Posts about twitter

When CYA can BYA

It’s lawyer day at Buzzmachine….

In this week’s kerfuffling on Twitter and blogs about the Wall Street Journal’s anti-interactive interactivity rules regarding Twitter et al, a New York Times editor took a few of us to task for not recognizing that this was just a case of a CYA – cover your ass – memo from lawyers. I responded that CYA can now BYA – burn your ass – when such memos become public, as they will, and speak for you.

This memo was all about how Journal journalists may – or actually may not – communicate, interact, and collaborate with the public (read: us). So it was a memo about us. The Journal didn’t understand how inherently insulting it was to say that it’s dangerous for journalists to talk with us.

The memo ended up exposing a cultural problem at the Journal. I got a private direct message from an executive there saying, “Be careful where you go on this, Jeff. You’re assuming more than Robert said.” I’ll write off the vaguely threatening tone to the economy of language on Twitter. I’ll also choose to reply here rather than in a direct message because I prefer to have this conversation in public. And I’ll tell that executive that, no, the memo said more than they think it said. It said it’s better not to use these tools to collaborate with the public. It said it’s better to let the product speak for itself than to open up their process. It said that being closed is better than being open. Oh, it said plenty.

[Correction: The direct message turns out to be about a prior critical post I’d made regarding the Journal and micropayments. My mistake.]

Rather than scolding me and other tweeters and bloggers for scolding them, the Journal’s executives should have listened. They got great advice from no less than VC Fred Wilson (Twitter investor, btw) telling them what they’re missing about the value of these new tools for journalism. Rather than trying to protect the way things have always been done in this new world, wouldn’t it be better to look at the new ways these tools enable journalists to do their jobs better, to involve and collaborate with the public in the process of journalism to produce better reporting, to reset the relationship of journalist and reader on a more equal and human level, to promote the good work of the journalists at the paper, and so on?

But this is where the Times editor is probably right: I smell lawyers. Someone likely went to them and said, “Protect us. There’s something new and strange in operation here. How could it harm us? Stop it.” That’s what lawyers do, right? They protect.

But protection, haven’t we learned, is precisely the wrong response to change today. Newspapers protected their past and they’re dead. They should have bravely experimented. What they needed instead of protection was the license to try and fail. Now I have known good lawyers who will try to enable you to do what you want to do. But at the end of the day, if they do that too much, they’re screwed because it’s not their job, really, to empower you. It’s their job, still, to protect you. But in the counterintuitive internet age, protection is no protection.

I also got an email from a Journal staffer about what appears to be a Twitchhunt in the Journal. I won’t reveal details because I don’t want to reveal the identity of the employee – because, clearly, interacting with me about the inner workings and process of the Journal is now against Journal rules. That’s just what the lawyers want to protect them from, right? Wrong. What should happen instead is that the execs at the Journal should be asking staffers such as this one how to take advantage of these new tools. They should have asked the public what it means to use Twitter wisely – what is the new definition of the words a Journal editor threw at me in Twitter: “common sense.” They should instill a culture of asking the public what they know before the story is done.

Is this the lawyers’ fault? No, it’s the fault of the culture at the Journal, a culture that clearly doesn’t understand the benefits of using these tools to open up and do journalism in new ways. But lawyers aid and abet that kind of thinking. They enforce it. They codify it. They make it seem OK. And then they become the voice of the company with the public. And that’s not protection. That’s dangerous. It’ll burn your ass.

Why Google should want Twitter: Currency

Here‘s a good clue as to why Google should be interested in Twitter. It’s not just search. It’s currency. Google isn’t good at currency. It needs content to ferment; it needs links and clicks to collect so PageRank can determine its value.

But in this report (full PDF here), Google chief economist Hal Varian and analyst Hyunyoung Choi demonstrate that Google search trends are good at predicting the present. That is, rather than waiting weeks or even a month to get aggregated figures on auto, retail, home, or travel sales to be collected and analyzed and released, Google search patterns can give a good indication of sales now.

Note that to do that, Google’s value is not in its analysis of content but in its collection of our behavior, which is faster.

Of course, Twitter is even faster, even more immediate. It collects what we’re doing and talking and thinking of doing right now. I’d love to see Varian et al take its data and put it through their algorithms.

Imagine the value of that knowledge, harnessed, for retail and manufacturing forecasting, stock and currency trading, and politics. There’s the vein of value in Twitter. Monetizing it may not come from advertising but from knowledge.

When analyzing the value of enterprises in the digital economy, it’s important to figure the value of its knowledge. I argue in my book that Amazon is really a knowledge company, that delivering books and stuff – atoms – is the price it pays to know more about our shopping than any other company on earth. Google knows the most about what we’re looking for. With maps and mobile, Google is also trying to be the company that knows where we are. Facebook knows the most about our relationships. And Twitter is headed to knowing more about what we’re doing and thinking. (Next: just wi-fi the brain.)

I tweet, therefore I tweet

I Twittered:

My son says his problem with Twitter is too much Twittering about Twitter. Judging by today, he’s right. And I just added to it.

Then David Weinberger, the Emeril of online thought, kicked it up a notch:

That used to be the case with blogging when it first started. Every other post (including mine) was about blogging. Blog blog blog blog.

If you want to get out ahead of the curve when the next new social writing phenomenon happens, be the one who never writes about it.

Herewith, I put myself behind the curve. And of course, now I’ll tweet about this blog post about twittering. Jane, stop this crazy thing.

LATER: Nice exchange in response to this on Facebook (which might as well be Twitter, so it’s still morally the same):
Eric Effron : It’s only natural, though. I suspect that when people first got telephones, they talked a lot about…telephones!
Steve Safran: Agreed. My parents still talk about how wonderful it is they can email.
Lamar Graham: My mother still calls to tell me she sent me an e-mail.
Steve Safran: I get that too, but I have a feeling it’s just a Jewish mother’s way of saying “why haven’t you answered it yet?”

Attention + Influence do not equal Authority

In the dustup over whether it is a good idea to sort Twitter posts by authority – defined as the number of followers one has – John Naughton rises above the cloud to see a larger fallacy in the discussion: The number of followers one has does not equal authority. It stands for influence (or I’d say, it is a proxy for attention – and then, in some cases, influence).

The problem Naughton sees is the same one that plagues analysis of online discussion using media metrics. In mass media, of course, big was better because you had to be big to own the press: Mass mattered. We still measure and value things online according to that scale, even though it is mostly outmoded. Indeed, we now complain about things getting too big – when, as Clay Shirky says, what we’re really complaining about is filter failure. That is why Loic Le Meur suggested filtering Twitterers by their followers; he’s seeking a filter.

The press was the filter. And the press came to believe its own PR and it conflated size with authority: We are big, therefore we have authority; our authority comes from our bigness.

But the press, of all parties, should have seen that this didn’t give them authority, for the press was supposed to be in the business of going out to find the real authorities and reporting back to what they said. This is why I always cringe when reporters call themselves experts. No, reporters are expert only at finding experts. Now to put this back in Twitter terms: Reporters don’t have authority. They have attention and possibly influence because they have so many followers. But that doesn’t give them authority. There’s the fallacy Naughton pinpoints.

“So we need to unpack the concept of ‘authority,’” Naughton argues.

One way of doing that is to go back to Steven Lukes’s wonderful book in which he argues that power can take three forms: 1. the ability to force you to do what you don’t want to do; 2. the ability to stop you doing something that you want to do; and 3. the ability to shape the way you think.

In my experience, the last interpretation comes closest to describing the authority of the blogosphere’s long tail. It’s got nothing to do with the number of readers a particular blog has, but everything to do with the intellectual firepower of the blog’s author.

Naughton argues that the number to manage on Twitter is the Twitter_index – that is, the proportion of followers to (what?) followees. He believes it ought to be 1.0 – that is, equal – “otherwise one gets into the online celebrity, power-law nonsense that Le Meur describes.”

I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I’ll go halfway there. When I wrote for TV Guide and People, I supposedly had an audience northward of 20 million. I’ll hasten to say that was utter bullshit on many levels – the idea that one could trust syndicated research to count readers (as opposed to purchasers) and the presumption that every reader read every page (or ad – which is the real bubble in old media). Still, those were the numbers we bragged about, as if they gave us authority.

Dare I say that this blog gives me more authority – in Naughton’s and Lukes’ terms – than those publications did? My hackneyed example of Dell Hell reached more people in a more meaningful way than any review of Babylon 5 (though I still get in trouble for panning it).

But note well that the authority in Dell Hell was not me. I didn’t have authority (I didn’t write about PCs or pretend to any expertise in customer service). It was my message that had authority or at least relevance, as that was the reason it was passed around. And it was the passing around that invested it with authority.

So to that extent, Le Meur’s not wrong when he tries to find a way to express and calculate the idea that it’s not the author who holds authority but his or her audience. But his critics are also right when they say that number of followers won’t get him there. I think there is no easy measure, but if it exists it will be found instead in relationships: seeing how an idea spreads (because it is relevant and resonates) and what role people have in that (creating the idea, finding it, spreading it, analyzing it) and what one thinks of those people (when MrTweet.net tells me that John Naughton follows someone, I’ll see more authority in that than, say, whom Robert Scoble follows – no offense, Robert – because Naughton is so highly selective). That is what the totality of the press-sphere will also look like as various players add varying value to add up to a whole (and in 3D, the sphere will look different to each of us, so one-size-fits-all measurements will become even more meaningless).

Part of the problem in the Twitter discussion is also that the number of followers is, in the end, a proxy for celebrity while links – which Google PageRank and, for better or worse, Technorati value – come closer to measuring at least relevance. As old media faced more and more competition it became more and more about fame (and that was when access to the celebrity became more valuable than access to the audience). The internet’s value is that it is more about relevance. So I think the reason some people reacted so much from the gut against Le Meur’s suggestion is that it unwittingly corrupted the new world with the crass celebrity of the old. The last thing we need or want in the web is Nielsen ratings.

: LATER: Case in point: Tim O’Reilly kindly retweets my link to this post and then I watch it get re-retweeted again and again. That happens because it’s O’Reilly retweeting and he has authority not becauase he has the most followers – though he has many – but because he’s smart and respected (he has authority); it also happens, perhaps, because my post is relevant to a discussion. Message + spreader (or author) comes closer to authority than mere reader ratings.

Eyewitness news, indeed

Henry Blodget points to another milestone for Twitter: a passenger tweets a plane crash (after getting out, one hopes) — including a consumer relations moment (Continental won’t give the survivors a drink).