NBC: social media use driven by popular TV shows, not the other way around

The Financial Times reports that after studying media habits related to its Olympic coverage, NBC found less social media activity linked to television broadcasts than might have been expected. In other words, it isn’t apparent that people tune into television programs because they see activity about it on social media. At stake is a lot of advertising money.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. From its early days, one of the major critiques of television was that it encouraged passivity: people generally sat on the couch in their private homes watching a screen. While they may have had conversations about TV with others (and a lot of this has moved online – just see how many sites have Game of Thrones recaps each week), television watching was a limited social activity practiced alone, with family, or close friends. Whether social media changes this fundamental posture in watching television remains to be seen.

Only 56% of Twitter accounts have ever sent a tweet

There are over 900 million Twitter accounts but not everyone is actually sending tweets:

A report from Twopcharts, a website that monitors Twitter account activity, states that about 44% of the 974 million existing Twitter accounts have never sent a tweet…

Twitter said it has 241 million monthly active users the last three months of 2013. Twitter defines a monthly active user as an account that logs in at least once a month. By Twitter’s standards, a person does not have to tweet to be considered a monthly active user…

But having engaged users–those who are active participants in the online conversation–are particularly valuable to Twitter. For one thing, activity tends to make users more inclined to continue using the service.

Secondly, user tweets, retweets, favorites and other actions help Twitter generate advertising revenue. Over the last year, the company has made it easier for users to do those things and introduced user-friendly features such as pictures into the timeline…

Moreover, the report highlights Twitter’s user retention issue. It estimates 542.1 million accounts have sent at least one tweet since they’ve been created, suggesting that more than half of the accounts in existence have actively tried out the service. But just 23% of those accounts have tweeted sometime in the last 30 days.

And how many of these accounts are fake?

All together, the number of people actively using Twitter – meaning they are tweeting themselves, retweeting, interacting with others – is still limited. If you read a lot of Internet stories from journalists and bloggers, it sounds like lots of people are on Twitter doing important things. But, these users are likely a limited part of the population: more educated, have regular access to smartphones and Internet connections, younger. This doesn’t mean Twitter is worthless but it does suggest it is not exactly representative of Americans.

When a financially troubled suburb buys fake Twitter followers

Fake Twitter followers are not just for celebrities and politicians: a company may have purchased fake Twitter followers for the Chicago suburb of Harvey as part of a social media campaign.

As of last month, the Twitter feed had just 25 followers seeking updates to its posts. After the Tribune asked Harvey about Lola Grand, that number jumped to nearly 1,200. Social media experts said the new followers had telltale signs of being fake accounts bought from online brokers, who sell bulk sets of “followers” to wannabe celebrities, politicians or entrepreneurs trying to appear popular.

For example, one of Harvey’s new Twitter followers was Lieni Alves, who hasn’t posted a Tweet in 19 months, and then it was in Portuguese. The account follows more than 1,700 people besides Harvey, including porn actresses, a Christian music company, Brazil’s president and a host of people who tweet in Arabic and Turkish.

StatusPeople, a London-based firm, created an oft-cited algorithm to count suspect accounts. That algorithm last week estimated that 88 percent of Harvey’s Twitter followers were fakes, a figure called “very unusual” by StatusPeople’s founder, Rob Waller…

Lola Grand declined to say how it boosted Twitter followers. It said it designed a website but is waiting for Harvey to review it before launching that and the blogs. It said its other social media efforts have directed “hundreds” of residents’ requests to Harvey officials. The firm and the mayor’s office touted additional behind-the-scenes work, such as “brand development” and “24/7 monitoring of social media channels.”

This looks bad for a community that is already struggling for cash. But, if everyone is doing it…

It also highlights a new form of civic boosterism. There is a long history of American communities talking up their advantages and trying to sell themselves to potential investors, businesses, and residents. Think the novel Babbitt. In the past, it may have been more about gregarious men working their good old boy networks but today this can include politicians sniping at other states (see these examples of Indiana, Wisconsin, and Texas seeking Illinois jobs), television and radio ads (lots of radio ads in the Chicago area for the city of Bedford Park for all of their available water and industrial space), and online spaces. This can include running Google ads, YouTube videos, and using Facebook and Twitter.

Lorde observes NBA game as an objective observer

Music star Lorde attended a recent Chicago Bulls game and sent these tweets while at the game:

i am at a bulls game this is so intense how does everyone in this room not have a stress ulcer

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

i am such an outsider to the world of sport but i feel very proud of all playing

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

the cheerleaders are doing synchronized movements to small pieces of drum-based instrumental music

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

in the break they rolled out a red carpet on the court and a man did some tricks with his dog

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

This presents an intriguing opportunity to compare how the average American sports fan would view things opposed to an outsider. For sports fans, it is easy to think of all they see as “natural:” the players just do what they do, the fans respond in certain ways, and the stadium experience is fairly similar across the United States. However, it is easy to forget that all of this “natural” behavior or knowledge is all learned. The whole American sports/entertainment package has a fairly set course from sports talk radio to how it is presented on television to how it is experienced live.

In her first experience at a NBA game, Lorde was simply describing what she saw. None of it is wrong and she is making “common sense” observations that might make little sense to non-fans. Why would there be a man with a dog doing tricks during the break? Why are stadium experiences in the US so intense (loud, constant videos)? Why do cheerleaders do what they do? The average sports fan may not even have good answers to these questions; those things happen because that is the way it has always happened. Of course, that is not true: sports experiences can differ widely based on contexts and history.

In this way, an outsider can bring needed perspective to a social norm many of us just take for granted. Is Lorde’s view of the NBA game more objective than those who have lots of basketball knowledge and experience?

Just how many fake Twitter accounts are there? And why does it matter?

Twitter and experts disagree on how many fake Twitter accounts there are:

In securities filings, Twitter says it believes fake accounts represent fewer than 5% of its 230 million active users. Independent researchers believe the number is higher.

Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli say they found 20 million fake accounts for sale on Twitter this summer. That would amount to nearly 9% of Twitter’s monthly active users. The Italian researchers also found software for sale that allows spammers to create unlimited fake accounts. The researchers decoded robot-programming software to reveal how easy it is for spammers to control the convincing fakes…

Jason Ding, a researcher at Barracuda Labs who has studied fake Twitter followers for more than a year, also thinks Twitter underestimates the prevalence of fake accounts on the network. Mr. Ding says users don’t understand how active and realistic the fakes can appear.

Read on for more details how the battle between the black market and Twitter’s use of algorithms to discover fake accounts is going. Even if the average user can’t quite figure out who is a real or fake user, the consequences are real:

The fake accounts remain a cloud over Twitter Inc. in the wake of its successful initial public offering. “Twitter is where many people get news,” says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. “If what is trending on Twitter is being faked by robots, people need to know that. This will and should undermine trust.”

According to this article and others, it appears that fake accounts are most commonly used for promotional purposes, whether for Washington politicians or entertainment stars. How harmful are these fake accounts which might be used to boost the number of followers or retweet material?

On the other hand, Turkle suggests these fake accounts could easily mask what is really happening on Twitter. Perhaps they are pushing certain Twitter trends, which then influences other users. Or, perhaps these fake Twitter accounts could push false news reports, which could have some different consequences depending on the situation. It could be worse if a large number of users find out they were interacting with or trying to engage with fake accounts.

While I agree with Turkle that this does present an important trust issue, I wonder if it would take some high profile case before this becomes a real issue. Imagine someone is able to use a set of fake accounts to pull off a terrorist act or throw off the government.

Who is the most powerful person in the world?

One commentator argues Janet Yellen would become the most powerful female in history as Chair of the Federal Reserve:

The Fed is as powerful as it is boring. (Alright, maybe not that powerful, but you get the point). See, its job is to make sure the U.S. economy stays in the Goldilocks zone: growing neither too fast nor too slow, but just right to keep both unemployment and inflation low. It raises interest rates when it thinks growth is too high, and cuts them when it thinks growth is too low — and it does all this by controlling how much money is in the economy. But the Fed’s interest rate decisions don’t just set the course for the U.S. economy; its decisions set the course for the world economy too. That’s because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, and so many emerging markets have pegged their own to it — which means they’ve decided to import our monetary policy. Think about it this way. If I say my currency will always be worth a certain number of dollars, then I have to print more of it when the Fed prints more dollars. That’s why economists call the Fed a monetary superpower: it’s the world’s central bank all but in name. And, as you can see in the chart below from economist David Beckworth, the Fed’s hegemony isn’t limited to emerging markets. The European Central Bank (light blue line) and the Bank of Japan (black dotted line)  have also followed the Fed’s lead the past 10 years or so.

In other words, Janet Yellen will have more control over the global economy than any other living person once she’s confirmed as Fed Chair. Now, the Fed is a democracy, not a dictatorship, but it’s a funny kind of democracy — the Chair alone sets the agenda. So if Yellen even just talks about slowing down the Fed’s bond-buying, Europe’s troubled economies are liable to see their interest rates rise, and emerging markets are liable to see their currencies collapse.

This might be enough to get conspiracy thinkers going: the Fed Chair, an appointed position, certainly has a lot of international power. This got me to thinking: if Yellen has all this power, who else might be in the conversation for most powerful person in the world? Here are some options:

1. The President of the United States. Political power backed with a lot of economic, military, and cultural power. The “leader of the free world.”

2. The wealthiest person in the world. Bill Gates has $72 billion, the most in the United States, but Carlos Slim has the wealth in the world at $73 billion. Both men are connected to powerful companies. However, just how much can even the wealthiest business leader do compared to the economic prowess of a large country?

3. People that Time names as Person of the Year. It is an American publication so that skews the data with lots of American political leaders. But, still a well-known list.

4. Another Time list: the 100 most influential people in the world. This list tends to make room for more cultural and artistic leaders, in addition to the more typical political and economic leaders.

5. People who subvert international norms on a global scale. Think Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden. With some resources put to more nefarious uses, they are able to dominate policy decisions and cultural understandings.

6. The flip side of #5: people who are leaders of successful large social movements. Think Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. They become icons for helping bring about great good.

7. Whomever currently has the most Twitter followers. Justin Bieber currently tops the list followed by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Barack Obama. Definitely more about cultural power and Twitter users are still a relatively small percentage of the population.

I’m sure there are more options out there. From a Marxist perspective, we would want to look more at economic leaders while Weber’s addition of status and power are also helpful. And, we could also think of how big of a structure or number of followers a single person can leverage – by themselves, individuals, even the wealthiest, may not be able to do much.

Are Google and other tech companies actually advertising companies?

A sociologist suggests tech companies are not really about technology but rather are about advertising:

Why do we call businesses like Google, Facebook and Twitter “tech” companies when most of what they do—and the source of most of their revenue—is advertising, sociologist Darwin Bondgraham asks in The Washington Spectator.

“With Google, and many other firms among the new breed of ‘tech’ companies, the computer has become more than a mere brochure,” writes Bondgraham. “The computer is an incredibly sophisticated and persuasive salesman. Brochures are inert documents a shopper flips through. The computer as salesman is an agent, watching us closely, collecting data about our wants, and subtly implanting desires in our consumer minds.”

“Google is the best case in point,” the sociologist continues. “Google has never been a ‘tech’ company, whatever tech is supposed to mean anyway. Google is an advertising company, and it makes most of its revenues from selling advertisements. Many of the fastest growing so-called tech companies are just like Google. The core of what they do, and how they make money, isn’t about the math and science of building things. Rather, these tech companies acquire, process, and sell information for the singular purpose of steering potential consumers toward a purchase.”

Google’s financial filings make this clear. As the company’s executives state in Part 1, Item 1 of their latest annual report to shareholders: “We generate revenue primarily by delivering relevant, cost-effective online advertising.”

Interesting argument. These companies did involve technological advancement – in Google’s case, a new algorithm for searching – but perhaps this technology is most effective for selling targeted advertisements. Instead of having to apply a scattershot approach through mass media outlets, advertisers can now easily find their target demographic. At the same time, there is still a long ways to go to truly make big money off this kind of advertising, especially for Facebook and Twitter. What is the best way to provide a good experience with users while enticing users to see and click on advertisements?

“The Strength of Weak Ties” means Twitter relationships are more helpful than those on Facebook

Clive Thompson applies sociologist Mark Granovetter’s famous findings regarding weak ties to a comparison of relationships on Twitter and Facebook:

In 1973, sociologist Mark Granovetter gave a name to this powerful process: “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Granovetter had spent time researching the ways in which people found new jobs. After surveying hundreds of job finders, he discovered there were three main strategies: responding to job advertisements; direct application and coldcalling; or harnessing personal contacts…

But the second finding was even more intriguing: When people got these word-of-mouth jobs, they most often came via a weak tie. Almost 28 percent of the people heard of their job from someone they saw once a year or less. Another 55.6 percent heard of their job from someone they saw “more than once a year but less than twice a week.” Only a minority were told of the job by a “strong tie,” someone whom they saw at least twice a week. To put it another way, you’re far less likely to hear about a great job opening from a close friend. You’re much more likely to learn about it from a distant colleague…

For example, Facebook’s news feed analyzes which contacts you most pay attention to and highlights their updates in your “top stories” feed, so you’re liable to hear more and more often from the same small set of people. (Worse, as I’ve discovered, it seems to drop from view the people whom you almost never check in on — which means your weakest ties gradually vanish from sight.) As Pariser suggests, we can fight homophily with self-awareness—noticing our own built-in biases, cultivating contacts that broaden our world, and using tools that are less abstruse and covert than Facebook’s hidden algorithms.

If you escape homophily, there’s another danger to ambient awareness: It can become simply too interesting and engaging. A feed full of people broadcasting clever thoughts and intriguing things to read is, like those seventeenth-century coffee shops, a scene so alluring it’s impossible to tear yourself away. Like many others, I’ve blown hours doing nothing of value (to my bank account, anyway) while careening from one serendipitous encounter to another.

Put differently, Facebook can tend to reinforce existing relationships while making it more difficult to see what is happening with your weaker acquaintances. Other platforms, like Twitter, update their feeds differently and may allow users to see what is happening with their weak ties.

Of course, this all assumes that such online relationships are often instrumental, meant to help users acquire resources of one kind or another through a network.

Analysis suggests fake Twitter followers common among Washington political leaders

A new analysis of political leaders in Washington D.C. suggests many of them have a lot of fake or inactive Twitter followers:

Of the president’s 36.9 million Twitter followers, an astonishing 53 per cent – or 19.5 million – are fake accounts, according to a search engine at the Internet research vendor StatusPeople.com. Just 20 per cent of Obama’s Twitter buddies are real people who are active users.

Overall, the five most influential accounts linked to the Obama administration – the first lady has two – account for 23.4 million fake followers.

Biden’s nonexistent fans make up 46 per cent of his Twitter total, with 20 per cent being ‘real’ followers. The White House’s followers are 37 per cent fake and 25 per cent active; the first lady’s primary account is 36 per cent fake and 29 per cent active…

The difference between fake followers and ‘real’ ones is comprised of ‘inactive’ accounts, which may relate to real people but no longer send tweets with any regularity.

If this analysis can be trusted, this appears to be a bipartisan problem. But, it would be helpful to hear more about how inactive or fake users are determined: shouldn’t we expect that there are some people on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook who have set up profiles but then don’t use them regularly? At least there is one infographic that helps provide more detail regarding this phenomena. Plus, you can use this app to analyze your own account.

And, once we have such numbers, we should then think through what it means: is it dishonest for politicians to have a lot of fake or inactive Twitter followers? Should the standards for having fully active followers be different for politicians as opposed to other public figures? Does having more followers really translate into a more positive public image or more votes?

UPDATE: This is not a problem just relegated to well-known figures. See this story from this morning on fines levied against companies that posted fake reviews:

The New York Attorney General has slapped 19 companies with a $350,000 fine after his office unearthed fake review writing for Google Local, Yelp, and others in a yogurt shop sting.

Eric Schneiderman revealed that a raft of search engine optimisation (SEO) companies created dummy accounts and paid writers from the Bangladesh and the Philippines $1 to $10 per review after his office set up a fake yoghurt shop in Brooklyn, New York and sought help to combat negative comments.

“Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing,” said Schneiderman in a statement.

“This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution.”

Plus, this is an online concern at sites like Amazon where reviews provide important information for potential buyers.

Mapping England’s emotional mood in real-time

A group of researchers have developed a real-time map of England’s emotions based on Twitter:

The team, from Loughborough University, say it can scan up to 2,000 tweets a second and rate them for expressions of one of eight human emotions…

The team, from the university’s new Centre for Information Management, say the system can extract a direct expression of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, shame and confusion from each tweet.

The academics said that using the Emotive software to geographically evaluate any mass mood could help police to track potential criminal behaviour or threats to public safety.

It may be able to guide national policy on the best way to react to major incidents, they added.

There have been several projects like this in recent years. The algorithms to sort out all of the language must be intricate. But, I’m skeptical about two things. One is a sampling issue. Just how many people in England are using Twitter? In the United States, the figures about regular Twitter users are still quite low. You can map the moods of Twitter users but this doesn’t necessarily represent the larger population. The Twitter population probably trends younger. At the same time, responding to vocal responses on the web or on Twitter might be effective for public relations. A second issue is how exactly tracking moods could be used to help police. So police will be sent to places that show high concentrations of disgust or anger and pay less attention to places experiencing happiness? Or, such a system might alert police to trouble spots? I suspect it is more complicated than this yet I imagine such talk could make Twitter users nervous about how exactly their moods will be analyzed.