Are Facebook ads good value for money?

I’ve never used Facebook to advertise anything to do with Ada Lovelace Day, but I thought I’d give it a go with a post about Ada Lovelace Day Live, just to see what happened. I assumed that FB would be quite effective at delivering my post to a large, relevant audience, but that’s not what happened.

When I set up the ad, FB said I’d reach 2,700 – 7,200 people, but in fact it only reached 1,588. The idea that FB somehow can’t find 2,700 people in the UK, over 7 days, who match my audience profile (ie, graduate or higher, in all the STEM-related fields they have) is absurd. Indeed, FB itself says that the potential size of my audience is 28 million, but it couldn’t find more than 1,588 people. Sure. Right. I totally believe that. *cough*

Of those 1,588 people reached, 25 “reacted” to it (ie used the like button), two commented (one of those comments is a guy being an asshole), five people shared it, and six people clicked the link.

These are not particularly impressive figures to me.

Now, I know that I only spent £10, but I run ALD on a shoestring, and that £10 was a test to see if it would be worth spending more. Frankly, I can’t say that I’m confident that it was even £10 well spent.

I had assumed that FB would be a cost-effective way to reach lots of people, but at £1.67 per click, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Frankly, it feels more like a rate-limited con than a useful service.

Kevin is more sanguine than I — he thinks 1,588 is good for a low-follower page (we have 124 likes on our page), and he has more experience than I do with the way that FB works. However, the point is that the whole reason for paying for an ad is because our page has few followers, and because FB has destroyed organic reach in order to force us to pay to reach more of the people we previously would have reached anyway.

But they’ve done a shit job of up-selling, because I would have invested £100 in ads, and would have expanded my ad horizons to include merchandise and similar if FB had delivered on this test. They didn’t deliver, so they’ve lost a potential advertiser and, sadly, I’ll have to just battle on and try to grow my organic reach.

This is a huge shame. The promise of social networks was that it would level the playing field, and that the smallest organisation or the least famous person still had the opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. There is, of course, now a huge issue with noise which didn’t exist at the dawning of the social media age, but that’s not the problem with Facebook.

The problem is that they have deliberately locked small folks out of building reach organically in order to drive ad revenue, but are not providing good value for money when people with limited resources pay a small amount for ads. Had they delivered even the lower end of their estimated reach range, I might have considered investing more. Had they delivered 7,200 people, then I certainly would have, even though I still think that’s an artificially low number given that they said my audience is 28 million.

What rankles most is that not only is there no good reason for limiting ad reach this severely, but also that it hurts the very people that social media was suppose to help: those of us stuck in the long tail without the resources to spend loads on advertising.

Tackling Twitter abuse

Twitter has an abuse problem, and as this detailed article by Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel, which interviews several (ex-)staff members shows, it is a problem of the company’s own creation. Allowing abuse has been Twitter’s conscious choice and, despite protestations, it can be solved.

The problem of abuse and harassment on Twitter is years old, almost as old as Twitter itself, and each attack brings renewed calls for Twitter to act. The drumbeat of people – usually women, LGBTQ people and people of colour – leaving Twitter because of harassment seems to have increased lately. Less visible are those people who self-censor more and tweet less, for fear that they might become the next target of the Twitter troll army.

Yet every time this conversation comes up, someone will say that this is a societal problem, not a technological one, and that there really isn’t very much more that Twitter can do than what it’s already doing. What we apparently need to do is fix society, and then all the racism, sexism, bigotry and abuse will just magically disappear.

The reason for citing technological difficulties is to punt the discussion of potential solutions into the long grass, because if it’s technologically impossible to solve a societal problem, then we don’t need to actually do anything about the technology. It’s a great way to stifle criticism of the status quo and to take the pressure off Twitter to act. It is also total bollocks. Twitter has created a technological problem and there are technological ways to ameliorate it.

Off the top of my head, I can think of ways to help solve The Twitter Problem. These aren’t fully fleshed out, they’re just a few thoughts I had whilst falling asleep last night, and if I can come up with this without even trying, imagine what Twitter could do if it bothered.

Privacy gradients

The first thing that always comes to mind when I think about social networks and communities is the idea of privacy gradient. This is what I wrote about privacy gradients in 2010:

The idea of a privacy gradient comes from architecture and refers to the way that public, common spaces are located by the entrance to a building and as you progress through the building the spaces become more private until you reach the most private ‘inner sanctum’. If you think of a house, then the most public part would be the porch (in the UK, a fully or semi-enclosed space around the front door, in the US, it’s often open or screened). The hallway is common space shared by everyone, and spaces like the kitchen and lounge are semi-private. As you progress deeper into the house you end up at the bedroom (and in some cases, the en-suite) which is the most private part of the house.

Understanding the privacy gradient is important, because when buildings ignore privacy gradients, they feel odd. Think about houses where there’s a bedroom directly off the lounge and how uncomfortable that can make visitors feel. I once had a friend who lived in one of the old tenements near Kings Cross, now torn down. To get to his bedroom and the kitchen you had to walk through his flatmate’s bedroom, a deeply uncomfortable act.

I also said, back then:

As one moves along a privacy gradient, one is also moving along a parallel trust gradient. As you invite me deeper into your house, so you are displaying increasing trust in me. […] The same, again, is true on websites. The more we communicate, the stronger our relationship becomes, the more I trust you, the more of myself I am willing to reveal and share.

Six years ago, I thought that Twitter had a basic, but basically sufficient, privacy gradient. And, indeed, it might have been sufficient for the network in 2010, but it is now completely insufficient. Twitter doesn’t really have a gradient, as such, but a limited number of privacy modes:

  • Public account, with potentially unlimited @messages because everyone can see everything you write
  • Open DMs, where anyone can send you a DM, but only you and the sender see them
  • Private account, @messages are limited because only your approved friends see anything to respond to
  • Private DMs, that you can only receive from people you follow

These modes are far too clunky. If you want to reach lots of people, or merely want to be open, you have to have a public account, which means that you are open to an avalanche of @messages from the world and her husband. If you have open DMs you’re risking an avalanche of unsolicited messages, again from the world and her husband. These are ostensibly “private”, but you can’t control who they come from and only you and the sender can see them. And there’s nothing like a bit of pseudo-privacy to encourage abuse from people who feel empowered to be arseholes by the veil of secrecy.

Private accounts limit the number of people who can see your tweets to just those you approve. That reduces unwanted attention, but is also untenable for anyone who wants a broader conversation, or who is a public figure. Private DMs are the most limited form of interaction that Twitter allows.

This isn’t really a sliding scale of privacy; it’s more a choice between on and off, which is a bit of Hobson’s Choice if you want any level of broader discourse. For businesses, celebrities, or even just those of us who are — or, at least, have been — happy to exist online in public, a private account isn’t going to meet our needs. And yet, a fully public account with open-season @messages is fertile ground for abuse.

Some people do, of course, maintain both public and private accounts, which makes sense in some circumstances. But it’s not only a potential duplication of effort, it’s also risky: It’s very easy to post to the wrong account when you are running more than one. And it’s a greater cognitive overhead to run two similar accounts, eg public me and private me, as opposed to two very different accounts, eg me and my cat.

So Twitter needs to create a gentler, longer privacy gradient. This has often been done, by other social networks, by allowing the user to group their friends and send messages only to certain groups. The trouble is, no one actually wants to sit down and spend hours classifying their friends. It’s a ham-fisted solution to a problem that requires something smoother. And I think there is a smoother solution.

Use data smartly to curb abuse

One thing that Twitter has is data. It knows who your social network is. It knows who you follow, who follows you, how long they have followed you, how often they @ you, how often you @ them. It has detailed information about how you interact with your friends. It can analyse that behaviour and it can form a detailed understanding of what “normal behaviour” is for you and your friends.

This kind of network analysis is old hat. People have been digging into social graphs since the data first became available, and there are plenty of people out there who understand how to analyse and understand this kind of data better than I do. But suffice it to say that Twitter has the data, and I suspect the expertise, it needs to perform this sort of analysis.

Network analysis doesn’t just provide information on what “normal” interactions are, it can also point to patterns of abuse. Indeed, anyone who’s been on Twitter long enough can deduce the pattern of an attack on an individual. In no particular order, these sorts of things happen in a dogpile:

  • Target is RTd by someone with a lot of followers
  • Target gets @s from people they do not follow, and who do not follow them
  • Number of @s increases rapidly as the attack spreads
  • Target tries to RT or .@ to draw attention to the attack
  • Target retreats, but the attack continues

These behaviours are clearly different from normal interactions, and it should be possible to design an alert system that throws up a red flag as soon as these behaviours are noted.

One challenge is that, on the face of it, an abusive dogpile might look a lot like an enthusiastically positive response to a tweet or a RT by a celebrity. Or that a mostly positive conversation could include abusive tweets. Or a wide-ranging conversation around a popular hashtag.

I suspect, however, that if one were to dig into the details, it would be possible to spot the differences between these scenarios, not least by looking at the kinds of accounts taking part, the language used, whether there is a hashtag involved and what that hashtag is (hashtags can be used to coordinate attacks, so aren’t themselves indicative), the timing of replies, etc. For example, a popular user posing a question and then RTing the best answers is going to have a very specific profile that would be very different to that of abuse.

The right kind of analysis can also help to identify abusers through their behaviour, as they:

  • @ someone they don’t follow and haven’t interacted with before
  • @ someone whose friends they don’t follow
  • @ that person repeatedly and in rapid succession
  • Use abusive language
  • Follow other accounts who are also engaged in, or even inciting, the attack

Maybe the accounts are new sockpuppets that resemble spammers, or maybe they have huge followings, or somewhere in between. Maybe the inciting RT was made innocently by a celebrity whose followers take it all a step too far, or maybe it’s a deliberate attempt to drive someone off Twitter. It doesn’t really matter: Attacks seem to follow similar trajectories and should be detectable in the data.

More importantly, the analysis of your social graph could be used to forestall an attack. I imagine a system where all tweets coming from outside my immediate circle of long-term (say over 30 days) followers, and their long-term followers, are immediately suspect and subject to additional scrutiny before they get to my @ timeline. Perhaps they go through linguistic analysis to look for problematic epithets. As imperfect as such analysis is, as a part of a broader strategy it might well have its place.

The system would also look for other signs that an attack was beginning: Are there other @ tweets coming in from outside the target’s friends and friend-of-a-friend network? Are those tweeters related in any way, eg do they follow someone who RTd a tweet by the target, be they clueless celebrity or bigot? Are they responding to or using the same hashtag?

If enough flags were triggered, the system would escalate, either to a human moderator at Twitter (though frankly I think that would be a terrible idea, given how inconsistent human moderation tends to be) or to the next level of automated control. In the automated case, any tweets that look like they might be part of an attack would be quarantined, away from the target’s main timeline.  Rather like a spam folder, a user could either glance through them and “unquarantine” good tweets and permanently hide bad ones, or let them be automatically hidden from view without ever seeing them. Any data on false positives from users who do  could be then used to help train the system.

Users should also have control over whether they take part in such a system, and there’d need to be careful thought about appropriate defaults. Users tend not to change defaults, and whilst most new users wouldn’t be likely to need such a system, one wouldn’t necessarily know when one needed it until it was too late. For it to be effective, it would need to be an opt-out system that people have to turn off, rather than on. There would need to be both clear communication with users about what such a system would mean, how to activate it and deactivate it, and how to use it.

Notification trolling

A troll mitigation system needs to not just focus on preventing abusive content from reaching its target, but also on preventing abuse through notifications. As it stands, people who have notifications turned on get ding-ding-dinged like a rat in an electrified cage during an attack, as one friend put it. The frequency of notifications becomes a part of the attack, not just a side-effect. So there would need to be an emergency brake on those notifications to make sure that someone isn’t swamped by texts, emails and alerts.

So what happens if a user was found to be a part of an actual attack? Perhaps they would receive a warning for the first incident, detailing the problematic behaviours. If they continue those behaviours, their account would be automatically suspended for a period. Persistent offenders would be banned.

Clearly people can set up multiple Twitter accounts very easily, but an automated system would be able to deal with those far more easily than the current system, which relies on people reporting abuses. Equally, brand new accounts could have restrictions, such as not being able to successfully @ message or DM non-followers for 30 days — a new user might be able to send an @ message or DM, but if the recipient isn’t following them, they shouldn’t see it.

Now, I know some people are going to scream censorship over these suggestions, but really, that’s a nonsense. Twitter is under no legal or moral obligation to provide a platform to people who abuse others, and nor am I or any other user under any legal or moral obligation to listen to people who would abuse us. The right to free speech is not the right to be heard or have an audience. The right to free speech does not give people the right to abuse others, nor does anyone have any right to demand my attention. I am free to withhold my attention just as Twitter is free to withhold service to those who break its terms and conditions.

Other objections will be technical. How on earth would this data analysis all be done in real time? Well, most accounts won’t ever need this sort of protection. People with a handful of followers, people who rarely log in, people who rarely tweet and private accounts are unlikely to end up at the epicentre of a Twitter quake. But the accounts of those who might need it could be very lightly monitored for the early signs of trouble, and the full analysis would only kick in if needed. Equally, there are categories of users who are at higher risk of attack, such as women and people of colour, who could perhaps be given more computational attention.

And those who want Twitter’s firehose, the unexpurgated reckon of the unfiltered masses in all it’s glory could, obviously, opt out.

Finally, one thing you’ll notice is absent from this blog post is a call for better reporting tools. Ultimately, focusing on users reporting abuse is shifting responsibility for dealing with that abuse on to the target. That is unethical. It is, essentially, the technological equivalent of victim blaming. If I am abused, I do not want to have an easier way to deal with the abusive messages, I want to never see them in the first place. Sure, blocks and mutes can be fed into the system to help train it, but prevention is always better than cure.

EDF Energy support girls in STEM by giving prize to boy

EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious campaign to encourage girls’ interest in STEM was controversial from its launch last September, but now they’ve really taken the biscuit to end all biscuits by awarding their #PrettyCuriousChallenge prize to a boy.

Before we go further, I have to emphasise that this is not the fault of the boy, Josh, at all. Nor is anyone saying that he didn’t deserve the prize he was given. That’s not the question. The question is, why was a competition run as part of a campaign to encourage girls into STEM open to boys at all?

To understand just how appallingly EDF Energy have mismanaged this entire campaign, we have to go back to September last year when EDF Energy announced their Pretty Curious campaign, and a supporting “study” that they said they’d done. From the Independent:

A UK-wide campaign is being launched to inspire teenage girls to pursue science-based careers after new research revealed how a third don’t think they are clever enough for such jobs.

EDF Energy polled* over 2,100 pupils aged between 11 and 16 to find 32 per cent of young girls don’t think they have the smarts to become a scientist – despite the subject being one of their most-enjoyed (28 per cent) and incurring the best performance rate in at school (38 per cent) in the last academic year.

*Total sample size was 2,167 children aged 11 to 16, who were in Key Stage 3 or 4 in the last school year (2014/15). 1,127 were boys and 1,040 were girls.

Now, the study results weren’t out of line with other such work, but nevertheless, it’s always a bit suspicious when a company releases ‘research’ that just happens to back up a PR campaign that they are launching at the same time. Curious to see how the study was conducted, journalist Kate Bevan asked EDF Energy to share their data and methodology so that it could be examined. They never did share that info.

A bigger problem was the name, “Pretty Curious”, for which EDF Energy were strongly criticised on Twitter and in the media. The very phrase “pretty curious” creates a relationship between girls’ physical appearance and their interest in STEM, a relationship that should not exist. Add to that the fact that the campaign website featured articles about women working in fashion and make-up, the link between attractiveness and curiosity is reinforced.

Women are too often judged on their appearance, and girls in particular are vulnerable to body shaming, being constantly exposed to unattainable ideals of beauty via the media. The association of science and beauty created by the campaign name both reinforced the idea that one must be beautiful to succeed, and created a new association, that you must be beautiful to be in science. This is incredibly corrosive, and meant the campaign might alienate girls who are interested in science but don’t consider themselves pretty.

Wired wrote at the time:

EDF responded to the criticism on Twitter, reassuring critics that it “purposefully chose the word ‘pretty’ to tackle the stereotype head on and create conversation around what is a very real societal issue”.

“We knew the name would attract attention and chose it in order to raise awareness of the campaign, which is aiming to address significant under-representation of women in STEM,” a spokesperson for EDF added via email. “The lack of women working in STEM is a critical issue for us. Whether one likes the language or not, the issue facing the UK is real, and we are determined to use our business to be part of the solution”.

What frustrated me about this response was the assumption by EDF Energy that a conversation needed to be created at all. There are already plenty of individuals and groups working on finding solutions to what is a complex and deep-seated problem. Not only are we always having our own conversations about it, those conversations go back decades, even centuries. But rather than listening to those of us already working in the field,  EDF Energy decided to put PR first and ignore the ways in which they could contribute to the community.

I was also frustrated by their idea that it would be in any way beneficial to create a controversy around girls and women in STEM. We already have enough people online who take an unnecessarily adversarial approach towards our work, and who try to undermine women’s contributions to STEM. We really don’t need a manufactured controversy as well.

Another major problem with EDF Energy’s plans was that they were very short term. Again, from Wired:

The Pretty Curious campaign is due to hold three events in the UK, encouraging girls to take part in activities including coding, 3D printing and laser cutting. EDF also recruited several female ‘role models’ who work in STEM careers — a chemical engineer from EDF, a cosmetic scientist with her own line of cosmetics, a computer scientist who created her own app and a TV presenter with a master’s degree in biochemistry.

We know from 30 years of trying to increase the number of girls studying physics that one-off interventions do not work, because over those 30 years the percentage of girls studying physics hasn’t changed. If short-term interventions like #PrettyCurious made a difference, we would have solved the women in STEM problem decades ago. But whilst some of the girls who took part in EDF Energy’s events might have individually been inspired to carry on studying STEM, it’s just a drop in the ocean. There are 5.4 million girls under the age of 14 in the UK, so inspiring even a few hundred is not enough.

What we really need is a major cultural shift, and that means long-term work tackling the attitudes of teachers, parents and children alike. It’s about getting more women on TV and in the media as experts and figures of authority. It’s about combatting the subconscious bias that marks girls down, that tells girls ‘no’, that they should do something ‘more appropriate’. It’s about understanding the evidence that we have gathered so far, learning how to apply those lessons, and changing our approach whenever new evidence shows us that we need to adjust.

Three events and a website is not going to achieve that. We need to be in it for the long run. For decades. Maybe for centuries. Certainly for as long as it takes.

So, where are we at, now, five months after the initial furore about this ill-conceived, arrogant, tone-deaf campaign began? Well, amazingly, EDF Energy have managed to trump even their terrible campaign launch with a truly breathtaking campaign finale: Their Pretty Curious Challenge has been won by a 13 year old boy.

Yup.

The Pretty Curious campaign’s stated aim was to encourage girls to engage with STEM subjects. And yet the Pretty Curious Challenge was open to both boys and girls, and a boy won.

This is a fail on so many levels. Firstly, Marketing 101 includes the lesson that you must always know what your message is and you must always stay on message. From the beginning, the #PrettyCurious message was “Girls! Get involved in STEM, it’s fun!”, and that’s a message I have no quarrel with. But extending participation to boys rather undermines that message, and when a boy wins, it says “Girls! You will always come second to boys!”, which is not at all what we want them to hear.

Wrote Zoe Kleinmann on the BBC:

EDF said that while its Pretty Curious programme is still aimed at girls, the UK competition was later opened up to all 11 to 16-year-olds.

It continues to share the same website and branding as the girls’ scheme.

The BBC understands that the decision had been made to open the competition up to both genders in the interests of fairness, and that the contest attracted “a couple of hundred” entries.

Following three events held in the UK for girls last year, the contest was extended online and made available to boys as well.

So, let’s just recap: A campaign aimed at girls is opened up to boys in the name of “fairness”, when the whole point is that girls are not currently treated fairly and need encouragement to study STEM. How on earth does EDF Energy square that circle? It makes less than no sense.

It also raises some interesting questions: Why was the competition opened up to boys? How many entries came from boys and how many from girls? How does EDF Energy define “fairness”? And how does opening up the competition to boys fit in with their stated campaign mission? Was it that they didn’t get enough entries from girls? And if so, what else could EDF Energy have done to increase participation without opening up the competition to boys? How do you think the girls who engaged with #PrettyCurious, having been told that it was specifically for them, feel about a boy winning?

The whole thing is a total fiasco, and throughout it all EDF Energy have been condescending, patronising and arrogant. Here are a few of their Tweets from today, which show them again failing to understand the problem with their campaign, or why people are angry. Instead of addressing the issue, they simply double down:

Screenshot 26:02:2016 15:43

The sad thing is, it could all easily have been avoided. EDF Energy’s social media team said last October that they had spent 18 months researching this project, however not one person that I know who works with girls/women in STEM was approached by them. Any one of us would have been happy to act as a consultant, and to help them find a better premise upon which to build a campaign. I’m pretty sure that would not have been difficult.

But worse, by not engaging with the community, EDF Energy lost the opportunity to learn where their money could better have been spent. There is very good evidence that one-off interventions like Pretty Curious do not work. They do not address the core problem, which is a complex one made up of cultural, societal and psychological components (at least). Ultimately, the money spent on this project has been wasted.

Had they engaged with the community, we could have pointed them in the direction of projects that are working towards creating the right kind of change, and that have the necessary longevity and experience. There are a lot of organisations working on these issues, and many of them are working very effectively at a grassroots level with very few resources. A program of sponsorship would not only have produced better results, it would also be better for EDF Energy, showing a willingness to work with the community, instead of against it.

Instead, we get what is not just a publicity stunt, it’s a damaging publicity stunt, damaging to girls interested in STEM and damaging to EDF Energy’s reputation.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and the #PrettyCurious story doesn’t have to end this way. When Intel had to publicly apologise after becoming embroiled in an anti-woman online campaign, they realised that they had to do something urgently about diversity. They pledged to spend $300 million to increase diversity, said The Verge:

At the time [of the apology], the company said “Intel believes men and women should be treated the same. And, diversity is an integral part of our corporate strategy and vision with commitments to improve the diversity of our workforce.” Today, [Intel CEO Brian] Krzanich elaborated on that by saying Intel’s own internal goal was to reach what he referred to as a “full representation in all levels” in its workforce by 2020. That not only includes its rank and file, but at the executive level as well.

So come on, EDF Energy. You can do better than #PrettyCurious, you can do far better. There are many, many organisations that support women in STEM that you could fund and work with, including my own, Ada Lovelace Day. You don’t even have to pledge $300 million. A tenth of that would be a good start.

How Tor failed Social Media 101

There are some companies that appear to be native to the web, not just on the web but of the web. Often these companies were early adopters, building websites whilst others called the web a ‘fad’, starting blogs before most people knew what they were, and using social media in a way that makes them appear to have a sound and thorough understanding of the medium. Tor is one such company, but sadly, it has recently become clear that Tor does not actually understand social media and, in particular, has not developed or adhered to a crisis communications policy. 

The short story is that some month ago, two overlapping groups of people calling themselves the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies campaigned to game the Hugo Awards, in which both nominations and awards are via a popular vote. Whatever one thinks of the people in and supporters of these groups, it is fair to say that they are engaging in what one might call grievance politics. Certainly there’s also an awful lot of identity politics involved, so temperatures on all sides are running high. If your’e not familiar with the backstory, a quick google will provide you with a wide variety of opinions on the Puppies, their politics and their activities.

What I am specifically concerned about, and why I’m disappointed in Tor, is their reaction to a complaint from one of the Puppies about a comment made by a Tor employee, Irene Gallo, on her personal Facebook page. Rather than taking a considered approach, Tor threw their employee under a bus, and appear to have broken every rule in the crisis comms rulebook. It’s sad to see that a company that in many other respects really gets the web, fails to understand how to manage the fallout from an online furore. 

Note: I have no insider knowledge of what went down at Tor, I only have their public statement to go on, but that in itself tells me a lot about what probably did and didn’t happen. 

1. Consider the situation 

The first mistake Tor appear to have made is that they did not fully understand and consider the situation. There are several aspects to this situation that raise red flags and call for especially careful handling of the response: 

Any one of those issues would flag a complaint as requiring careful thought, but all of them together add up to a warning to tread incredibly carefully indeed. I don’t think Tor did that. The wording of Tom Doherty’s blog post in response to the complaint is clumsy and ill-considered, and shows no signs of having been properly thought through. 

2. Take enough time, but not too much or too little

When the shit hits the social media fan, it is important to respond in a timely manner, but it’s even more important to avoid a kneejerk reaction. If an issue needs further inquiry before a full response is issued, then it’s acceptable to publicly acknowledge the complaint and say that it’s being looked into.

It may even be that no response is required – not every complaint is deserving of employer intervention. If an employee has a disagreement with a member of the public on her own Facebook page, it is possible that her apology on said Facebook page is sufficient, and that her employer need not step in at all. One can debate whether that was the case here or not, but it is an option that should have been considered, along with all others.  

Doherty’s response reads very much like a kneejerk reaction. it is, to all intents and purposes, a public disciplining of Gallo, which is entirely inappropriate no matter what Gallo did. If you address a complaint, you do not use it as an opportunity to shame your staff. Doherty should have taken more time to think about exactly what was going on and how his post would be read by the broader Tor community. 

3. Remember there are three sides to every argument

Any public response to a public complaint is made more complex by the fact that there are three parties involved: You, them, and the audience. In his rush to appease Gallo’s critics, Doherty appears to have forgotten that he might also anger people who agree or sympathise with Gallo, or who do not believe that the complaint against her has merit, or who, after reading his post, believe that the complaint has merit but that his response was inappropriate, etc. 

In chastising Gallo online, Doherty has alienated a lot of people, and that in and of itself is a massive failure for Tor that Doherty himself should be disciplined for. You simply do not rush in with a response that inflames the situation, especially when it’s obvious from the beginning that tempers are running high and offence is being easily taken. Indeed, the taking of offence is a key weapon in grievance politics, and Doherty should have both realised there was a major risk that his response as written might make the situation worse rather than better. 

4. Talk to your employee, work with them on both your response and theirs

Whether or not you agree with Gallo’s initial comment, it is clear that there was insufficient conversation between Gallo, Doherty and others at Tor about how best to deal with the situation. Gallo’s apology has been deemed a ‘fauxpology’ by some, and I can see how they would reach that conclusion. The key line is “I apologize to anyone hurt by my comments”, which might have been more appropriate worded as “I apologise for saying something offensive”. If you’re going to apologise, swallow your pride and do it properly and graciously, even if you feel you shouldn’t have to, and be very careful to avoid any wording which can be interpreted as shifting the blame on to those offended.

But equally, Doherty, does not appear to have discussed his response with either Gallo or anyone else who might have pointed out that it reads very poorly. When you respond to a complaint, you do not need to defend the complainant, you simply need to address the substance of the complaint, where it is valid, and explain if necessary any parts of the complaint you have concluded are not valid. Doherty did not do that. 

So what should Tor have done? 

There are two things that Tor should have done, and that all companies should do right now, if they haven’t already: 

1. Draft an employee social media policy

Work with their staff to draw up a social media policy, governing appropriate behaviour online. This policy should not have the effect of chilling speech, so it absolutely has to respect the fact that employees need to have their private spaces online. But it should discuss how to protect those spaces, and how to think about what can be said publicly and how to think through the potential fall-out of controversial statements.

A social media policy should also tie in to standard disciplinary procedures, so that staff are clear on what would constitute a serious transgression that would invoke that procedure, and how it will play out. Social media is not special or different, so should always follow standard HR procedures. Staff should never, ever, be chastised in public, and that this happened is a failure of senior Tor management that needs to be addressed.

2. Draft a crisis communications policy and procedure

When something goes awry, it’s essential that people across the company know what to do, who to talk to, and how to minimise the impact. Doherty has not done a single thing that I would recommend a company do, and instead of soothing ruffled feathers, he has inflamed the situation and alienated core customers. 

A crisis comms policy should again be drafted with staff, discuss the kinds of issues that can crop up, particularly the different between external crises, where an event outside of the company’s control causes a problem, and internal crises such as this one, where staff members says something without giving it enough thought.

There should be a chain of command, so that everyone knows how to escalate a problem, and there should always be two pairs of eyes on the response, particularly in small businesses where it’s easy to feel personally attacked and thus to overreact when things go wrong. There should be guidelines on how to properly respond, what to say, what not to say, how to formulate a reply that addresses the facts and not the emotion of a complaint, and when not to respond at all. 

I find it unlikely that Tor has such a procedure, given what’s just happened, and that again is a failure of senior management that they need to address, urgently. 

Note about comments: I am travelling at the moment, and because all comments are moderated there may be a delay in approval of your comment, should you choose to leave one. Abuse, rudeness or any incivility will simply result in the comment being deleted. Repeat offenders will be banned. I am not interested in a discussion of the Puppies or their politics, so those comments will not be published, along with any other off-topic comments. For the sake of clarity, on-topic comments are those about crisis comms and social media. 

On uncertainty, case studies and the Great Race to be Second

People behave in many different ways that when they are unsure what is expected of them, but one of the most common is to hang back and watch what others do. It’s often a smart tactic. It allows us to observe the behaviours and expectations of others, see how transgressors are dealt with and, in the light of that information, choose a course of action which we hope will result in a good outcome for ourselves whilst avoiding the wrath of those around us.

This tactic breaks down when either the crowd doesn’t know what’s going on and so cannot clearly demonstrate the preferred or most effective behaviours, or when the crowd is simply wrong. In the first case, hesitancy can result in poor outcomes for everyone, and in the second case, bad decisions made by early actors result in bad decisions by those who copy them.

If you want a good example of extreme uncertainty, you need look no further than the use of social media in business. The last ten years has seen a transformation in the way that businesses and their customers communicate, and not just in terms of new tools arriving on the scene. There have also been major changes in expectations regarding tone, accessibility, and response times. Many of these changes are alien to business managers, young and old, who simply don’t know how to cope with them.

This uncertainty has resulted in a lot of people milling about, looking for examples of what other companies have done so that they can copy them. If you have absolutely no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, but you know that you have to do something, then it’s tempting to copy someone else. And the main way people find things to copy is by reading case studies.

The problem with case studies

The problem with relying on case studies as a learning tool is that they give readers a highly filtered view of reality. In fact, it’s often so filtered that it’s misleading.

The first issue is success bias: The projects that get written up and publisher are the ones that succeeded. It is very, very rare for a company to write a case study of a project that didn’t go as planned. Those are buried, unexamined by the public or by social media professionals.

This is a shame, because failures offer a lot of insights into how social media works, what people respond well to (or not), and what pitfalls exist. By publishing only successful case studies, we are robbed of the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

The second issue is glossing over: Projects which are ultimately deemed successful often include missteps and misunderstandings, yet these are again often airbrushed out of any resultant case study. Instead, you are given a narrative in which only successful decisions are made and everyone gets everything right first time.

Some companies are brave enough to include a section about ‘Challenges’, but usually these are just minor speed bumps that were overcome without affecting the overall outcome of the project. The truth is that most case studies have a skeleton or two in their closet, so you have to maintain a degree of scepticism because you are only being given half the story: The pretty half.

The third issue is that of context: Case studies are often only relevant to the company that executed the project at the time that they executed it. For example, a Facebook marketing case study from 5 years ago won’t be relevant in 2015, because Facebook has changed massively and the tactics that worked then may well fall flat now.

Even within one company, case studies may not be generalisable. For example, if you’re a publisher with a romance imprint and a factual imprint, it’s likely that what works for the romance audience won’t work for the factual audience, because what they want from social media interactions will be different.

Sure, some aspects of social media are universal, but the specifics of any strategy or campaign will depend on audience. So for a case study to be useful, you have to understand precisely the context and conditions in which the original project was implemented, how your situation differs from that, and how those differences will affect your own implementation of something similar.

If you’re going to go to all that trouble, you may as well start from first principles and learn how to construct a strategy from the ground up.

The Great Race To Be Second

A dependency on case studies can also mutate into something far, far worse: A refusal to act until someone else has demonstrated results first. This Great Race To Be Second is pervasive in the field of social media, and illustrates the extreme insecurity of those making the decisions.

No one gets fired for spending millions on Microsoft products, but spend a few thousand on an untried social tool and suddenly you may have to justify your decision. The easiest way to do this is to be able to point to the competition and say, “But this is what they’re doing!”

This way of thinking is incredibly problematic for several reasons:

  • Your competition might not actually know what they’re doing, so copying them can result in poor results for you
  • Your competition might be doing what’s right for them, but that might not be right for you
  • Waiting for someone else to go first introduces unnecessary delays and may give them the competitive advantage
  • Copying others can be a very shallow way of learning how to do something, resulting in only superficial knowledge
  • Copying others results in a loss of flexibility, as if your situation changes in a different way to that of your competition, you will have no one to copy and will lack the understanding needed to diverge from their path

Businesses must instead learn from first principles, developing a solid understanding of the foundations of social media in order to craft a strategy and roadmap that is right for their company, in their market, for their audience.

Waiting for others to move first and relying on their strategies to inform yours is a recipe for disaster, and not just because you’re ceding that first mover advantage to someone else. The Great Race To Be Second can only result in a substandard result, in both the short term through suboptimal strategy and execution, and in the long term through a failure to acquire the foundational knowledge needed to understand future changes in the social media landscape.

What are case studies good for?  

All of the above does not mean that case studies are entirely useless. They’re not, they can in fact be very useful indeed as sources of ideas. Seeing what other people have done and how they’ve done it can be provide inspiration, but other people’s projects should only ever be viewed as suggestive of possible avenues to explore, and must not be read as concrete recommendations.

Ultimately, your social media activity must be driven by the needs of your business, and the needs and wants of your audience. It will also be constrained by the limitations on your resources and the cultural expectations of your audience. So you cannot build a robust strategy piecemeal out of other people’s case studies because they do not take your specifics into account.

So, by all means, read case studies, but do so knowing that they are not blueprints for success, they are at best back-of-a-napkin sketches to be investigated further.

If you want to learn how to write your own tailor-made social media strategy, my online course is available for just $87 (£58) – a whopping 75% off – until 15 February. Udemy provides all students with lifetime access and a 30 day money back guarantee. 

Five social media myths debunked

A lot of myths about social media have grown up over the last decade, many of them now so commonly repeated that they’ve passed into received wisdom. Here I tackle five of the most pernicious.

1. Social media is for youngsters

The idea of the “digital native” is a pervasive one, telling us that young people somehow innately understand technology whilst older people are social media dullards incapable of truly understanding how it works. This idea is nonsense. The truth is much more mundane: Technological capability, interest and access varies as much amongst young people as it does amongst older people. And whilst young tech users may relate to their technology differently, that’s doesn’t mean that they have developed a deeper or more comprehensive understanding than older users.

It’s really important that business people understand this, because the myth of the digital native affects recruitment and promotion, often resulting in social media accounts being run by people who are too young and inexperienced to cope with being the public voice of a business. It also disadvantages older people who may know their business, market and audience better, and have all the communications skills needed to be successful in social media.

2. No one really knows what works on social media

Whilst social media is a new field — blogs have only been around 16 years, and most social networks are less than ten years old — the idea that we don’t know how it works or what to do is false. In fact, experienced practitioners have a very good idea of what works and what doesn’t, but because of the fickleness of human nature, no one can guarantee that a particular tactic will work at a specific time.

A good practitioner will know what tactics have the best chance of success, and which to completely avoid, dependent on the nature of their target audience and the content being produced. A well-crafted social media strategy will take into account the nature of your audience, assess your content assets and resources, and make sure you choose the right social media platforms based on your business needs.

3. You need to have a profile on every social network

It is better to maintain one social network profile really well than to sign up for lots and let most of them languish. The fear is that your audience will expect you to be everywhere and that to not have a presence shows a lack of interest in serving them. The truth is that small businesses do not have the resources to be everywhere, and people understand and accept this. But if you do have a profile then people will expect it to be active, so it’s better to not create the profile in the first place than to make one and let it lapse.

Furthermore, to the point of resources, every social media platform that you engage with comes with an opportunity cost: What else could you do with that time and money? If you are spending time, and therefore money, on using a social network that doesn’t actually support your business goals, eg it doesn’t result in more sales or more brand awareness, then you are wasting your resources. You should focus on the tools that are most likely to reach your target audience and support your business.

4. You must be on Facebook

Of all the social media tropes that I hear, this one is probably the most common. The logic is that Facebook has 1.35 billion “monthly active users”, and that to eschew Facebook is to miss out on a massive audience. There are two problems with this assumption. Firstly, it is getting increasingly difficult for small businesses to get value from spending time on Facebook. Changes to the platform’s algorithms mean that even if hundreds or thousands of people decide to like your page or join your group (which is in itself a challenge that’s getting harder to meet), only a small fraction of them will see any of your posts show up in their timeline. Facebook ultimately wants businesses to pay for their posts to be promoted, so it’s in their interests to make it harder to organically reach people, not easier.

Secondly, Facebook interactions tend to be shallow: People will share posts within Facebook, but are less likely to follow links and, when they do click, less likely to stay on the site they visit for more than 5 seconds. Is there any value to building up a large following on Facebook if people don’t visit your website or buy your products?

5. Social media strategies are a waste of time

Social media can be deceptive: It’s very easy to create an account on a social network such as Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr. They’re pretty easy to use too, excepting Facebook’s impenetrable privacy settings. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to successfully use social media for business.

Many businesses who just plunge on in end up using the wrong platforms and/or the wrong messaging, see poor results and give up thinking that social media isn’t right for them or their business. In actual fact, what they needed was to think strategically about what they want to get out of their social media use, who they are talking to, and what those people will want to hear.

Using social media for business without a strategy is rather like going for a walk without a map: You might get where you want to go, but you might also end up going down a lot of dead ends, wasting a lot of time and could even get so frustrated trying to find your way that you give up.

If you want to learn how to write your own tailor-made social media strategy, you can get 50% off my online course using the code SA150120. Udemy provides all students with lifetime access and a 30 day money back guarantee. 

Shoddy media coverage of the floods is a betrayal of every flood victim

The UK has been battered by storm after storm over the last couple of months, causing horrendous flooding across the country and particularly in the Somerset Levels as well as damage at coastal towns battered by towering gale-driven waves. But media coverage has mostly been at the level of dog whistle politics, focused on simplistic calls for more dredging in Somerset and who’s to blame for the lack of said dredging. By concentrating on a simplistic, and actually downright wrong, narrative, the media is betraying every single flood victim by squandering the opportunity to have a proper, national debate about the impact of extreme weather events on our landscape, our towns and our farming communities.

This winter has been the wettest for nearly 250 years. Said The Guardian:

The rainfall measured at the historic Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University in January was greater than for any winter month since daily recording began there in 1767, and three times the average amount.

[…]

A total of 146.9mm of rain fell in January, smashing the previous record of 138.7mm in 1852. The new record is three times the average recorded for the month over the last two and a half centuries. It was also the wettest winter month – December, January or February – ever recorded, beating December 1914, when 143.3mm fell.

In addition, the 45-day period from 18 December saw more rain at Radcliffe than for any such period in the observatory record. The total of 231.28mm demolished the previous high of 209.4mm, which fell from 1 December 1914.

The storms have been relentless, a combinations of high wind, record-breaking rainfall and significant storm surges has meant not just flooding, but damage to coastal regions and essential infrastructure in low-lying land. The West Country is now cut off by rail after the Dawlish line fell in the sea and a landslide blocked the line at Crewkerne.

The Met Office has issued flood warning after flood warning. At the time of writing, across the country there are 16 Severe Flood Warnings, which warn of severe flooding and danger to life, 161 Flood Warnings where immediate action is required, and 233 Flood Alerts where flooding is possible and people should be aware. And the bad weather is going to continue, with the Met Office forecasting unsettled weather through to the end of February, with severe gales and rain possible at times.

With such an unusual and significant weather event causing really serious flooding and destruction, you’d think that the media would take the opportunity to explore the complex issues around water management, flood risk and management, building and planning regulations (and changes thereto), and the impact of climate change. These are, admittedly, difficult subjects with a lot of nuance, but as a nation, we need to have these conversations. We have to learn about these issues and increase our understanding of them.

So what have we got from the media? A pandering to the cheap politics of blame, and a focus on one single intervention, ie dredging.

Let’s tackle dredging first. It is a single, simple intervention which some vocal campaigners from Somerset have claimed would have saved their towns, homes, farms and businesses. It’s a lovely idea, that just dredging two rivers, the Parrett and the Tone, would have prevented the flooding and saved everyone’s homes. Unfortunately, given the amount of rain that has drenched Somerset, that story is simply not true.

Simon Dixon, writing on the River Management Blog, puts it well:

Firstly it is highly doubtful dredging rivers in general, or the Tone & Parrett specifically, would have any appreciable effect on flood events of the magnitude we have witnessed recently. To use one of my trademark analogies, it’s a little like drinking two bottles of wine and suggesting the brandy chaser was the thing that made you drunk.

[…]

Secondly, and most importantly, this issue is completely irrelevant at the present time. The priorities in a natural disaster should be firstly to prevent or minimise loss of life, prevent or minimise damage to infrastructure and to ensure as quick a recovery as possible after the event.

The Science Media Centre quotes, amongst others, Dr Hannah Cloke from the University of Reading:

Dredging would not have prevented the flooding in Somerset. The Prime Minister’s assertion that dredging will provide a long-term solution to flooding is just not backed up by the evidence.

Dredging increases the carrying capacity of river channels, helping more water to flow downstream. But carrying capacity of rivers is just one small part of an area’s drainage pattern and its susceptibility to flooding. Land use, topography, underlying geology, and above all, rainfall levels are also relevant. Given the amount of rain that has fallen, you could have doubled the carrying capacity of every drainage channel in Somerset, at huge cost, and large parts would still have flooded.

But these expert voices are frustratingly missing from most of the media’s coverage. If you believe the news, dredging is all that is needed, and the Government should have dredged last year, as requested by the locals. This narrative is simplistic to a fault, in fact, it’s insultingly simplistic.

“Dredge!” is the call coming from the Somerset Levels, from folk who have been directly affected by this crisis and who are thus highly emotionally involved. But the scientific evidence does not support the position that dredging would have prevented these floods. You only have to look at the scale of the flooding to realise that there’s just too much water to fit down two small rivers, even if they had been dredged.

But the locals say dredge, so the politicians say they will dredge. As Dixon puts it:

[…] the human interest stories on the Somerset Levels dominates the news, and the narrative that has emerged is one of a lack of dredging leading to flooding. The government, against advice of the Chartered Institute for Water & Environmental Management, leading hydrologists and flood scientists, has embraced the dredging narrative and committed to dredging the levels.

Instead of pushing back and asking what the evidence is for dredging, the media has, on the whole, just accepted the claim put to them. They have not dug into the science, examined the claims, or challenged the story laid down by activists or government.

More recently, we’ve had a refocusing of the media narrative on the scapegoating of the Environment Agency, whom Eric Pickles has blamed for the crisis. Also in the blame spotlight is the Government for cutting EA funding, EA boss “little git” Lord Smith for not showing his face in Somerset until forced, and environment secretary Owen Paterson for not doing enough and wearing the wrong shoes on his visit the Somerset. Then, of course, you have the idiocy from Nigel Farage, who seems to be astonishingly talented at saying stupid things and is currently claiming that the UK foreign aid budget should be diverted to deal with the after-effects of the flooding and oh, yes, is also calling for dredging.

These stories are sideshows that divert attention from key information that needs to be communicated in order for people to understand what is happening and why. The blame game can be played later, perhaps after a proper, independent investigation into what happened and, to the extent that we can ever know, why. The kinds of things people need to know now are:

  • Which areas are currently at risk, and what should they do to minimise their exposure to that risk?
  • What is the evidence for different water/flood management interventions, and how do experts decide which interventions are appropriate?
  • How will the government support recovery efforts for those people and businesses affected?

The focus on dredging and on blame is a betrayal of everyone affected by these floods, because it deprives them of crucial information that they need in order to make sense of what has happened to them, and what might happen next. People are trying to understand why this crisis has unfolded the way it did, and feeding them the nonsense spouted by politicians without challenge or facts leaves people believing things that simply aren’t true, and with a sense of anger which is misplaced and corrosive.

Furthermore, reducing the narrative to dredging and blame squanders a chance for us to talk about the long-term impact of climate change, and also isostatic readjustment which is causing Scotland to rise and the South East to sink. We need to talk about just how far we go to save coastal houses and communities, how flood defences can sometimes just move problems downstream, about how we manage uplands, how agricultural subsidies can distort land management decisions in ways that increase the risk of flooding, and how we might need to change key bits of infrastructure.

Some of these conversations are being started now, but the dominant narrative, the headlines, the soundbites, the focus of TV bulletins, is still putting the focus on dredging and blame. We, as a country, need journalists to step out of their ‘juicy gossip’ mindset and tackle these serious issues head on. Get the experts in. Push back against the activists and the politicians. Dig into the science. Get your hands dirty. Do the story justice, and serve properly the people who need you: This year’s flood victims, and those who may be flooded in the future.

Strategy is not just for Christmas

I’ve spent a lot of my time over the last decade helping businesses to put together strategies for the use of social media, both internally for collaboration and externally for community building and marketing. I know that for some companies, my strategy was a document that they continued to refer to for literally years after we put it together. (I caught up with one ex-client three years after I delivered his strategy, and he said he and his team will still referring to it and still found it useful!)

But many strategy documents come with built-in obsolescence. If you’re not very careful, social media strategies can age fast, because of the rapidity of change within social media. But it’s not just the tools that change, it’s the demographics. Facebook is ageing, Twitter getting younger, and the 55+ demographic is growing faster online than any other. Your target audience could be shift platforms whilst you’re busy implementing a strategy that’s now out of date, and how would you know?

That being the case, I was very interested to stumble on Thomas Martin’s blog post about “agile strategy development”, in which he calls for the Agile methodology to be applied to company strategies.

Similar to software development, the complexity of strategy development is increasing. Globalisation, faster innovation cycles, stronger competition are only some of the factors that make it harder and harder to devise stable, long-lived and eventually successful strategies. Agile strategic planning addresses this by keeping the strategy fluid.

[…]

Agile strategy development shares the following characteristics with agile software development:

•  Continuous monitoring of the external environment during the Analyze activity.
•  Regular review and – as required – updating of strategic objectives and plans during the Define and Plan activities.
•  Frequent feedback from Execution on the effectiveness of the implementation.

Although Martin suggests that such an approach requires “less external input” from consultants, I’d argue that what it requires is actually a longer-term relationship with a good consultant who has a familiarity with your business but also enough distance to help you see the bigger picture.

I succeed as a consultant because I can see a company’s problems from a very different vantage point to them, not only because of my own deep experience with social media, but also because I’ve worked with so many companies that I can see common errors in thinking and execution that would otherwise be missed.

To get the best result from social media you need an informed strategy, a regular review process, and dependable advice that both ensures that you are on track whilst also bringing in a fresh perspective and valuable expertise. An agile approach to strategy makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s something companies should seriously consider. If you’re going to spend time and money on strategic thinking, it’s essential that you keep that strategy fresh, relevant and up-to-date.

On blogging

David Weinberger just wrote a slightly sad elegy for blogging, looking back on what we did when blogging was young, and why we did it. I left a comment, for the first time in a long time on a blog, and it got so long I thought I would repost it here. Again, I don’t remember the last time I converted a comment to a blog post, though it used to be something I did often. Do go over and read David’s post, though. It’s well worth it. 

I owe my current career to blogging. Without it, I would never have developed an interest in how people connect through technology, and never would have met all the people who helped me turn that interest into a job. It is not an overstatement to say that without blogging — and without #joiito on Freenode — I would not have founded ORG, would not have met my husband, would not have started Ada Lovelace Day, and so on. I am incredibly grateful to blogging for all that.

What was awesome was how permeable the blogging community was back then. I was just some nobody with no reputation, no real contacts, no network, but yet, everyone treated me as an equal, they respected me based on what I wrote. We really did live by the word. I never felt that I was judged on where I came from or what university I’d gone to or what I looked like. (I don’t think many people even knew what I looked like!)

For the first time in my life, I felt like I had finally found my peer group. I stopped feeling isolated, as I had for years previously. My peers turned out to be scattered around the world, and to come from very different backgrounds to me, yet they took me in and made me feel welcome. They – you! – gave me confidence, a community, and a career.

So it was with some considerable sadness that I began to note the decline in blogging a few years back. When I first started Ada Lovelace Day in 2009, we had something like 1,000 blog posts added to our collection. Last year, 2013, we had about 100.

Personally, I’ve found it hard to carve out the time to write, and I miss it. In fact, one of my New Years Resolutions this year is to blog at least once a week. I used to blog daily. I used to keep two blogs going full steam without even thinking about it. Maybe it was because I was underemployed at the time…

I wonder too if my lack of blog writing is related to a lack of blog reading. My RSS reader became so clogged that I feared it, wouldn’t open it, and ultimately, abandoned it. And then Twitter and now Zite arrived to provide me with random rewards for clicking and swiping, showing me stuff that I had no idea I wanted to read. Instead of following the writings of a small cadre of smart, lovely people whom I am proud to call my friends, I read random crap off the internet that some algorithm thinks I might be interested in, or that is recommended by the people I follow on Twitter.

That may or may not be a good thing. We were all aware of the problems of homophily, and the random clickage does help combat that. But the problem with not following people’s blogs closely is that there’s no conversation anymore. My blogs used to host great conversations, and I would happily engage in fascinating discussions on other people’s sites. You can’t do that so easily with Twitter, and Facebook. Indeed, most of my interactions on Facebook, which are scarce as I loathe it, end up being pointless arguments with friends-of-friends who turn out to be idiots.

I’d love to see a resurgence in blogging. I think, personally, I need to delete Zite from my ipad and find a good RSS reader so I can follow the blogs of those people that I really care about. Not the worthy blogs I ought to read, but the works of people who matter to me. And then I need to get back to commenting, like this, because there’s nothing more encouraging than finding out that people care about what you write, that people appreciate it. And David, I really do appreciate your writing – you’re as inspiring and fascinating now as you were back in 2001!

Finally, I do still think that blogging is important. For me, it’s becoming even more important as I try to ramp up my book writing/editing, but as I wrote recently, trying to find the time to blog is so difficult in the face of the sheer volume of work that I have now that I perhaps didn’t have back in 2001 when I started blogging! Somehow, though, I need to find a way to prioritise it. Please keep your fingers crossed for me, and let’s all keep on blogging!

Facebook likes vs Twitter shares: What The Atlantic’s graphs really tell us

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has published a handful of graphs which he says tell us about the popularity of “viral publishers” on Facebook and Twitter, and how important Facebook is compared to Twitter based on volume of shares/likes. It’s true that the graphs do give us some very interesting insights, but they aren’t the ones Thompson thinks they are.

Thompson’s graphs are based on data from Newswhip’s Spike database. The first problem is Thompson’s sloppy use of terminology. His first graph says that it shows Facebook likes, but in the text he uses the word shares, but likes and shares are not the same thing. Liking something on Facebook is basically just giving that thing a thumbs-up, it’s a very lightweight interaction. A share is much more emphatic and gives you the opportunity to comment on the item you’re sharing. Both apparently show up in timelines, although Facebook is, as usual, spectacularly unclear on the precise differences regarding when a like will show up and when a share will, but either way, they aren’t the same kind of action.

Newswhip’s graph shows total likes and shares for each content source, whereas Thompson’s graph says that it shows “overall likes” and provides significantly higher figures than Newswhip: ~27,000,000 vs 20,878,994 for The Huffington Post, for example. This is because he has actually plotted “Total FB Interactions”, a figure from Newswhip that includes likes, shares and comments on Facebook.

This might seem like nitpicking, but when you have words like “like” and “share” being used to designate very similar but different actions, with different social meaning, you cannot just use the words interchangeably. And you can’t just chuck in comments to the mix without saying so.

Here are the two graphs for you to compare:

Thompson's Facebook graph
Thompson’s Facebook graph
Newswhip's Facebook graph
Newswhip’s Facebook graph

The next pair of graphs are for Twitter. Thompson’s say they are for Twitter mentions, whereas Newswhip’s graph is for “tweets and retweets of articles”. This time, Thompson’s figures appear to be about the same as Newswhip’s, so must refer to both mentions and retweets.

Thompson's Twitter graph
Thompson’s Twitter graph
Newswhip's Twitter graph
Newswhip’s Twitter graph

Thompson then goes on to take Newswhip’s total article count for each publisher and use it to calculate the total shares per article on each platform. Upworthy‘s article count is just 225, so its shares per article is ridiculously high compared to every other source. Even TwentyTwoWords, which is in second place after Upworthy, has significantly more shares per article than other, bigger sites.

That’s a big red flag for me, indicating that something odd and statistically dubious might be going on. Looking at their Facebook pages gives you a sense of how many shares, likes and comments their articles are getting. Upworthy’s are highly variable, from 51 shares, 322 likes and 10 comments to 11,934 shares, 32,800 likes and 1,260 comments. TwentyTwoWords timeline posts vary from 2 shares, 17 likes and two comments to 75 shares, 66 likes, and 15 comments. So what we’re looking at, as one commenter on Thompson’s piece says, is a few runaway hits pulling up Upworthy and TwentyTwoWords’ figures.

Thompson gives us the mean recommendations (shares/likes/comments and tweets/retweets) per article, but to draw more robust conclusions we would need to know the median number of recommendations for each site. We also need to see the range, so that we can see how runaway hits are statistically skewing the distribution.

But still, given the meme-y nature of their content, it’s no surprise that Upworthy is popular. Pointing out that internet meme-based content is particularly popular with internet audiences isn’t an insight, it’s a tautology.

Thompson concludes his piece with a huge non-sequiteur, that “Facebook is huge. Much bigger than Twitter. […] Even the biggest sites on Twitter are much, much, much bigger on Facebook.”

Well, duh! Anyone who didn’t know that Facebook is bigger than Twitter has to have been living in a cave for the last few years. Facebook has 1,189 million monthly active users whereas Twitter has 232 million monthly active users. More users means more potential for sharing. We would expect Facebook’s activity to be some five times larger than Twitter activity but we don’t, we see that it is ten times larger. That is at least in part because Thompson is comparing apples and oranges.

Facebook likes, shares and comments are not equivalent to Twitter tweets and retweets. It’s not even clear to me that it’s meaningful to compare them, because of the different levels of engagement required to complete each action. An original posting to Facebook or Twitter is about equivalent in effort, because usually these days it’s just a matter of clicking a button on the original source post or copying/pasting an URL. Resharing that within Facebook is more akin to retweeting on Twitter, and neither liking nor commenting on Facebook has an equivalent on Twitter.

In order to properly compare activity types on Facebook and Twitter, we need to compare similar behaviours, so we can compare originating posts, or sharing or retweeting, but have to cut out likes and commenting on Facebook. Newswhip’s numbers don’t allow us to do that.

What this data does tell us is, however, much more interesting than Thompson’s  analysis might lead us to believe. Knowing what kind of content plays well on Facebook and Twitter gives us a fascinating insight into the tastes of their users. Facebook likes polarised, outrage-inducing or meme-y content, and is rather uninterested in sports. Twitter likes non-partisan news, tech news with a bit of polarised news, a few memes, and a lot less of the outrage. Twitter is also not massively keen on dedicated sports sites.

And if the shares per article data has any grounding in reality – which at this point I don’t have enough data to assess – then you can also see how well highly partisan, fringe content plays on both platforms in comparison to those sites’ sizes. Russia Today, Breitbart, Alternet and The Blaze are far from being balanced or neutral news outlets, but their bias allows them to punch above their weight compared to more moderate sources such as The Atlantic, CNN and the New York Times. That too is fascinating as it points to very vocal, politically partisan subcultures within both platforms.

If we wanted to, we could look at the demographic research for all these sites and get a much deeper insight into the psychographics of users than you can get from the usual Twitter/Facebook analyses. However, that takes a bit more effort than is required to chuck a few graphs up and draw superficial and suspect conclusions from fuzzy data.

Finally, what this data doesn’t and can’t tell us is whether Facebook is driving ten times more traffic to content sites than Twitter, given that content is being recommended ten times more often than on Twitter. Indeed, it’s well known that people are happy to re-share content without clicking on the links, and in my own experience, there are differences between how willing people on different platforms are to click on links and the dwell times and bounce rates for traffic from different platforms. On one project, oddly, LinkedIn provided the best traffic with dramatically longer dwell times and lower bounce rates.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Upworthy has ten or a hundred times more shares on Facebook than Twitter if that doesn’t translate into traffic and revenue.