Category Archives: Platforms

Does x know about y?, and Other Social-Media Math Puzzles

English: jacket cover of Dominate your market ...

English: jacket cover of Dominate your market with Twitter – UK edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How much is a human life worth? That fraught question arises in the chaos of war and revolution, and in the delicate and painful arena of what are euphemistically called “end-of-life decisions.” Now, thanks to the recently completed initial public offering of Twitter, we have an answer: One hundred thirty-seven dollars.

That, in any event, is the value that one gets by dividing the $31.8 billion first-trade market capitalization of Twitter’s shiny new New York Stock Exchange issue by the company’s most recent count of “active monthly users,” 232 million. (I can do the math, but TechCrunch has thoughtfully done it for me.) We can all take comfort in the fact that the value of an individual human by that standard has ticked up ten bucks, or 7.9%, since the ill-starred IPO of Facebook a year and a half earlier.

“Market value per user” is a convenient metric for companies like Twitter — more convenient, anyway, than troubling, fusty old valuation measures like price/earnings ratio, since as far as I can tell Twitter has never earned a dime in profit. (Indeed, Twitter seems to be managing to rack up ever-bigger deficits; its third quarter loss expanded 200% year to year, on a doubling of revenues.) But although TechCrunch, at least, seems to view value-per-user as a metric that might actually have some kind of meaning, clearly it raises as many questions as it answers.

First, of course, is: Just what is an “active monthly user”? A very small amount of digging reveals that Twitter — “like almost every online platform” — defines an active monthly user as someone who accesses the platform once or more per month. Well! I would respond: Active, no; monthly, yes; user, barely. Presumably, this definition would include the German avant-garde “Merz” artist Kurt Schwitters, who tweets daily, and a sample of whose postings I’ve reproduced below:


Personally I don’t find this particularly illuminating, but I give Schwitters the benefit of the doubt, and definite props for trying — after all, he has been dead for 65 years.

underwearBut I am, perhaps, picking on Twitter a bit too much, as other social-media platforms provide their own wealth of pseudo-data with which to grapple. For example, we have those “Likes” on Facebook that we all pore over, struggle to interpret, paste onto PowerPoint slides for senior-management presentations, and generally grope toward as evidence of “brand engagement.” But as engagement currency, Facebook “Likes” strike me as a very base kind of coinage indeed. I’ve seen clicking the “Like” button described as “the closest thing on the Internet to a grunt” — a brief, inarticulate expression of vague approval, with very little activation energy and no long-term consequence whatever. In a world where an ad for “the most stolen underwear on the planet” can garner nearly 27,000 such passive nods in very short order, one can’t help but wonder about the value of any one of them.

But of all of the new metrics with which social-media platforms now confront us, none seem quite as problematic as those “endorsements” that appear to have all but superseded more thoughtful written “recommendations” on LinkedIn. I’m sure you’re familiar with them; occasionally, you receive an e-mail that one of your connections on the network has “endorsed” you for a particular skill. You feel a brief flush of pleasure, and follow the link, to be confronted with a matrix of questions about the expertise of others in your network, and invited to return the favor by endorsing them:

Does Jane Doe know about content strategy?

Does John Roe know about Web design?

Does James Williams know about HTML 5?

Does Mary Smith know about REST APIs?

By the mere act of clicking the blue “endorse” button, you can provide that same brief pleasure of recognition to a friend or colleague, without any real negative consequences. Why not just click? Even in the bleakest future imaginable, it is hard to envision the proverbial 2:00 a.m. rapping on the door by jack-booted thugs for the crime of an ill-informed endorsement of someone’s HTML 5 skills.

Yet, for me, it is more complicated. I spend a surprising amount of time suffering over these decisions, tormented by doubt. Does Jane know about content strategy? When I knew her, years ago, she was a proofreader, but surely she could have grown and changed since then . . . In the end, I tend to be rather stingy with my endorsements, reserving them only for cases where I have first-hand evidence. Jane, after all, will never know that I didn’t endorse her.

But not everyone views these things the same way — and that is what makes the LinkedIn endorsement so insidious. This was driven home to me recently when I received an endorsement on a relatively narrow skill by a LinkedIn contact at another organization. When I received the e-mail notifying me of this endorsement, I spent a few minutes with furrowed brows, wondering not only how this person could know about my skills in this particular area, but, in fact, just who this person actually was. I never did resolve either quandary.

So LinkedIn endorsements, while gratifying in themselves, have the worst characteristics possible as an actual practical measurement: They carry a patina of insider authority, but there are no standardized criteria for selection, and no indication of what an endorsement really means — and it appears that some people actually take them seriously. So you can either ignore them, or accept yet another unfunded mandate on your ever-dwindling leisure time. Case in point: I recently received an e-mail inviting me, for the mere cost of some personal data, to read a new whitepaper on “How to Manage Your LinkedIn Endorsements.” (Yes, there’s a “whitepaper” on that subject.)

We face an uncertain future, but we can count on one thing, at least: we all will confront an increasing burden of attending to these and other new, questionable measurement axes in our online personae — which social-media platforms, desperate to make some money and justify their high IPO prices, will continually cook up and foist upon us. Maybe it really is time to unplug.


Do We Really Want Books to Be “Social”?


Readmill (Photo credit: Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta)

Well! We read this morning in a post tweeted by Joe Esposito that “E-Books Could Be The Future Of Social Media.” In that post, technology journalist Michael Grothaus, after a paragraph or two declaring his ostensibly neo-Luddite preference for print books over electronic, spends his remaining on-screen inches in fulsome praise of Readmill, a “small but growing app . . . that seems to have its pulse on the future of reading.” Readmill, explains Henrik Berggren, the app’s CEO (and I was not aware until now that apps had CEOs), aims to turn e-books into “niche social networks” brimming with real-time interactions among readers — and, of course, piping all of the data on those interactions back to authors and publishers to help them “make more informed decisions.”

I’ll let you read the post for yourself; suffice to say, a number of things in it struck me as unintentionally funny. Start with the big banner image at the top: It shows a line of five people, sitting on a couch in an old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar bookstore, each immersed in a print book. There is not an e-book in sight. All of them look thoroughly absorbed in what they’re doing, and while none of them is smiling, a sense of vast contentment radiates from the photo.

Note that although this is, at least in the broadest sense, a group of people, they are engaged in a fundamentally solitary activity. And nothing is “broken” here — the print format’s support of sustained concentration, its momentary banishment of distraction, is a feature, not a bug.

It seems to me that this is likely to be true irrespective of the platform. In a moment of pure hubris, Berggren, in his interview with Grothaus, asserts that e-reader platforms like Amazon’s Kindle are “doing it in the wrong way,” kind of a remarkable statement given that Amazon owns 45% of the e-book market and the Kindle is what got them there. While there are many reasons for that success, I think you could make an argument that part of it of lies simply in the characteristics of the device itself, which (except perhaps in the case of the Kindle Fire) seems designed to be as book-like and distraction-free as possible. That, at least, is a big reason it’s worked for me. With my Kindle Paperwhite, I don’t just skim, I read.

There are larger social issues here than Amazon’s bottom line or the promise of apps like Readmill, when we think about what the rise of screen media has already done to our ability to engage with books as intellectual objects. Cory Doctorow memorably referred to the Internet as “an ecosystem of distraction technologies”; what happens when we start to embed them into activities, like reading, for which a lack of distraction is an essential part of the experience? We already have some idea, given the differing ways we interact with HTML pages versus PDFs versus print material. And an interesting survey earlier this year, focusing on the reading habits of children in the U.K. found that, yes, more children are now reading on electronic devices than in print, and they prefer it that way — but that “those who read only on screen are . . . three times less likely to enjoy reading (12% compared to 51%)” than those who read in print.

Certainly the world is changing, but it does seem worth thinking about these data and their implications for what the thing that we call “reading” actually is, and is becoming.

Also unintentionally funny in Grothaus’s article is his bout of hand-wringing over the implications of Readmill’s proposed business model. That model, like so many we are seeing these days, seems to revolve around selling data on user interactions back to interested parties — in this case, book publishers. Grothaus is worried: Won’t this mean that publishers will start to use these data to lean on authors and dictate their writing styles to boost sales? Berggren offers this glib response: “You can paint a very dystopian future where publishers say, ‘Oh, people are just skipping this chapter. You can’t write like this anymore.’ However, I think that’s unlikely to happen.”

Well, that’s a relief.

(Nota bene: Berggren’s response, in addition to being a dodge, shows how successfully we’ve managed to cheapen the term “dystopian.” You want dystopias, Henrik? I’ll show you some dystopias.)