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.

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.

 

Commenting on social media

While I’m more off than on in terms of my consumption of social media nowadays, I find myself commenting less and less nowadays.

I’ve stopped commenting on blogs because I primarily consume them using an RSS reader (Feedly) on my iPad, and need to click through and use my iPad keyboard to leave comments, a hard exercise. And comments on this blog make me believe that it’s okay to not comment on blogs any more.

On Facebook, I leave the odd comment but find that most comments add zero value. “Oh, looking so nice” and “nice couple” and things like that which might flatter some people, but which make absolutely no sense once you start seeing through the flattery.

So the problem on Facebook is “congestion”, where a large number of non-value-adding comments may crowd out the odd comment that actually adds value, so you as a value-adding-commentor decide to not comment at all.

The problem on LinkedIn is that people use it mostly as a medium to show off (that might be true of all social media, but LinkedIn is even more so), and when you leave a comment there, you’re likely to attract a large number of show-offers who you are least interested in talking to. Again, there’s the Facebook problem here in terms of congestion. There is also the problem that if you leave a comment on LinkedIn, people might think you’re showing off.

Twitter, in that sense, is good in that you can comment and selectively engage with people who reply to your comment (on Facebook, when all replies are in one place, such selective engagement is hard, and you can offend people by ignoring them). You can occasionally attract trolls, but with a judicious combination of ignoring, muting and blocking, those can be handled.

However, in my effort to avoid outrage (I like to consume news but don’t care about random people’s comments on it), I’ve significantly pruned my following list. Very few “friends”. A few “twitter celebrities”. Topic-specific studs. The problem there is that you can leave comments, but when you see that nobody is replying to them, you lose interest!

So it’s Jai all over the place.

No comments.

Twitter and negativity

One of the reasons that sparked my departure from social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter two weeks back was an argument with my wife where she claimed that Twitter had made me too negative, and highly prone to trolling (even in “real life”). Accepting a challenge from her, I offered to go through my tweets over the last few months, and identify those that were negative. I also offered to perform a similar exercise with my blog.

I started off with the intention to go through tweets in the last one year and delete anything that was negative or “troll-y”. I allocated myself an hour to accomplish this, along with a similar exercise for my blog.

I must have spent fifty minutes going through my twitter feed, and didn’t manage to go back more than two months. I was surprised by my own sheer volume of tweeting. What was more surprising was the amazing lack of insight in most of those tweets – there were horrible PJs that I’d cracked just because I could, there were random replies to other people which didn’t add any kind of value, there was outrage about the lack of outrage and some plain banal life stuff (apart from some downright trolly stuff which I deleted).

It made for extremely painful reading, and I could hardly recognise myself from my own tweets. Apart from some personal markers, I would find it hard to recognise most of these tweets as my own if they were to be presented to me a few months later. It was a clear indication that it was time to exit twitter (though since I have a rather kickass username there I’m not deleting my account).

The ten minutes I spent that day going through this blog, however, was a sheer delight. I did end up deleting a couple of outragey posts (both of which were essentially collections of tweets which I’d collated for posterity), but most of my posts were mostly sheer delight! There was some kind of insight in each of my posts, and I’d lie if I were to say that I’m not proud of what I’ve written.

It’s not that I’ve not written shit on this blog (or its predecessor), having written posts as late as 2008 which I’m definitely not proud of. What I’ve noticed, however, is that I’ve evolved over time, and my writing style has been refined, and I think I continue to add significant value to my readers.

Twitter’s constant engagement feature, however, meant that it was hard to evolve there and hard to escape from the cycle of banal and negative tweets. My tweets from this February are unlikely to be qualitatively very different from those 5 years back, and that’s not a positive thing to say.

The thing with Twitter is that its short format encourages a “shoot first ask questions later” kind of thinking. You end up posting shit without thinking through it, and without having to construct a reasonable argument. This encourages outrage, and posting banal stuff. Spending one minute typing out a banal tweet is far lower cost than spending 20 minutes typing out a banal blog post – the latter is unlikely to be written unless there’s some kind of insight in it.

Outrage is one thing, but what’s really got to me with respect to twitter is its sheer ordinariness, and temporality (most tweets lose value a short period of time after they’re posted). It’s insane that it’s taken me so long (and three longish sabbaticals from twitter) to find out!

The problem with Twitter

Starting from the mid-2000s, the dominant method to consume content was to follow individual blogs through RSS Feed readers such as Bloglines or Google Reader. You followed specific blogs, most of which (unlike this one) had content on specific topics.

So when I wanted to learn up on economics, I started following Marginal Revolution and Econlog. When I wanted to follow the global financial crisis, I added Felix Salmon and a couple of other blogs (which I don’t remember now). All I needed to do to read on specific topics was to follow specific people.

And then Google Reader Shared Items happened. Now, you didn’t really need to follow specific blogs, for there was a social network where people would share interesting stuff that they read. Now you could outsource following blogs to friends who became curators. So there was this one friend who would share pretty much every interesting post on Mashable. Another shared every interesting post from this blog called The Frontal Cortex. I didn’t need to follow these blogs. My “curator friends” shared the best pieces with me (and I know people relied on me for Econlog etc.).

Then around the turn of the decade, Twitter replaced Google Reader Shared Items as the primary content discovery platform. A couple of years later, Google would decommission Reader. The thing with Twitter was that the movement from following specific ideas and sites to following “curators” was complete.

While twitter also functions as a “normal” social network, a major function is the sharing of ideas, and so everyone on twitter is essentially a curator, sharing with her followers what she wants them to read. There is also scope for adding comments here, and adding one’s opinion to the content. This adds a sort of richness to the content, and people can filter stuff accordingly, without consuming everything one’s friend has shared.

The downside, however, is that you are forced to consume the opinions and links shared by everyone you follow. There might be someone who I might be following for his curation of technology links, but it might happen that he might also tweet heavily on politics, which I’m hardly interested in. There is an option to turn off retweets (which I’ve used liberally) but even so, there is a lot of “unwanted content” you have to consume from people. And since it is “opinion first” (and link later), you are forced to consume people’s opinion even if you’re just browsing their timeline.

What we need in Twitter is a way to curate people’s opinions on topics. For example, I might be interested in Person A’s opinion on politics but not anything else. Person B might offer good opinions on economics but might be lousy on other things. Person C might be good for technology and sports. And so forth.

Of course, you can’t charge people with classifying their own tweets – that will add too much friction to the process. What you need is an intelligent process or app that can help classify people’s tweets and show you only what you want to know.

I can think of a couple of designs for the app – one could be where you could tell it not to show any more tweets from someone on a particular topic (or block a topic itself). Another is for you to upvote and downvote tweets, so that the app learns your preferences and shows you what you want.

Yet, I’m not confident that such an app will be built. The problem is that twitter has been notorious in terms of cutting off access to its API to apps built on it, or cutting permissions of what apps can see (Facebook is as guilty here). So it’s a massive challenge to get people to actually invest in building twitter apps.

Twitter as it exists currently doesn’t work for me, though. I repeatedly find the problem that there is way too much outrage on my timeline, and despite mercilessly cutting the number of people I follow, I find that it’s a slippery slope and otherwise interesting people continue to tweet about stuff that I don’t want to read about. And so my engagement is dipping.

I don’t need twitter itself to do anything about it. All they should do is to send out credible signals that they’ll not pull the rug under the feet of developers, so that APIs can be developed, which can make the platform a much more pleasant experience for users.

Twitter and Radically Networked Outrage

The concept of Radically Networked Outrage was originally conceived by my Takshashila colleague Pavan Srinath. Having conceived of it, he had promised to blog about it, but it’s been over a month and he’s yet to get down to it. Given this delay, I think I’m justified in stealing this blogpost.

One of the pet themes professed by people at Takshashila, especially Nitin Pai, is the concept of “radically networked societies”. There are too many posts to link to, so I’ll just link to this book chapter that Nitin has written, and to this TEDx talk:

So the whole concept is that societies nowadays are not hierarchical like in the past, but “radically networked”, in that the density of the graph of people in the world has increased significantly with technology. Not only has the density gone up – which means that people are connected to significantly more people than in the past – but technology has enabled people to communicate rapidly.

So you have twitter where you can broadcast your short thoughts. WhatsApp groups enable you to send, and propagate, messages to multiple people at once. This, combined with increased graph density, has resulted in ability for large numbers of people to coordinate and organise, and presents new kinds of governance challenges. For example, it was radically networked societies that resulted in the so-called Arab Spring (which, in hindsight, has mostly led to chaos). Radically networked societies also resulted in the Anna Hazare movement in 2011, which in turn led to the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party, which has taken Delhi by storm.

When societies are so radically networked that they can cause revolutions which can result in the overthrow of governments, they can also such radical networking for lesser causes, such as outraging. When the odd thatha outrages about a certain happening or piece of news, it doesn’t have any impact, and ends up in at best a letter to the editor, and dies a quiet death. If a handful of unconnected thathas outrage about something, it will still not amount to much, and one of their letters to the editor will get published.

However, put together a large number of people densely connected to each other, any outrage in such network will be immediately seen and noticed, and has the potential to go viral. The thing about outrage is positive feedback – when you see someone outraging about a particular topic that you mildly outrage about, you feel encouraged to make your mild outrage public. As the number of people in your network outraging about something increases, the likelihood of you joining in the outrage increases.

So as you can imagine, once there a certain critical mass to outrage about a particular issue, it can go truly viral, until just about everyone is outraging about the topic.

And outrage can have inter-issue positive feedback also. Once you are used to seeing a certain amount of outrage on your twitter timeline, you feel encouraged to make public any marginal outrage about any other issue also. And a number of people getting marginally thus pushed to make their outrage public can result in a further increase in radically network outrage!

We live in a time when societies are radically networked, and outrage is the order of the day. And since outrage causes more outrage, this outrage is unlikely to reduce. It is impossible to say anything remotely controversial on social media nowadays – a pack of outragers will immediately hound you. There are already some victims of such radically networked outrage – like the PR professional Justine Sacco who lost her job after an outraged mob failed to see the humour in her tweet, or scientist James Watson who had to auction his Nobel Prize after outrage about his comments about race had led to speaking assignments dying out, or footballer Ched Evans who is unable to find a club to hire him after doing time for rape. The latest victim of radically networked outrage is Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, who resigned his position as Professor following radically networked outrage about certain remarks he made that were deemed sexist.

And there is no escaping such outrage. In an attempt to escape it, I pruned my Twitter following list a couple of days back, unfollowing people who are highly prone to participate in radically networked outrage. At the end of it, my following list had grown so thin that there was no value for me in Twitter any more. I would just check twitter in the hope of interesting tweets, but come across hardly any tweets.

So today I begin my third sabbatical from Twitter. The first one (January 2014) lasted a month, and the second (August to November 2014) lasted three. I don’t know how long this will last. I’ll be robbed of interesting discussions for sure, but can do without all the negativity prevalent all over my timeline. But I’m sure Radically Networked Outrage will have its way of getting to me again!

In October, during my last sabbatical, I had written about the same topic. And in December, I had written about the “mob courts” of social media.

Intellectual discussions

So this afternoon a friend came home and we had a nice long discussion on a lot of things. And then it was time for him to leave. But by then, I was in the frame of mind where I was craving intellectual discussions, but there were no avenues for me to execute!

I remember this time five years or so ago, when each day when I would come back home from work, I would open Google Talk and initiate five or six conversations with friends who were online. Some would be stillborn, as the counterparty wouldn’t reply, but my carpet bombing would work and there would be 2-3 conversations that would fructify, and I would have a nice time talking!

Unfortunately, with the decline of Google Talk, there are no avenues for such discussions now. In fact, what killed it was the move to mobile – the original point of Google Talk was that you could signal that you were available by logging on. And so when you signalled thus, someone would ping you, and you would have a conversation.

By moving Google Talk to the mobile phone, where you were online by default, it meant that you were shown online even when you weren’t in a mood to chat. People would occasionally ping you, but then give up. It was like the case of the shepherd boy crying “wolf”. So a green button next to someone’s name on Google Talk means nothing now, in terms of their availability to chat!

Other chatting mechanisms, such as WhatsApp are no better, being “mobile first” and thus “always logged in”. You don’t know who is available when, and who you can possibly ping to have a good conversation.

And then five years back, I stopped logging on to Google Talk and initiating five different conversations. I started logging on to Twitter, instead, and making conversation with people on my timeline . Unfortunately, twitter has been ruined, too. It is so full of outrage, and some of such outrage conducted by otherwise smart people, that I’ve radically cut down on the number of people I follow.

As the world solves some problems, it un-solves others, and creates yet others. And there was a time when I would blog, and visit other blogs, to have intellectual discussions. And now people have stopped commenting on blogs, also!

Pricing likes and the facebook algorithm

There is a good friend of mine who is a compulsive “LinkedIn liker”. Anything anyone in his network writes (either a LinkedIn blog or a status update or a job announcement), he is extremely likely to “like” them. While that helps the authors of such updates in getting their messages across to this guy’s networks also, the thing is that such likes add little value. If an update has come on my timeline because this guy has liked it, I’ll take it with salt since I know that this guy’s likes are “cheap”.

I don’t want to single out this guy, but there are several others on my Facebook friend list who are also compulsive likers. They like just about everything that they see, but the Facebook algorithm (by which not all of your updates are shared with all of your friends) means that their incidence is less than that of the LinkedIn liker. Then I have this one follower on Twitter who unfailingly likes each tweet of mine with a link. He engages in conversation very very sporadically, but like he does all the time!

So this got me thinking on the value of people’s likes, and what would happen if likes were to be rationed. I know it’s going to be hard to implement, but if you wee told that you had a quota of 10 likes that you could dole out in a day, how would you then ration your likes? Would such a cap make likes more valuable?

The reason this matters is that the number of likes has now become a metric that social media marketers track, and if some people’s likes are less valuable than others’, it is essentially a useless metric (and I know the problem is with the metric, not with likes). Even otherwise, from an information perspective, knowing the value of each person’s likes is useful for you in making up your mind on something!

So if say facebook decides that you get 10 free likes a day and have to pay for any more, how does that change your liking behaviour? For your 11th like, will you pay or go unlike something you’ve already liked? As a thought experiment, it is fascinating!

And while we are discussing Facebook, I must mention that I absolutely loathe its algorithm. I don’t know how it works, but it seems to me that the better updates that I put there just never get carried to my network, but some random updates that I sometimes put get propagated like crazy. I’ve been trying to reduce the number of updates there so that each update has a greater probability of getting propagated, but it just doesn’t seem to help!

And I was thinking about Facebook’s algorithm, and Twitter’s non-algorithm where every tweet you put gets carried to all your followers. Since Twitter doesn’t filter, all your followers have an opportunity to see all that you say. But the problem there is that since your followers see tweets of everyone on their timelines, your tweet is likely to get lost in the competition for attention.

So basically Twitter is like a free market where you have everyone’s tweets that get shown and compete for a follower’s attention. Facebook is like a more regulated market where there is no clutter, so every update gets undivided attention, but there is a Big Brother which decides who should see what!

I wonder if Facebook has considered making its algorithm public, and if it does, if it will have any impact on how people share. The value it will have for me is that at least I will know whether an update will get carried or not, and time and space my updates properly. But considering that one of Facebook’s revenue sources is to be paid by users to propagate their updates further, revelation of the algorithm will result in lower revenues for Facebook, so they’ll never do that.

I might just get all disgusted with the algorithm and quit Facebook some day.