Category Archives: social media

Growing Up Around Social Media

This would probably surprise many of the friends who know me as the guy who tweets a thousand times a day, but I began my adult life feeling very wary of social media.

When I was in high school, LiveJournal was the ruling social media of the day (though we spent much more time on AIM and forums, which fall outside of what is currently called social media).

There were plenty of fun aspects of LiveJournal, but as a bunch of teenagers it was mostly used as a tool to create drama, or amplify the drama that was already going on when we were on the physical premises of the school. Some people were pretty blatant—calling certain people out, being insulting or catty. But I was that particularly charming and admirable flavor of teenage boy that is a coward and also thinks he is incredibly clever.

So outright insults or saying what I was thinking wasn’t really my thing; instead, I insinuating with the approximate subtlety of a hydrogen bomb. But I thought my messages were very veiled and coded! The most blatant instance involved having feelings for a friend’s girlfriend. Instead of saying so, or talking to her or him or both of them, I waxed poetic on my LiveJournal any time she and I spent time together. Some part of me thought that I had some kind of weird plausible deniability when the guy clearly saw what was going on, but another part got a contrarian’s (and coward’s) enjoyment from rankling him in this manner.

They have words for the equivalent on Twitter and Facebook these days, but, in short, it was typical teenage nonsense.

By the time Facebook came to George Mason University, I had grown well beyond this, or liked to think that I had. Rather than frequenting forums, I read blogs and had a blog of my own. I believed that part of the value of blogging was that it was imminently ignorable—I wasn’t getting in anyone’s face, I wasn’t imposing my point of view on anyone who didn’t make a conscious choice to seek out my writing.

Facebook, which stitched us all back together in a common space again, I feared would bring out that untactful coward from my teenage years. I joined because my other friends did, but I didn’t quite get it while I was still in undergrad. I deleted and recreated my Facebook account no less than four or five times before finally buying into the thing for good.

What caused me to finally “get” Facebook was when my first good friend got married in the summer of 2008, and my friends who had been there, as well as the other members of the wedding party, began posting pictures a few days later. I friended the people I had met at the wedding to see more pictures, and shared the pictures that I had taken. I had had a great time at the wedding, and cared a lot about the people involved, so I really enjoyed being able to relive it with the pictures.

I decided it was time for me to grow up and start using this Facebook thing like a normal person my age. A few weeks after the wedding, I sent a relationship request to the girl I had been dating for a little while, just before my family and I would be going to Miami for a couple of weeks. Relationship statuses are a thing people do, right? That’s normal. I should do that.

It was shot down in flames, for the very prudent reason that this girl (to whom I am now married) did not believe in broadcasting her relationship status on Facebook. Being 23 years old and by no stretch of the imagination a teenager, I took this as maturely as you would expect—by becoming extremely despondent and assuming that I had ruined what little chance I may have had with her. When we got to Miami, we were staying somewhere without an Internet connection, and I wallowed in my despair for days.

When I finally managed to check my email and various accounts on a cousins’ computer, I discovered that Catherine (the girl I was dating) had left me a very friendly message to the tune of have fun on vacation, look forward to seeing you when you return. This immediately lifted me from my dour state, and imbued with with a fresh love for life and all of God’s creatures.

2008 was also the year I got into Twitter, and it quickly became the most rewarding social network I’ve ever joined. I have made so many friends, and solidified connections with friends made elsewhere, on Twitter. I have had so many interesting conversations, with so many interesting people.

At the end of 2008, Catherine started a blog on her neighborhood in DC called U Street Girl. Though I did not participate in the DC blogosphere myself, she introduced me to it, and the wonderful community that had grown around it. Twitter was and is the main hub of online activity for this community. Twitter also had the benefit of including individuals like myself who did not contribute blog posts but participated in the community in other ways. Now that we live in New York, it—along with Facebook and Tumblr and other places—has remained and excellent way to stay connected to those people we care about from that community.

At our wedding last year, we had five guests that we had originally met over the Internet. One of them we didn’t meet in person until that day!

At this point, social media has simply blended into my daily life. Twitter and Facebook were exciting new things when they sprang up, but now they’re as commonplace in my experience of the world as chat, email, blogs, and the hardware through which I access them all. Like the venues for web conversation and content that predate them, modern social media have matured to a point where they are taken for granted.

I’d like to think I’ve matured as well, in my relationship with them. But we’re not the best people to judge ourselves, I suppose.

The Collision of the Personal and the Professional

BLOGS VS MAINSTREAM MEDIA…FIGHT!!

Eight years ago, when I was a pretentious, know-it-all 19-year-old, the conversation about new media was dominated by the rhetoric of bloggers and journalists, citizen and mainstream media. I had seen the blogosphere call out Dan Rather for running with forged documents as evidence. I learned of the role they played in making sure Trent Lott’s statements saw the light of day.

As far as I was concerned, newspapers and news outlets in general were old hat on their way to extinction, and blogs were the future.

What did I think this meant?

It meant that newspapers would unbundle. It meant that articles on the Iraq War or science features written by journalists with little background in the subject matter would be replaced by people living in Iraq, and actual scientists, who would have blogs. This wasn’t all in my head–such blogs existed and have only grown more numerous.

My thoughts on whether anyone would make money on this new way of things, and how, went back and forth. But I thought the future looked more like Instapundit and Sandmonkey than like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

As I have witnessed the evolution of the web over the years, aged to a point beyond a number ending in -teen, and followed the conversation and research on new media, my point of view has changed–to say the least.

It’s not simply that it was wrong, but that it was far too narrow. It has not only become clear that professional media, in some form, is here to stay. It has also become clear that the old blog vs mainstream media perspective misses the big picture.

What has happened is that many activities that we conducted in our personal lives have moved online; they have become digital and they have become some approximation of public. This has big implications for other people’s professions–one tiny corner of which is the impact that personal blogs have had on professional media. But it also has an impact on our own professional lives.

In short, the personal and the professional are colliding on a number of fronts. How this collision will play out is an open question.

THE PERSONAL BECOMES PUBLIC

The vast majority of my conversations with nearly all of my friends and family occur in a digital format. It happens on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. It happens in email, in text messages, and in Google Talk chat windows. A very large proportion of this is public or semi-public.

I also enjoy writing about subjects that I’m thinking about. For that reason, I’ve maintained a blog in one form or another since 2004. I have never made one red cent off of my blogging. It has always been something I’ve done out of enjoyment of the writing itself.

Before the Internet, my writing would undoubtedly have been relegated to the handful of friends I could strong-arm into looking at some copies I made for them. I certainly wouldn’t be able to ask this of them on a very regular basis, so most of my writing would have remain unread–or, discouraged, I would have written a lot less.

The thing I enjoyed about blogging from the beginning was that it provided me with a place to put my writing where people could find it, without me having to make the imposition of bringing it to them. However, translating this private analogue activity into a public and digital one has implications beyond this simple convenience.

For one thing, it makes it possible for me to connect with new people who share my interests from anywhere in the world. It can also have implications for my professional life. If I write something insulting about my coworkers, or, say, something extremely racist, odds are it could get me fired and possibly have an impact on my long-term employability.

Conversely, just as I can discover and be discovered by new friends, I can also discover and be discovered by people who might provide me with a career opportunity–and indeed this happened to me earlier this year.

When enough enthusiasts move online in this manner, it begins to have consequences for the world of professional writing in general. One lone guy blogging about a few esoteric subjects isn’t going to have much of an impact. Over 180 million people writing about everything under the sun will have some serious implications. If we take Sturgeon’s Law at face value and say that you can throw 90 percent of that in the garbage, we’re still talking about tens of million of people writing pieces of average to excellent quality.

This is a dramatic expansion in the supply of written works. This has understandably made professional producers of written words sweat more than a little. One way of looking at this is from the old blog vs mainstream media perspective. A better way to look at it is from the understanding that any professional content outlet is going to have to adapt to the new reality of personal production if they want to survive.

That process of adaptation has been messy and is still ongoing.

THE PROFESSIONAL BEGINS TO ADAPT

What my 19-year-old self did not realize is that the media business has never really sold information. It has sold stories, it has sold something for groups to rally around and identify themselves with or against. There is still money to be made by selling this product. Clay Johnson has documented some methods that he finds vile, but there are plenty of perfectly respectable ways to do it as well.

Take The Verge–a technology site that launched last year. It does not suffer from the baggage of a legacy business–it was born online and lives online. It was created by a group writers from Engadget, another professional outlet that was born on the web, who thought they could do better on their own. I have argued that their initial success was made possible in part by the fact that the individual writers had built up a community around them, through their podcast and through their personal Twitter accounts.

The Verge invests a lot in building its community. The content management tools it offers in its forums are, they claim, just as powerful as the tools they themselves use to write posts. They frequently highlight forum posts on their main page. Their writers engage with their readers there and on various social media.

Another way that the professional world has adapted is by treating the group of unpaid individuals producing in their space as a sort of gigantic farm system for talent and fame. This system is filled with simple enthusiasts, but also includes a lot of people consciously trying to make the leap to a career in what they’re currently doing for free. Either way, a tiny fraction of this group will become popular to varying extents. Rather than competing with this subset, many existing professional operations will simply snap these individuals up.

Take Nate Silver, the subject of much attention this election cycle. He started writing about politics in a Daily Kos diary, then launched his own blog on his own domain. Eventually, this was snapped up by The New York Times. The article on this is telling:

In a three-year licensing arrangement, the FiveThirtyEight blog will be folded into NYTimes.com. Mr. Silver, regularly called a statistical wizard for his political projections based on dissections of polling data, will retain all rights to the blog and will continue to run it himself.

In recent years, The Times and other newspapers have tapped into the original, sometimes opinionated voices on the Web by hiring bloggers and in some cases licensing their content. In a similar arrangement, The Times folded the blog Freakonomics into the opinion section of the site in 2007.

Forbes did this with Modeled Behavior; Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish has done this with The Atlantic and now The Daily Beast. In publishing, Crown did this with Scott Sigler, and St. Martin’s Press did this with Amanda Hocking.

Suffice to say, these markets continue to be greatly disrupted. However, I do not think the adapted, matured versions of these markets will involve the utter extinction of professional institutions.

YOU GOT YOUR PROFESSIONAL IN MY PERSONAL

I consider my Twitter account to be extremely personal. No one is paying me to be there. With a handful of exceptions, I don’t have any professional relationships with the people I follow or am followed by there.

But there are definitely people who I feel have followed me because of some notion that it might help their career. Not because I’m some special guy who’s in the know, but because they think, say, that following everyone who seems to talk a lot about social media will somehow vaguely translate into success in a career in that industry. A lot of people who consider Twitter a place for human beings to talk to one another as private individuals have a low opinion of such people.

But I cannot deny that I have, on occasion, used Twitter to my professional advantage. And it’s not as though there’s a line in the sand for any of these services stating FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. It’s difficult for journalists of any kind to treat anything they say in public as something that can be separated from their profession. I have seen some create distinct, explicitly labeled personal Twitter accounts, with protected tweets. Of course, Jeff Jarvis would point out that they are merely creating another kind of public by doing so.

Moreover, more and more services we use in our personal lives are having implications for our employers. How many of us have had an employer ask us to “like” the company page on Facebook? Or share a link to a company press release? These services are far too new for us to have expectations set about them. Is this overstepping the boundaries of what is acceptable, or is this a legitimate professional responsibility we have to our employers?

In a world where a personal project or an answer on Stack Overflow can be added to your resume when applying for a job, the line between personal and professional is not quite as sharp as it used to be.

Take Marginal Revolution as an example. Is it a personal or a professional blog? Certainly Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok are not paid to write what they post. But they are using the blog as a venue for participating in the larger conversation of the economics profession. Of course, they also post on any number of specific subjects that catch their interest. It is both a platform to promote their books, as well as to solicit advice from their readers on what restaurants to check out when they are traveling.

Are categories like “personal” or “professional” even useful for describing things like Marginal Revolution? Is it an exceptional case, or–its particular level of popularity set aside–is it the new normal?

How Has the Web Evolved?

Here’s a pocket history of the web, according to many people. In the early days, the web was just pages of information linked to each other. Then along came web crawlers that helped you find what you wanted among all that information. Some time around 2003 or maybe 2004, the social web really kicked into gear, and thereafter the web’s users began to connect with each other more and more often. Hence Web 2.0, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m not strawmanning here. This is the dominant history of the web as seen, for example, in this Wikipedia entry on the ‘Social Web.’

But it’s never felt quite right to me.

-Alexis Madrigal, Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong

Madrigal’s summation is definitely not a strawman. Take the following passage from Paul Adams’ book, Grouped:

The second shift is a major change in the structure of the web. It’s moving away from being built around content, and is being rebuilt around people. This is correlated with a major change in how people spend their time on the web. They’re spending less time interacting with content, and more time communicating with other people.

Is this the case? Was the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter web really just a bunch of “documents linked together”, as Adams claims elsewhere in the book?

Madrigal doesn’t think so, and neither do I.

The Web Was Always Social

I spent most of the 90s as a teenager in rural Washington and my web was highly, highly social. We had instant messenger and chat rooms and ICQ and USENET forums and email. My whole Internet life involved sharing links with local and Internet friends. How was I supposed to believe that somehow Friendster and Facebook created a social web out of what was previously a lonely journey in cyberspace when I knew that this has not been my experience? True, my web social life used tools that ran parallel to, not on, the web, but it existed nonetheless.

Madrigal’s experience parallels my own. It might be more appropriate to speak of a social net rather than a social web, since the social technology of my youth included AIM and ICQ and IRC. The web itself was definitely social, however–in Middle School, I spent a lot of time on fan sites for the video games and TV shows that I was into, and those sites had forums and Java chatrooms. The sites became the common space the site community used, and individual connections could then be followed up through email and ICQ and other chat services with personal accounts.

eGroups–an email list service that was eventually swallowed up by Yahoo!–was another source of social activity for me; it became a sort of forum in my inbox.

Later, I got deeply into EZGroups, a service for quickly making your own forum with a decent discovery mechanism for finding other people’s. Then there was also LiveJournal; which came closest to the modern idea of how social graphs work.

In short, there were a ton of services for connecting with other individuals and groups, and interacting with people on those services was what I did with the vast majority of my time online in those days. And I don’t think Madrigal or my experiences are unusual in this regard.

The Web Was Always Viral

Before “going viral” was the phrase we used to describe when a piece of content suddenly went from a few dozen views to a few thousand, or tens or hundreds of thousands, or millions of views, the phenomena existed. One example that stands out in my mind from when I was in High School (over ten years ago) is “Irrational Exuberance (Yatta)“.

Yatta was part of a class of videos and animations that everyone suddenly knew about. Hanging out at a friend’s house, one-on-one or in groups, eventually ended up having a set amount of time where we all gathered around a computer screen and watched the videos we’d all found that everyone just had to be sure to see too.

This was before YouTube of course. The sources were big flash portals like Newgrounds and Albino Blacksheep. Sometimes they were just some random, small website. But there was never any shortage of stuff to sell on our pre-Facebook social networks, or in our old fashioned in person ones for that matter!

We Have Increased What We Can Measure

One thing that Madrigal and Adams agree on is that modern social networks have vastly increased our ability to measure what people are doing online. Here’s Madrigal:

Second, the social sites that arrived in the 2000s did not create the social web, but they did structure it. This is really, really significant. In large part, they made sharing on the Internet an act of publishing (!), with all the attendant changes that come with that switch. Publishing social interactions makes them more visible, searchable, and adds a lot of metadata to your simple link or photo post. There are some great things about this, but social networks also give a novel, permanent identity to your online persona. Your taste can be monetized, by you or (much more likely) the service itself.

And Adams, in Grouped:

The third shift is that for the first time, we can accurately map and measure social interaction. Many of our theories can now be quantitatively tested. This is incredibly exciting for researchers, but it will also transform how we think about marketing and advertising. Many things that were previously hard to measure, for example, word of mouth marketing, can now be analyzed and understood. We can now start to measure how people really influence other people, and it will change how we do business.

It is certainly true that Twitter and Facebook have increased the measurability of certain activities. As someone in the digital advertising industry, and someone with a strong interest in the social sciences, this is certainly and exciting shift to me. And certainly, the information being generated will inform the decisions made by these services, as well as make it more possible to sustain such services financially–so in that regard, measurability will have an impact on user experience.

But measurability isn’t really all that directly exciting to me as a user of these services. Can we really encompass the big change that’s happened since the onset of the modern social web under the heading of what we’re able to quantify?

Common Spaces

As you may have guessed, I don’t think the measurability really covers it. And I don’t think Madrigal’s characterization of the transition as one to publishing really does the trick, either–it is just as much “publishing” to write in a publicly viewable forum as it is to post a status on Facebook.

One change that has happened rather rapidly is the emergence of gigantic, global common spaces. It may be that many of the basic activities people do on Twitter and Facebook–sharing links, having conversations one on one or in groups, sharing pictures–are not new, but what is new is that it is being done in a space shared by a ridiculously large percentage of the connected world.

Twitter activity is public by default, and anything you say on it can pass into a gigantic number of people’s timelines in an instant if it is carried far enough on a wave of retweets. Conversely, your circle of 15 friends you follow on Twitter who all live near you in DC may seem as insular as any old fashioned forum or email list, but the fact of the matter is that tweets from people anywhere in the world can enter your timeline at any point when any of those 15 friends retweet them.

Facebook is ostensibly more private than Twitter, but in practice content can travel just as far and wide–farther and wider, in fact, as its service reaches a billion users, almost half of the connected world.

We are only beginning to understand what it is like to live with these enormous online common spaces. Serendipity, which some people seemed to think was going to be killed by algorithms and automation, is a larger force than ever. This includes the case where you’re having a conversation with one person on Twitter and someone who follows you both jumps in because they find it interesting, or entertaining. It also includes the case where you are discovered and end up with a job.

Somewhat more controversially, it may even include the case where one man’s Facebook group leads to the overthrow of a 30 year old regime.

Always Connected

I would be derelict if I didn’t mention the obvious impact that mobile devices are having on the evolution of the web. From a pure input perspective, we can now record anything from anywhere and share it immediately. It is even possible to stream live video from a mobile device–so that anything can be covered in near real-time.

From a usage perspective, it’s like being able to carry around your friends in your pocket, all the time. When I was coming up to New York every other week for work, it was a comfort to be able to have conversations with my friends and see what they were saying on Twitter and Facebook. Especially on those nights when I didn’t have anyone to meet up with for dinner, and had to strike out on my own.

Much has been said about how mobile is revolutionizing our lives, and I don’t have too much to add to that here. But we can’t talk about the web without thinking about how its evolution is tied inextricably to the increasing mobility of our connected devices.

The Maturing Ecosystem

One big thing that has happened since I started using the web is that the ecosystem of social, content, and commercial services has matured significantly. What was there before our big common spaces have adapted to the existence of those spaces. As an example, I can’t help but see Instapundit as a blog that is frozen in a very particular time in the web’s evolution–today, if the vast majority of your updates are a few words and a link, it makes much more sense to publish them on Twitter than to have a full-fledged blog.

Of course, Instapundit became popular long before Twitter existed, and has no reason to change since his audience has stuck with him. But I have to think that if Glenn Reynolds had started it 10 years later, it would have been on Twitter.

Meanwhile, more mainstream publications have migrated completely online, and more publications that were born on the web have become mainstream. The conversation about whether amateur bloggers are going to replace professional publications has basically died out, as an ecosystem which includes both has become quite robust. Twitter and Facebook act a glue that brings content and people together on a scale unprecedented in the web’s history.

In tech circles we love to talk about what is dead, and what new thing is replacing something that has already grown old in the short timescale of modern technology. But the fact of the matter is that blogs did not kill professional content, and Twitter did not kill blogs. As our connected services evolve, specific companies may fall but it’s unlikely that any particular category of thing is going to truly die. What changes is their role, as the ecosystem absorbs the new tools, new conventions emerge for the old tools, and people simply get a better idea of just what any of this is good for.

The Web Has Evolved

The web, and the Internet more broadly, have undeniably changed in my lifetime. The story of that change, however, is often far more subtle than simply “it has become social” or “viral” or even “mobile”. People are still talking to one another and sharing things online; that has not changed. What has changed is how we’re going about it.

Homesteading the Open Web

Look at four other social things you can do on the Net (along with the standards and protocols that support them): email (SMTP, POP3, IMAP, MIME); blogging (HTTP, XML, RSS, Atom); podcasting (RSS); and instant messaging (IRC, XMPP, SIP/SIMPLE). Unlike private social media platforms, these are NEA: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them and Anybody can improve them.

-Doc Searls, Beyond Social Media

Unlike Searls, Zittrain, and many others, I am not greatly bothered by the fact that a huge amount of our social interactions are taking place on privately owned platforms like Facebook or Twitter, and an increasing amount of stuff we used to use the web for is being done on privately owned platforms like iOS. From an economic point of view, I think it’s good for someone to have a vested interest in investing in these platforms.

It cannot be denied, however, that a user of Twitter is much more a tenant than a landlord; they can be kicked off without any reason whatsoever, if the company desires it. Moreover, the consolidation of such a large and distributed platform under one company gives it many of the characteristics of a technology of control. This is obscured by the fact that it has already been the tool of resistance in several countries; and certainly it isn’t straightforwardly one or the other. But Twitter is a single company that hundreds of millions of people are using as a communications platform; it therefore is one big target for regulators and tyrants the world over.

Consider: they recently announced that they created a way to censor tweets in specific countries without removing them globally. They knew that in order to enter certain markets, they would be forced to comply with some less than thrilling local regulations on freedom of expression. As a company, the decision was either to stay out of those markets or comply with the regulations. So they came up with an approach that wouldn’t allow local censorship to extend its reach globally, and they announced it before anyone asked them to use it in an attempt to preempt the bad PR this would inevitably bring.

That will never happen on a blog like mine.

I pay for server space and a domain name, and I use WordPress’s software. If the hosting company tried to mess with me, it is trivial to move to another one. If WordPress makes changes I dislike, or somehow builds tools for censorship into its code, I can swap it for Moveable Type or any number of alternatives. I regularly backup my data, so if someone seized the servers it was on I would not lose it.

In short, I have carved out a small piece of real estate in the open web.

Now, the advantages to platforms like Twitter are undeniable. No one is going to Twitter in order to see what the latest thing I have to say or share is; they go there because everyone they might be interested in hearing from is there. Most of the time this blog sees very little traffic, while I have conversations on Twitter and Facebook basically every day of the week.

Again, unlike Searl, I do not see the rise of these walled garden platforms as onerous. But I do think everyone should consider homesteading the open web; setting up something that is truly theirs that they can invest in over time.

That is part of the reason why, after seven years on Blogger, I decided to jump ship and start this site.

If you’re interested in this but aren’t sure how to proceed, my friend Lauren is offering to help people for free, if you sign up for a Bluehost account through her site. Many hosts have easy, one-click options for installing WordPress after you’ve paid for space, so you probably won’t even have to worry about the technical aspects of installation.

Just as there are benefits to having privately owned platforms, there are definite benefits to having something that you own from end to end.

 

We Are All Storytellers

From early man painting on the walls of caves, to the Enlightenment’s Republic of Letters, to J. K. Rowling writing books that are read in every corner of the globe, humanity has always been a species of storytellers. We are so deeply embedded in our own stories that we often lose sight of this, thinking of ourselves as the rational animal, or the moral animal. But these are parts of larger stories about ourselves; the one thing that is fundamentally human is not rationality or morality. It is our propensity to tell stories.

Characters in an Ongoing Story

Human memories are not stored like computer memory; they are recreated every time we attempt to call upon them. Moreover, they are recreated from the context of our present challenges and perspective. This makes a certain sense from an evolutionary standpoint–the only reason for an animal to have memory at all is to help it solve the problems it faces now and will face in the future.

In practice this means that our vision of our life up until now is always influenced by the story we believe about ourselves at this moment. For all of us think about ourselves as characters in an ongoing story; our life is not just a series of unrelated events but a cohesive plot with threads that run throughout. These threads have implications which influence the choices that we make.

Most of us also see ourselves as part of a much larger story; the story of our family, the story of our community or culture or nation, the story of mankind–and for many, the story of God. I am not a believer in that sense, but it has been my limited experience that feeling as though you are a part of a story much larger than yourself is both humbling and one of the few true paths to satisfaction. Of course, there are also those who devote themselves to larger causes and leave nothing for themselves–my story of the good life requires avoiding too much myopia and at the same time making sure not to give away too much of yourself.

Coherence is not Correctness

If called upon to explain something, especially our own actions, we will come up with a story that makes sense to us even if it quantifiably has nothing to do with reality. The fact that a story appeals to us does not make it accurate, even if it is internally consistent.

The past year–never mind the rest of the current economic downturn–has seen an enormous amount of imaginative storytelling in the economics community. In January, Tyler Cowen came out with The Great Stagnation, in which he described the current state of our economy as in a slowdown after a period of tremendous innovation and before another such period. Though Cowen is a libertarian himself, much of the criticism has come from libertarians who feel that The Great Stagnation contradicts their Schumpeterian story of markets feverishly generating innovation.

More recently, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee came out with Race Against the Machine, in which they argue that innovation has actually been accelerating and the problem is that machines are replacing people in many low-skill occupations and entrepreneurs have yet to figure out what new tasks those people can be productively put back to work doing. Arnold Kling tells a similar story, calling it variously the Recalculation Model and Patterns of Sustainable Specialization and Trade.

This debate between Brynjolfsson and Cowen is an excellent example of the difficulty in making a case for one story over another. Both individuals are very smart and extremely well versed in the literature and the data on the subject under discussion. Both employ statistics from official and academic sources. But statistics in and of themselves mean nothing–unemployment, for instance, is simply a number that the Bureau of Labor Statistics arrives at by conducting a survey of a subset of the population and then plugging the results into their statistical models. For the number to have any meaning, we have to have a story about the process that generated it–a story based on assumptions about meaningful sample sizes and what exactly unemployment is–not to mention why we should care.

Cowen has a story that involves, among other things, median income. Brynjolfsson came prepared with a story about why median income did not make the point that Cowen believed it did. Cowen came prepared with a story about why Brynjolfsson’s productivity statistics did not mean what he argued that they did. Seen as a struggle between contradicting narratives, the whole thing is really fascinating.

I find Brynjolfsson’s story much more appealing than Cowen’s, but both are perfectly coherent. Neither their appeal nor their coherence is really any help in figuring out if either of them are true.

Science is Storytelling

Science is a body of theories, and a theory is just a story about some specific aspect of the world we live in.

I think people tend to bristle when I say this because they think the implication is that science is as subjective as aesthetic taste, but that is not what I am saying. There is such a thing as a true story, or at least stories that are more or less accurate than one another. The fact that something is a story does not automatically relegate it to the same status as Little Red Riding Hood and general make believe.

What sets science apart from other bodies of stories is the powerful processes it has for filtering the more accurate and testable theories from those that are inferior in either or both regards.

Of course there are those who argue that science really is no different from fictional storytelling; but I find it hard to take this point of view seriously. Call my crazy, but I don’t think airplanes or the computer I’m typing this on came from nowhere.

Social Media is Storytelling

As people increasingly cluster into shared digital spaces like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit, we are getting increasingly exposed to other people’s stories. This includes literally the ongoing stories of people’s lives–as they get married, graduate, or simply have breakfast–but also the stories that other people have invested in. From political ideologies to religious beliefs to celebrities’ lives, we are both connecting with others on the basis of which stories we have in common and getting exposed to the stories of people we’ve already connected with.

The idea that the internet would result in “daily me” or “filter bubble” silos where we’re only ever exposed to what we want to be exposed to is the complete opposite of what is actually happening. The reality is that it is getting harder to avoid being exposed to a family member’s politics, or a friend’s interest in subject matter we find boring or offensive, or any subject that we want to avoid, without avoiding the internet entirely.

Just look at what happens when one story blows up and overshadows another that some people care about. People get angry and frustrated because the fact that others do not share their priorities means that the story they care about gets a lot less attention.

Adapting to life after the great digital migration will require more of a tolerance for being exposed to stories we may have no interest in or have a reflexive hostility towards.

Confession of a Story Hoarder

Storytelling is as close as I come to having something like religion. I love people’s stories; the stories of their lives and the stories they tell to make sense of this crazy and confusing world that we live in. Though I do not believe in the divine, a part of me enjoys the idea of one great storyteller who is writing all of this as we go along. I have a terrible memory for just about everything, but I will always remember your story if you choose to share it with me.

Without being pushy about it, I don’t think anyone should be afraid to share their stories. That’s what human life is all about! It’s how we connect with one another, it’s how we find meaning.

That’s all I have for this particular story. Hope you found it worth the time it took to read it.

Standing at the Tip of the Iceberg

Who Says What to Whom on Twitter is an absolutely fantastic piece of scholarship. It received a fair amount of visibility among the tech press for one of its findings–that 0.05 percent of Twitter users account for 50 percent of “tweets consumed”–IE, tweets that appear in people’s timelines. This was actually the least interesting finding of the study as far as I was concerned. Anyone who had read Clay Shirky’s essay on power laws would have anticipated that kind of disproportion.

What interested me about the study was first and foremost the methodology–the authors thought through very carefully how to go about gathering data, classifying the different users, and what the flaws of their approaches were. They then took measures to adjust for those flaws. For example, they used two separate methods for categorizing the most followed users in their sample. Each method had completely distinct biases, so the fact that they both yielded very similar results made a strong case that the authors were on the right track.

The study put the “elite” (highly followed) Twitter accounts into four categories–celebrities, media, organizations, and bloggers. Interestingly, they found that each category mostly followed and retweeted members of their own category. I immediately began to think of the economics blogosphere, which involves a handful of very widely read bloggers who all read and engage with one another. As Paul Krugman recently put it:

Twenty years ago it was possible and even normal to get research into circulation and have everyone talking about it without having gone through the refereeing process – but you had to be part of a certain circle, and basically had to have graduated from a prestigious department, to be part of that game. Now you can break in from anywhere; although there’s still at any given time a sort of magic circle that’s hard to get into, it’s less formal and less defined by where you sit or where you went to school.

Emphasis added by me.

Most bloggers these days also have Twitter accounts–this pattern also holds for the economics blogosphere. I would love to use the methodology adopted by the authors of “Who Says What to Whom on Twitter” in order to find and categorize the members of Krugman’s “magic circle” in order to more closely study the dynamics of that circle. The economics blogosphere is a microcommunity, a subset of the larger web and Twitter community–and within that microcommunity are people who more closely follow specific members of the circle than others, who are into Austrian economics, or monetary economics, or development economics. Observing how the online economics microcommunity coheres and fragments, in comparison to the larger view that the paper takes, would be very interesting indeed.

Part of what is so exciting about reading a paper like “Who Says What to Whom on Twitter” is both the sense of a larger media literature that spans decades, and the sheer newness of the field of social media research in particular. There is still so much unexplored territory. In attempting to answer the “what” of the titular question, the authors are forced to limit their focus to the New York Times‘ Twitter account, since the content that they tweet has been categorized already by what section of the newspaper it is in. This is a novel approach, but one the authors admit is quite limited.

How could one possibly categorize content on a larger scale? The authors mention another study that uses Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to this end, but argue that this approach does not scale well. I think that the companies in a position to do this right are the big search engines. Google and Microsoft get millions and billions and queries a day, and they record the specifics of what keywords people put in and what links they subsequently clicked. Moreover, they have methods for determining whether the websites they clicked were actually looking for.

Someone working in the Google or Microsoft research departments could take the data from Twitter and categorize the content being linked to by looking at what terms people used when clicking to that content from their search engines (and being satisfied with the result).

The breadth of the knowledge represented by the existing literature on media generally, and social media and the web in particular, is far larger than any one individual could possibly cover comprehensively. And yet, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what can be known in these areas.

I urge those of you reading the sea of blogs on social media out there to take the time, every so often, to read a paper like Who Says What to Whom on Twitter. As Tyler Cowen once said of the economics blogosphere, “We’re just a small number of apes sitting at computers, relative to the overall literature.” There are people out there, like Duncan Watts and his co-authors, who are thinking very hard about the challenges of trying to understand social media and investing time and resources into tackling them.