Nice idea from AXAPPP – Twitchoo – a map of how colds and other ailments are spreading across the UK.
A much more basic variation on the insight that Google had a few years ago – that the number of people searching for certain terms can predict where cold and flu outbreaks are about to occur. You can see that data at Google Flu Trends – although weirdly there is no UK data specifically available. Could this be because it has more commercial value there – advertisers willing to pay to know where they should be targeting their advertising and supply chains?
Although, given how many colleagues have been buffeted by colds over the past week, I’m surprised that East Sussex has “No Tweets” on their map today…
:: Also trying out embedding a Getty Images pic at the head of this post, since the firm launched this feature this week. Nice idea, although I do share the concerns of some about “link rot” that can happen when embedded content is changed or pulled.
This is a lovely image was created by the Visual Insights team at Twitter from billions of geo-tagged tweets posted since 2009. Look closely and you can pick out the roads between cities – even a little bright spot that is Brighton (directly south of London).
Now, Google works better than anything out there if you know what it is you want to find, but Twitter, Broadstuff asserts, is where you go to understand what’s really going on…
Read Google, and you’d barely know anything about Summly because the first 7 pages comprise of press regurgitation and it has utterly failed at telling you anything useful about it….
…But search Twitter, and you get a totally different story. Twitter, despite a reputation for being celebrity and inanity obsessed, is in fact – on the basis of my search anyway, far less so than Google. What is certain is that Twitter gave me a far fuller picture, within the first page I got, and, in this case anyway was the better search engine by far.
The whole media world optimises for Google, it goes on to say, which is making it less useful.
Around 9 PM Eastern last night, my Twitter feed lit up with messages from respected journalists and bloggers declaring that NBC News had projected Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren the winner of the closely-watched Senate race in Massachusetts, in which she was running against Republican Scott Brown. That’s funny, I thought. I had been watching NBC News, and I couldn’t recall the anchors announcing Warren as the winner.
Two blog posts – one notes for a Newsnight feature that never got made, the other an academic paper – made a deep impression on me when I read them last week, and have stayed with me since. I’ve recommended them on Twitter and to anyone whose will listen. For me they together mark a turning point in the development of the social web and the way it affects society and politics. They, and the events they analyse have implications for business, our personal lives and just about everything else as well.
I’m still digesting their implications, and the implications of the past few weeks in Egypt and Tunisia. This blog post comprises my notes on both pieces.
The two blog posts
First of all, if you haven’t read them yet, I cannot recommend highly enough taking some time to read these two blog posts (and many of the comments on the former):
Paul Mason’s post pulls together social, economic and technology factors that have led to what seems to be a global wave of street protests, activism and unrest…
At the heart of it all are young people, obviously; students; westernised; secularised. They use social media – as the mainstream media has now woken up to – but this obsession with reporting “they use twitter” is missing the point of what they use it for.
Some insights I took from his post were:
This isn’t all about technology, but technology’s effect have created the context for the revolutions in progress: “Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.”
Networks erode hard ideologies: He talks about the protest movements globally having at their heart the “graduate with no future” who is not prone to “traditional and endemic ideologies”. From Islamism to socialism, structured ideologies ultimately end up in movements becoming sclerotic as the forces of bureaucracy and internal power struggles take place. I’d say that this rule may hold true for corporations and other organisations ultimately.
The collapse of command and control communications as an instrument of authoritarianism: Because of social media “truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable”. This reminds me of something I learned early in PR about crisis communications – gossip and misinformation often moves faster than facts because it is illicit and has perceived value in human social networks. You pass on rumours and urban myths and spam because of this (“KFC has no chicken in it”, “New Facebook app lets you see who has viewed your profile”). In places where the media and government are spreading the lies and misinformation the hunger is for truth and the value in the social network comes from spreading. If truth is illict, it spread faster?
Transparency, and effect of the social web’s pressures on organisations, reveals not just information but how systems work: As Paul writes:
People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”.
One point which Paul makes links his notes to Dan McQuillan’s paper/post:
oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.
This paper argues that this use of pre-digital technologies to form the kinds of infrastructure afforded by modern social technologies is evidence of a radical change in people’s perceptions of their world and its connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies. This flies in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.
This is an insight which is very valuable beyond the protests also. To put it pithily, using social media changes how we expect the world to work. It changes what we expect from relationships, how we find out about things, talk about things, organise things.
Dan also puts a certain bit of unhelpful misreporting/social media hype to rest when he discusses the “Thank You Facebook” image which featured in a lot of Western media. It’s a mis-translation at best…
The mis-translation of a protester’s sign from Tahrir Square encapsulates the argument about the impact of social media. The photo that shows a middle-aged protestor in Tahrir square holding a handwritten sign in Arabic. The only English word on his sign is ‘FACEBOOK’, in large red letters carfeully highlighted in black. Many western blog and media outlets published versions of this with the slogan translated as ‘Thank you Facebook’. In fact, as I have verified with correspondents in the Egyptian diaspora, the correct translation is ‘Thank you, Egypt’s Facebook youth’. The gulf between these sentiments is huge; the wrong translation elevates the technology, whereas the real one identifies the youth as agents of change. But in labelling them ‘Egypt’s Facebook youth’ it also recognises that they’re acting differently to what came before, that their post-deferential dynamism reflects the character of their favoured tool.
Acting differently doesn’t just mean using Facebook, Twitter et al:
My contention is that social media is neither the cause of major change, nor irrelevant to it; but that it’s impact is most powerful in cementing new ways of thinking and acting based on connectedness.
Dan walks us through a timeline of the cutting off of the internet in Egypt and discusses the range of “pre-Web” technologies people used to keep the networks working. “Older” tech like ham radio, modems and telephones came into play, along with tech like Tor started to be used:
The Tor project reported on January 30th that “Over the last three days, 120,000 people — most of them Egyptian — have downloaded Tor software”. The Tor project was a platform for participatory solidarity as word spread across the social web of the need for people to run Tor relays and bridges on their computers, and graphs on the Tor blog show the dramatic rise in the number of bridges around the world after 25th January.
I like as well, the clear way Dan dismisses the whole discussion about whether “it was Social Media wot won it”:
Arguments over whether a particular social change would have happened in the absence of social media are somewhat sterile; there is no experimentally controlled comparison where we can re-run a revolution without Twitter. But more importantly those arguments fail to go to the core of the impact i.e. that social media has changed the global sense of entitlement to real-time peer-to-peer communication within fluid networks of association.
He goes on to say “social media has changed the global sense of entitlement” toward being able to have these kind of communications, connections, relationships… That sense of entitlement means cutting off the internet is
The strands of thought in these two posts, and the context that they bring isn’t a case of Western democracy and freedom prevailing. Democracy as it is currently practiced is also under pressure – witness Wikileaks and the friction between the US State Department and Twitter. Those promises and ideals that Google and its ilk had about protecting our personal information from intrusive state authorities? They are being tested now and will be tested more so in the coming months and years.
Businesses too will be tested by these forces. Transparency is one they need to consider, but also changed expectations of customers, employees, of everyone about how they work. All organisations, not just corrupt and authoritarian governments may well experience challenges from networks, from new ideas about what they should do, how they should be organised.
: : As an aside, how great blogging is still as a form for getting these thoughts out. Before blogs i might never have read Dan’s analysls outside of an acdemic paper months later. Instead I get his analysis the moment it is finished. The notes Peter made for the Newsnight feature would have stayed in a notebook once the piece for the programme was dropped. Instead he was able to not waste that intellectual effort but share it and reach a huge audience (I don’t know what the traffic is, but the number of comments and re-tweets of the article suggest it was significant.
Image: A troop train in the First World War (cc) drakegoodman
@avschlieffen: Is anyone srsly suggesting trains caused the biggest war of all time? WTF!?! Get over it, you trainspotters. Rail isn’t everything.
@billthekaiser:LOLIt wasn’t me it was the 11.24 to Gdansk that made me do it. ;)
Train timetables caused the biggest conflict the world had ever seen. 16 million dead, 21 million wounded. Mechanised destruction and suffering, literally on an industrial scale.
That was the argument of AJP Taylor, one of the most influential British historians of the latter part of the 20th century (and the godfather of TV dons). What he said was that the plans for troop movements a large scale war against both France and Russia simultaneously by German military planners depended on a sequence of trains deploying troops quickly to both fronts. Once you pressed the button, as it were, there was no turning back. If you paused you would lose the advantage and then the war.
So when they thought they had to go to war, the logic of the technology, the context created by the communications technology of the time (trains and telegraphs, to put it simply) meant that Germany had to commit completely.
It was a startling insight. Tragic and disorientating when you thought it through – this apocalypse was brought about by a human’s decision, but one which was warped by the technology, the systems they had created about themselves.
The web reveals the complexity of the world about us. It speeds things up. This much we know.
One effect of this is a flight to simplicity, it seems. People see the complexity and can’t accept – they want to know cause and effect: thing x causes thing y. Yes or no. You agree or disagree. Win or WTF.
It’s hard in 140 characters to include caveats and disclaimers, maybe that’s part of it.
Take the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia over the past few weeks. Communications technology and social networks have been present, both on the streets, among the protagonists.
Did Facebook cause the revolution? Is it a Twitter revolution? These are partly silly questions, partly interesting ideas to follow through. Historians will soon enough, why shouldn’t we?
One thing is perspective, another is evidence, and then there’s time to reflect, think over hypotheses for and against. As events occur, it is hard to get a lot of any of these things.
Which is why a lot of the Twitter updates I’ve seen on this subject are likely to be filed/filtered as less useful noise, less likely to follow the links if they are saying something binary and self-evidently unconsidered “It’s a Twitter revolution!” or “social networks play no part in it – get over yourselves you technocrat Western narcissists.”
It is not unimaginable that the presence of web technologies have enabled people to communicate and coordinate street actions – there seems to be evidence that is the case. Twitter’s not the sole cause of the uprisings, just as train timetables were not the sole cause of the Great War.
Social networking technology and mobile phones are important part of the context, not of the causes of these events.
On a different, related note: corporations and Governments will behave differently about diplomacy because of the logic, the context of a hyper-connected world. Transparency will be assumed, knowledge will be assumed, the inevitability or high likelihood of disclosure will colour decision-making.
Twitter and Facebook and Google aren’t going to be the root causes of these things, but they will be the context, why things are able to happen in certain ways, why people choose to do certain things, for good and ill.
Coming back to the main point of this post, though – we shouldn’t waste energy on black and white debates about technology and current affairs. Acknowledge the fuzziness, embrace complexity – it’s the only useful way to make sense of the world.
If you attended – thanks very much and here are the slides (which strictly speaking I should have posted beforehand). For more detailed notes about the detail of the talk, take a look at the post from TEDx last week.
The main change from this presentation’s debut at TEDx Brighton last week was to add a little about the business or management context for thinking about SuperSkills. Moving on from some ways of describing this I’ve used in the past, I talked about analysing the impact of social web on a business across four areas, with the acronym LOOP:
Long term: What are the strategic implications of the web for the next 5 – 10 years. How will it affect the classic PEST elements (Political, Economic, Social and Technological) in the organisation’s environment.
Operational: Here and now in the next 12 months where can social/web tools support operations such as marketing, customer service, sales, research, product development, HR etc.
Organisation: How will different teams be able to work together on social web related projects? How will information and insights be communicated quickly around the company?
People: What are the issues that the social web raises for our people? The line between public and private is blurring,
The feedback from both this talk and the TEDx one has been very positive (please do let me know if you have any criticisms, constructive or otherwise) and I’m going to start developing some of the ideas in a book now. Watch this space for more new son that front.
The main things that people have been positive about (other than the Gotham font) are:
The idea of investing time in learning tools like Twitter, to develop literacy.
How effective the Pomodoro technique can be.
Thinking about social networks as productivity tools at work.
Developing different approaches to work habits and workflow.
The importance of always-on sharing
Thanks to everyone who has shared their thoughts on the subject – it ‘s really useful in working out how a book about this might work.