Dear Water Cooler, if this person talks, please listen in for me

Twitter Bird Logo

Having only a small proportion of your registered users classified in your Monthly Active User (“MAU”) count is one of the surprising poor things about Twitter compared to most social media sites. However, some of the content there is absolute gold – if only there was a way to bottle it effectively.

The sort of thing that often happens is that a big announcement in the industry occurs (like Facebook taking over Virtual Reality Headset Maker Oculus, or Google buying Titan Aerospace, the manufacturer of solar powered drones that fly several miles up – above aircraft traffic – nominally as WiFi hotspots of the future where Internet Access is not yet available). There is then a collection of Venture Capitalists, Industry Analysts and folks with excellent industry backgrounds who mill around a virtual water cooler, and start bouncing views off each other on “what it means”.

Alternatively, you get someone like Marc Andreessen (@pmarca – one of the cofounders of Netscape and of VC Andreessen Horowitz, aka “A16Z”) rattling off a few observations about Venture Capital, and a myriad of people join in with views or differences of opinion. Again, another water cooler chat comes to life. The top level looked like this earlier today:

Points 1-11 of Marc Andreessen Talking about VC funding

Marc Andreessen Water Cooler points 11-15 re VC funding

I’m lucky in that when I get up, these folks on the West Coast of the USA are tweeting late into their night, so I get to see these posts at all. The one gotcha is that you have to step through each of his tweets to see the reposts and discussion around each point. When you do, it’s actually much better than a summary that a single quality journalist can put together – and bang up to date with the latest news in the industry. I waxed lyrical at this with a reply to Marc:

pmarca (Mark Andreessen) favouriting a post about Twitter water coolers

And then remembered i’d said the same thing to Kevin Marks during a Gillmor Gang podcast (on the live chat as the podcast was progressing, one Friday evening a week or two back). At the time, he suggested looking at a service called “Storify”. I did, but it hooks into Twitter based on subject matter, and not the way I thought would help. So, tweeted that as a comment back to Marc and to Kevin Marks:

Kevin Marks lays another golden nugget

And back came a reply from Kevin minutes later (he’s based in San Jose). Brilliant tip, so I went and had a look:

Aaron Swatz's Twitter Water Cooler Viewer

Bingo. Albeit it no longer works (as Kevin suggested), and we know that unfortunately, Aaron is no longer with us. So, time to go find his code and see if there’s a way to tweak it to work with the latest versions of the Twitter API, and then to lie in wait for any water cooler conversation taking place that involves one or more of a specific list of people I personally find valuable to listen to.

There are people in real life like that. You listen intently to what they say as gold nuggets keep getting brushed off their shoulders. I remember people like Tony Batchelor at Camborne School of Mines was like that (his expertise was geological and drilling for hot water far underground in Cornwall as a potential energy source, but his expertise in all sorts of related industries really fascinating to hear).

Twitter are sitting on the edge of being able to facilitate a sort of bottles of “TED Talk” quality conversations that they could farm from their own feeds. I’d even pay for those bottles – if they did a good job of keeping all eyes on those water cooler moments and could record them 24 hours/day, then deliver them to me succinctly. I fear I must miss most of them at the moment.

The rise & rise of A1 (internet fuelled) Journalism

Newspaper Industry RIPThere’s been a bit of to and fro about the future of Newspapers and Journalism in the last week, where both bundling of advertising and editorial content is being disaggregated by Internet dynamics. Readership of newspapers is increasingly a preserve of the old. Like many other folks I know, we increasingly derive a lot of our inbound content from online newsletters, blogs, podcasts and social media feeds. Usually in much smaller chunks than we’d find in mainstream media of old.

Ben Thompson (@monkbent) wrote a great series of pieces on Journalist “winner takes all” dynamics, where people tend to hook primarily onto personalities or journalists they respect:

I think he’s absolutely correct, but the gotcha is that they all publish in different places and among different colleagues, so it’s difficult (or at the very least time consuming) for a lot of us to pick them out systematically. A few examples of the ones I think are brilliant are folks like:

  • John Lanchester – usually on the London Review of Books and talking about the state of the UK economy (“Let’s Call it Failure“), the behaviour of our post-crash Banking Industry (“Let’s consider Kate“), and about the PPI scandal (“Are we having fun yet?“)
  • Douglas Adams – now RIP – on how people always resist new things as they age or where things work differently to what they’re used to – in “Stop worrying and Learn to Love the Internet
  • Tim Harford – mainly in books, but this corker of an Article about “Big Data: are we making a big mistake“. There is a hidden elephant in the room, given “Big Data” is one of the keystone fads to drive equipment sales in the IT Industry right now. Most companies have a Timely Data Presentation problem in most scenarios i’ve seen; there’s only so much you can derive from Twitter Sentiment Analysis (which typically only derives stats from single percentage figure portions of your customer/prospect base), or from working out how to throw log file data at a Hadoop cluster (where Splunk can do a “good enough” job already).
  • The occasional random article on Medium, such as a probably emotive one to the usual calls of the UK press: “How we were fooled into thinking that sexual predators lurk everywhere” – suggesting that Creating a moral panic about social media didn’t protect teens – it left them vulnerable. There are many other, very readable, articles on there every week across a whole spectrum of subjects.
  • The Monday Note (www.mondaynote.com), edited by Frederic Filloux and Jean-Louis Gassee (JLG used to be CTO of Apple). The neat thing here is that Jean-Louis Gassee never shirks from putting some numbers up on the wall before framing his opinions – a characteristic common to many senior managers i’ve had the privilege to work for.
  • There’s a variety of other newsletter sources I feed from, but subject for another day!

The common thread through what appears to run here is that each other can speak authoritatively, backed by statistically valid proof points, rather than fast trips to the areas of Maslow’s Hierarchy that are unduly influenced by fear alone. I know from reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions book that folks will, to a greater or lesser extent, listen to what they want to hear, but I do nevertheless value opinions with some statistically valid meat behind them.

There was another piece by Ken McCarthy (@kenmccarthy), who did a piece shovelling doubt on the existence of Journalism as a historical trade; more as a side effect of needing to keep printing presses occupied – here. He cites:

Frank Luther Mott who won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for “A History of American Magazines” described the content of the newspapers from this era thusly:

  • 1. Scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
  • 2. Lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
  • 3. Use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
  • 4. Emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips
  • 5. Dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system

Besides the fact that this sounds an awful like like TV news today, where in this listing of the characteristics of turn-of-the-last-century newspapers is there any mention of journalism? There isn’t because there wasn’t any.

I’d probably add a sixth, which is as a platform to push a political agenda to the more gullible souls in the population – most of whom are opinionated, loud and/or old – or all three – but have a tendency to not spend time fact checking. And amongst the section of the population who still buy printed newspapers and who have a tendency to turn out on election day to vote in large numbers, which is an ever aging phenomenon. Very susceptible to “Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story”, rather than the younger audience that relies instead on a more varied news feed from the Internet at large.

We were treated to a classic example last year. The Sun reported news of the latest “Eastern European Benefits Scrounger”, milking the UK economy for all it’s worth while those who’ve worked hard for years suffer. The responsible government minister, Ian Duncan-Smith, weighs in with a paragraph to be appalled by the injustice. This is followed by over 800 replies, the tone of which (post moderation) is heavily “Nationalistic”:

The Sun - Headline "You're a soft touch"

So, who is this single Mum from the Baltics? She was, in fact, a Russian model hired for the role:

Natalia - Russian Model for Hire

Meanwhile, all comments pointing out the hypocrisy of the paper on the associated forums, or to fill in the blanks on the missing facts, got conveniently deleted. Got to stir things up to sell the papers, and to provide a commentary to victimise a large swathe of the population while greater wrongs elsewhere are shovelled under the carpet.

At some point, the readership of the main UK newspaper titles, owned as they are by six organisations, will ebb away into obscurity as their readership progressively dies off.

I sincerely hope we can find some way of monetising good quality journalists who are skilled in fact finding, of conveying meaningful statistics and to tell it like it is without side; then to give them the reach and exposure in order to fill the void. A little difficult, but eminently possible in a world where you don’t have to fill a fixed number of pages, or minutes of TV news, with superfluous “filler”.

A consolidated result, tuned to your interest areas (personal, local, national and beyond) would probably be the greatest gift to the UK population at large. I wonder if Facebook will be the first to get there.