make sure I log out immediately. So the instinctive adrenaline-seeking opening of social media tabs is met by a login screen, which is friction, and I close the tab. So far so good.

In my infrequent returns to social media I’ve found that the most “harmless” are LinkedIn and Facebook (it might help that I don’t follow anyone on the latter, and if I want to check out what’s happening in someone’s life I need to explicitly go to their profile rather than them appearing on my timeline). LinkedIn is inane. Two or three posts will tell you it’s a waste of time, and I quickly log out. Facebook is again nothing spectacular.

Twitter is occasionally interesting, and I end up scrolling for a fair bit. For the most part I’m looking for interesting articles rather than look at twitter arguments and fights. I’m convinced  that twitter statements and arguments don’t add much value – they’re most likely ill thought out. Instead a link to a longer form piece leads me to better fleshed out arguments, whether I like it or not.

Mostly after a little bit of twitter scrolling, I find enough pieces of outrage, or news/political stuff that I get tired and log out. It’s only when I really need an adrenaline rush and don’t mind people cribbing that I stay on twitter for a bit of a long time (over five minutes).

Instagram, on the other hand, is like smoking cigarettes. When I smoked my first cigarette in 2004 I felt weak in the knees and a sort of high. It was in my final year of college, so I’d had enough friends tell me that cigarette smoking is addictive. And my first cigarette told my why exactly it was addictive.

So I made a policy decision at that moment that I’d limit myself to a total of one cigarette a year. I’ve probably averaged half a cigarette a year since then. My last one was in 2016.

Instagram is really addictive. It’s full of pictures, and if you avoid the really whiny accounts there is little negativity or politics. People make an effort to look nice, and take nice pictures, for instagram. So there is a lot of beauty in there. And if I choose to, especially when I’m logging in after a long time, I can keep at it for hours.

Instead I need to be conscious that it’s addictive (like my one cigarette a year rule), and pull myself away and force myself to log out. This also means that while I open twitter about once a day, Instagram is less than once a week.

I wonder what this means about the sustainability of social networks!

Links

While discussing podcasts, a friend remarked last week that one of the best things about podcasts is the discovery of new hitherto unknown people.

In response I said that this was the function that blogs used to perform a decade ago. Back in the day, blogs were full of links, and to other blogs. Every blog hosted a column of “favourite” blogs. You could look up people’s livejournal friends pages. People left comments on each other’s blogs, along with links to their blogs.

So as you consumed interesting blog posts, you would naturally get linked to other interesting blogs, and discover new people (incidentally this was how my wife and I discovered each other, but that’s a story for another day).

Where blogs scored over today’s podcasts, however,  was that as they directed you to hitherto unknown people, they also pointed you to the precise place where you could consume more of their stuff – in the form of a blog link. So if you linked to this blog, a reader who landed up here could then discover more of me – well beyond whatever of me you featured on your blog along with your link.

And this is a missing link in the podcast – while podcast episodes have links to the guest’s work, it is not an easy organic process to go through to this link and start consuming the guest’s work (except I guess in terms of twitter accounts). Moreover, the podcast is an audio medium, so it’s not natural to go to the podcast page and click through to the links.

This is one of the tragedies of the decline of blogging (clearly I’m one of the holdouts of the blogging era, maybe because it’s served me so well). Organic discovery of new people and content is not as great as it used to be. Well, Twitter and retweets exist, but the short nature of the format is that it’s much harder to judge if someone is worth following there.

Context switches and mental energy

Back in college, whenever I felt that my life needed to be “resurrected”, I used to start by cleaning up my room. Nowadays, like most other things in the world, this has moved to the virtual world as well. Since I can rely on the wife (:P) to keep my room “Pinky clean” all the time, resurrection of life nowadays begins with going off social media.

My latest resurrection started on Monday afternoon, when I logged off twitter and facebook and linkedin from all devices, and deleted the instagram app off my phone. My mind continues to wander, but one policy decision I’ve made is to both consume and contribute content only in the medium or long form.

Regular readers of this blog might notice that there’s consequently been a massive uptick of activity here – not spitting out little thoughts from time to time on twitter means that I consolidate them into more meaningful chunks and putting them here. What is interesting is that consumption of larger chunks of thought has also resulted in greater mindspace.

It’s simple – when you consume content in small chunks – tweets or instagram photos, for example, you need to switch contexts very often. One thought begins and ends with one tweet, and the next tweet is something completely different, necessitating a complete mental context switch. And, in hindsight, I think that is “expensive”.

While the constant stream of diverse thoughts is especially stimulating (and that is useful for someone like me who’s been diagnosed with ADHD), it comes with a huge mental cost of context switch. And that means less energy to do other things. It’s that simple, and I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it so long!

I still continue to have my distractions (my ADHD mind won’t allow me to live without some). But they all happen to be longish content. There are a few blog posts (written by others) open in my browser window. My RSS feed reader is open on my browser for the first time since possibly my last twitter break. When in need of distraction, I read chunks of one of the articles that’s open (I read one article fully until I’ve finished it before moving on to the next). And then go back to my work.

While this provides me the necessary distraction, it also provides the distraction in one big chunk which doesn’t take away as much mental energy as reading twitter for the same amount of time would.

I’m thinking (though it may not be easy to implement) that once I finish this social media break, I’ll install apps on the iPad rather than having them on my phone or computer. Let’s see.

Mixing groups at parties

I normally don’t like mixing groups at parties I host – that sometimes leaves me as a “cut vertex” meaning that I have to personally take it upon myself to entertain one or more guests and can’t leave them to be “self-sufficient”. You might recall that a bit over two years ago, I had tried to use social network analysis to decide who to call for my birthday party.

However, for unavoidable reasons, we had to call a mixed set of friends to a party yesterday. We’re “putting BRexit” later this week (moving back to Bangalore), and considering that there were so many people we wanted to meet and say goodbye to, we decided that the best way of doing so was to call them all together to one place.

And so we ended up with a bit of a mixed crowd. The social network at yesterday’s party looked like this. For the sake of convenience, I’ve collapsed all the “guest families” into one point each. The idea is that while a guest family can “hang out among themselves”, they needn’t have come to the party to do that, and so it fell upon us hosts to talk to them. 

So the question is – with three hosts, one of whom was rather little, how should we have dealt with this assortment of guests?

Note that pretty much everyone who RSVPd in the affirmative came to the party, so the graph is unlikely to have been more connected than this – remove my family and you would have a few islands, including a couple of singletons.

Should we have spent more time with the families that would’ve been singletons than with those who knew other guests to interact with? Or was it only fair that we spent an equal amount of time with all guests? And considering that we could deal with guests on the right side of the graph “in twos”, did that mean we should have proportionately spent more time with those guys?

In any case, we took the easy way out. Little Berry had an easy time since there were two entities she knew, and she spent all her time (apart from when she wanted parental attention) with them. The wife and I were taking turns to buy drinks for freshly arrived guests whenever they arrived, and on each occasion we helped ourselves to a drink each. So we didn’t have to worry about things like social network dynamics when we had more important things to do such as saying goodbye.

I just hope that our guests yesterday had a good time.

Oh, and way too many conversations in the last two weeks have ended with “I don’t know when I’ll see you next”. It wasn’t like this when we were moving the other way.

 

Networking events and positions of strength

This replicates some of the stuff I wrote in a recent blog post, but I put this on LinkedIn and wanted a copy here for posterity 

Having moved my consulting business to London earlier this year, I’ve had a problem with marketing. The basic problem is that while my network and brand is fairly strong in India, I’ve had to start from scratch in the UK.

The lack of branding has meant that I have often had to talk or negotiate from a position of weakness (check out my recent blog post on branding as creating a position of strength). The lack of network has meant that I try to go to networking events where I can meet people and try to improve my network. Except that the lack of branding means that I have to network from a position of weakness and hence not make an impact.

A few months back I came across this set of tweets by AngelList founder Naval Ravikant, in which he talked about productivity hacks.

One that caught my eye, which I try to practice but have not always been able to practice, is on not going to conferences if you are not speaking. However, now that I think about it from the point of view of branding and positions of strength, what he says makes total sense.

In conferences and networking events, there is usually a sort of unspoken hierarchy, where speakers are generally “superior” to those in the audience. This flows from the assumption that the audience has come to gather pearls of wisdom from the speakers. And this has an impact on the networking around the event – if you are speaking, people will start with the prior of your being a superior being, compared to you going as an audience member (especially if it is a paid event).

This is not a strict rule – when there are other people at the event who you know, it is possible that their introductions can elevate you even if you are not speaking. However, if you are at an event where you don’t know anyone else, you surely start on higher ground (no pun intended) in case you are speaking.

There is another advantage that speaking offers – you can use your speech itself to build your brand, which will be fresh in your counterparties’s minds in the networking immediately afterward. Audience members have no such brand-building ability, apart from the possibility of tarnishing their own brands through inappropriate or rambling questions.

So unless you see value in what the speaker(s) say, don’t go to conferences. Putting it another way, don’t go to conferences for networking alone, unless you are speaking. Extending this, don’t go to networking events unless you either know some of the other people who are coming there (whose links you can then tap) or if there is an opportunity for you to elevate your brand at the event (by speaking, for example).

PS: Some of Naval’s other points such as having “meeting days” and scheduling meetings for later in the day are pertinent as well, and I’ve found them to be incredibly useful.

Taking sides on twitter

Garry Kasparov versus Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Joe Weisenthal versus Balaji Srinivasan

These are two twitter battles that have raged (ok the latter is muted in comparison) on my timeline during the last few days. I’ve been witness to these battles because I follow all of these worthies, who are each interesting for their own reason. But I don’t like these battles, and fights, and I find that apart from quickly scrolling through my timeline, there is no way for me to ignore these battles.

I find all four of these people independently interesting, and so don’t want to unfollow any of them just for the sake of avoiding being witness to these fights. But in due course of time, if any of them were to focus excessively on these fights (which is unlikely to happen) at the cost of other interesting tweets, I’m likely to unfollow.

These episodes, however, have given me an insight into why there is some sort of a political division in twitter following – that people who follow a set of argumentative people with one set of beliefs are unlikely to follow members from another set with the opposite kind of beliefs. This is because if you follow argumentative people from both sides, you end up getting caught in their argument which can contaminate your timeline.

You tolerate it for a while, but then over time you start losing patience. And you realise that the only way of avoiding following these arguments is by unfollowing, or even muting, people from one side of the argument. It is more likely that you unfollow the people whose beliefs agree with less. And you do this a sufficient number of times, and you’ll end up only following people whose beliefs you fully agree with.

And then they say social media is an echo chamber!

Anyway, the moral of the story for me is that I shouldn’t engage in protracted flamewars on twitter, for each time I do, I run the risk of losing followers who might also be following my counterparty in such flame wars.

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 Birthday Party Problem

Next Tuesday is my happy birthday. As of now, I’m not planning to have a party. And based on some deep graph theoretic analysis that the wife and I just did over the last hour, it’s unlikely I will – for forming a coherent set of people to invite is an NP-hard problem, it seems like.

So five birthdays back we had a party, organised by the wife and meant as a surprise to me. On all counts it seemed like a great party. Except that the guests decided to divide themselves into one large clique and one smaller clique (of 2 people), leaving me as the cut vertex trying to bridge these cliques. That meant the onus was on me to make sure the tiny clique felt included in the party, and it wasn’t a lot of fun.

The problem is this – how do you invite a subset of friends for a party so that intervention by the host to keep guests entertained is minimised?

Let’s try and model this. Assume your friends network can be represented by an unweighted undirected graph, with a pair of friends being connected by an edge if they know (and get along with) each other already. Also assume you have full information about this graph (not always necessary).

The problem lies in selecting a subgraph of this graph such that you can be confident that it won’t break into smaller pieces (since that will mean you bonding with each such sub-group), and no guest feels left out (since the onus of making them comfortable will fall on you).

whatsapp-image-2016-11-28-at-6-53-04-pm

Firstly, the subgraph needs to be connected. Then, we can safely eliminate all guests who have degree of either zero or one (former is obvious, latter since they’ll be too needy on their only friend). In fact, we can impose a condition that each guest should have a minimum degree of two even in the subgraph.

Then we need to impose conditions on a group in the party breaking away. We can assume that for a group of people to break away, they need to be a clique (it is not a robust requirement, since you and someone you find at a party can suddenly decide to find a room, but reasonable enough).

We can also assume that for a group to break away, the strength of their mutual connections should outweigh the strength of their connections to the rest of the group. Since we’re using unweighted graphs here, we can simply assume that a group can break away if the number of edges between this group and the rest of the network is less than the size of the group.

So if there is a group of three who, put together, have two connections to the rest of the group, the group can break away. Similarly, a clique of four will break away from the main group if they have three or less edges going over. And let’s assume that the host is not a part of this subgroup of guests.

Given these constraints, and constraints on party size (minimum and maximum number of guests to invite), how can we identify an appropriate subset of friends to invite for the party? And I’m assuming this problem is NP-Hard (without thinking too much about it) – so can we think of a good heuristic to solve this problem

Do let me know the answer before next Tuesday, else I may not be able to have a party this time as well!