Category Archives: blogging

How much do your twitter follower numbers matter?

Sunil Malhotra ¬†just asked a question: To what degree is your number of followers an indication of your influence on Twitter? Asking for a friend. ūüėČ

Well, I am ahead of my deadlines today so I have time to respond and it’s a subject most of us have wondered about once in a while.

Answer: a small degree

If you have millions, like Katy Perry, with 100 million, then obviously you would have more influence than a village class pub singer. But her influence is restricted almost entirely to the sort that worship celebs. That’s a big market for sure, but I rather suspect that she doesn’t have much influence in physics circles, or philosophy, or finance, or anything other than fashion, celeb and pop culture. Celebs overestimate their political influence all the time, but recent elections and referenda have shown that they are actually mostly irrelevant.

Many twitter accounts follow huge numbers of people, because they want to get lots of followers, and many accounts automatically follow back, as if it were good manners or something. Many big number accounts that follow me unfollow a few days later because I haven’t followed them back, and other users say the same. I’d say that almost 100% of those followers and accounts are of zero relevance. Nobody can read tweets from more than a few hundred people. If I have a spare few minutes, I can only just keep up with the tweets that come in from the 440 or so that I follow, and some of those have died or must have left twitter, since I haven’t noticed anything from them for ages. Probably only 200 are active.

So if someone follows you who has 100,000 followers, and follows 100,000 people, marketers might say they are valuable because of their retweeting potential, but I’d say they are of very little value because they won’t see anything you tweet. Also, if they are trying to get all those followers, it’s because they are marketing their own material, so are unlikely to engage with yours, and are also more likely to be using social media scheduling apps to tweet regularly, so won’t even be on to see anyone’s tweets, let alone the 1 in 100,000 you wrote. So ignore the ones who follow large numbers of people.

The accounts that are most valuable are those that are very focused, such as industry sector magazines or other aggregators, because they quickly supply tweets that keep you up to date on what’s happening in your field, and that’s why most of us are on Twitter isn’t it? Most have massive numbers of followers but only follow a few accounts. Most people read magazines or papers but few write them, so that’s fair enough.

Next up are the many individuals who notice things of relevance or who say insightful or stimulating or encouraging things, people like Sunil for example. They are the other reason why we are on Twitter apart from keeping up with our sector news. Insight is valuable, stimulation and encouragement are too. Many such people have few followers. That’s not because they don’t matter, it’s because there are simply so many people out there who occasionally say something you would want to hear, but you can only follow a few hundred accounts tops, and many of those will be sector news feeds, so you can only listen to 200 others. Bear in mind that most people don’t use twitter, and most of those that do are professional people who have something worthwhile to say once in a while. Dividing the number of good personal accounts by the large numbers on twitter and multiplying by 200 means that each only gets a few followers.

Some of these people will have obviously have more influence than others. They may say more insightful or stimulating things, so they add more value, so are worth listening to. Those that talk more are heard more too, so numbers of tweets relates to numbers of followers eventually, though you can quickly lose some if you say anything controversial. That’s true in any area of life. But the differences are small. A few thousand followers is quite common, but a few hundred is far more common. There will always be people more popular, louder, more extrovert, more eloquent, more important, funnier, whateverer. That’s life.

Far more important than the number of people who follow is whether they read your tweet, think about it, are engaged by it, and maybe retweet it. Even Twitter understands that and they offer lots of advice on increasing engagement, like tweeting at weekends, including pictures, using careful wording, latching on to current trends.

So it’s quality rather than quantity that matters, as always. But another important factor is that retweeting is not a direct measure of influence. For what it’s worth Sunil, I see a lot of your tweets, and they often make me think, and you will remain one of the valuable accounts I follow for that reason. If I don’t often retweet them, it’s because I try to keep my own account on theme as much as I can, and while I find them good to read, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are best suited to a futures sector account. So it is probably true that influence rides far higher than retweets. Many people will have been made to think, but for any of many reasons, retweeting is inappropriate.

The fact is that most of us know all of these things anyway, and we just tweet our stuff when we feel like it, and if someone engages, great, and if they don’t, so what? Don’t worry about it.

https://www.fastcompany.com/3023067/10-surprising-twitter-statistics-to-help-you-reach-more-followers

OK, Sunil’s question dealt with. What about twitter’s state of health?

Twitter seems to be in a permanent state of voluntary decline. The design and values decisions the company makes often seem to be either invisible or aimed at self-destruction. The change most of us noticed and hated most was the idiotic change to the timeline, which shuffles all the tweets from the accounts you follow, to show the most relevant first apparently. In practice, since I check only now and then, it means I see many tweets several times and many presumably not at all. If I wanted to see only those accounts that Twitter thinks are most relevant, I wouldn’t be following the others, would I? If Twitter thinks it knows best what I should see, why bother letting me choose who to follow at all?

Allowing scheduled tweets has eroded its usefulness enormously. Some that I follow send the same tweets again and again, presumably using some social networking app or other. That means that you quickly get annoyed at them, though not quite enough to unfollow them, you quickly get annoyed at Twitter, though not quite enough to leave, and because their computer is attending twitter instead of them, they probably aren’t even seeing your tweets either, so you wonder whether it is worth bothering with, but not quite enough to stop. So this change alone has dragged twitter to the very edge of the usefulness cliff, and presumably many have already gone over the edge. Its profitability hangs forever in the balance because of idiotic decisions like that.

Allowing photos and auto-playing videos is two-edged. It takes longer to read, and an insightful text tweet is hidden among pages of brain-dead video repeats. On the other hand, it is nice to see the occasional cute kitten or an instantly informative picture or video clip. So I guess that one balances out a bit.

The last bunch of redesigns totally escaped my notice until they were discussed in a newspaper article, and some of the things that had changed, I had never even noticed before. This is a problem common to many industry sectors, and especially in marketing circles, not just a twitter issue. People who think of themselves as the professionals and experts are far more interested in the opinions of their peers than those of their customers. They want to show that they are in their industry elite, bang up to date with the latest fashions in the industry, but often seem to know or care little about what customers care about. So tiny changes in the shape of a bird that most users had never even noticed take on massive significance for the designers.

As for its politicization, I am very aware of it, but I don’t really care. All media seems politicized so I am well used to filtering and un-spinning.

If Twitter stop allowing social media schedulers, allow people to choose how tweets are organised, make it easier to do basic things like copying user IDs and pasting them in, then I for one would find it 10 times more useful and 10 times less annoying. Their user base would increase again, people would use it more, it would be more valuable and their financial woes would end. But they won’t, because they believe they know better, so they are doomed.

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AI Activism Part 2: The libel fields

This follows directly from my previous blog on AI activism, but you can read that later if you haven’t already. Order doesn’t matter.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/ai-and-activism-a-terminator-sized-threat-targeting-you-soon/

Older readers will remember an emotionally powerful 1984 film called The Killing Fields, set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge’s activity in Cambodia, aka the Communist Part of Kampuchea. Under Pol Pot, the Cambodian genocide of 2 to 3 million people was part of a social engineering policy of de-urbanization. People were tortured and murdered (some in the ‘killing fields’ near Phnom Penh) for having connections with former government of foreign governments, for being the wrong race, being ‘economic saboteurs’ or simply for being professionals or¬†intellectuals¬†.

You’re reading this, therefore you fit in at least the last of these groups and probably others, depending on who’s making the lists. Most people don’t read blogs but you do. Sorry, but that makes you a target.

As our social divide increases at an accelerating speed throughout the West, so the choice of weapons is moving from sticks and stones or demonstrations towards social media character assassination, boycotts and forced dismissals.

My last blog showed how various technology trends are coming together to make it easier and faster to destroy someone’s life and reputation. Some of that stuff I was writing about 20 years ago, such as virtual communities lending hardware to cyber-warfare campaigns, other bits have only really become apparent more recently, such as the deliberate use of AI to track personality traits. This is, as I wrote, a lethal combination. I left a couple of threads untied though.

Today, the big AI tools are owned by the big IT companies. They also own the big server farms on which the power to run the AI exists. The first thread I neglected to mention is that Google have made their AI an open source activity. There are lots of good things about that, but for the purposes of this blog, that means that the AI tools required for AI activism will also be largely public, and pressure groups and activist can use them as a start-point for any more advanced tools they want to make, or just use them off-the-shelf.

Secondly, it is fairly easy to link computers together to provide an aggregated computing platform. The SETI project was the first major proof of concept of that ages ago. Today, we take peer to peer networks for granted. When the activist group is ‘the liberal left’ or ‘the far right’, that adds up to a large number of machines so the power available for any campaign is notionally very large. Harnessing it doesn’t need IT skill from contributors. All they’d need to do is click a box on a email or tweet asking for their support for a campaign.

In our new ‘post-fact’, fake news era, all sides are willing and able to use social media and the infamous MSM to damage the other side. Fakes are becoming better. Latest AI can imitate your voice, a chat-bot can decide what it should say after other AI has recognized what someone has said and analysed the opportunities to ruin your relationship with them by spoofing you. Today, that might not be quite credible. Give it a couple more years and you won’t be able to tell. Next generation AI will be able to spoof your face doing the talking too.

AI can (and will) evolve. Deep learning researchers have been looking deeply at how the brain thinks, how to make neural networks learn better and to think better, how to design the next generation to be even smarter than humans could have designed it.

As my friend and robotic psychiatrist Joanne Pransky commented after my first piece, “It seems to me that the real challenge of AI is the human users, their ethics and morals (Their ‘HOS’ – Human Operating System).” Quite! Each group will indoctrinate their AI to believe their ethics and morals are right, and that the other lot are barbarians. Even evolutionary AI is not immune to religious or ideological bias as it evolves. Superhuman AI will be superhuman, but might believe even more strongly in a cause than humans do. You’d better hope the best AI is on your side.

AI can put articles, blogs and tweets out there, pretending to come from you or your friends, colleagues or contacts. They can generate plausible-sounding stories of what you’ve done or said, spoof emails in fake accounts using your ID to prove them.

So we’ll likely see activist AI armies set against each other, running on peer to peer processing clouds, encrypted to hell and back to prevent dismantling. We’ve all thought about cyber-warfare, but we usually only think about viruses or keystroke recorders, or more lately, ransom-ware. These will still be used too as small weapons in future cyber-warfare, but while losing files or a few bucks from an account is a real nuisance, losing your reputation, having it smeared all over the web, with all your contacts being told what you’ve done or said, and shown all the evidence, there is absolutely no way you could possible explain your way convincingly out of every one of those instances. Mud does stick, and if you throw tons of it, even if most is wiped off, much will remain. Trust is everything, and enough doubt cast will eventually erode it.

So, we’ve seen ¬†many times through history the damage people are willing to do to each other in pursuit of their ideology. The Khmer Rouge had their killing fields. As political divide increases and battles become fiercer, the next 10 years will give us The Libel Fields.

You are an intellectual. You are one of the targets.

Oh dear!

 

AI and activism, a Terminator-sized threat targeting you soon

You should be familiar with the Terminator scenario. If you aren’t then you should watch one of the Terminator series of films because you really should be aware of it.¬†But¬†there is another issue related to AI that is arguably as dangerous as the Terminator scenario, far more likely to occur and is¬†a threat in the near term. What’s even more dangerous is that in spite of that, I’ve never read anything about it anywhere yet. It seems to have flown under our collective radar and is already close.

In short, my concern is that AI is likely to become a heavily armed Big Brother. It only requires a few components to come together that are already well in progress. Read this, and if you aren’t scared yet, read it again until you understand it ūüôā

Already, social media companies are experimenting with¬†using AI to identify and delete ‘hate’ speech. Various governments have asked them to do this, and since they also get frequent criticism in the media because some hate speech still exists on their platforms, it seems quite reasonable for them to try to control it. AI clearly offers potential to offset the huge numbers of humans otherwise needed to do the task.

Meanwhile, AI is already used very extensively by the same companies to build personal profiles on each of us, mainly for advertising purposes. These profiles are already alarmingly comprehensive, and increasingly capable of cross-linking between our activities across multiple platforms and devices. Latest efforts by Google attempt to link eventual purchases to clicks on ads. It will be just as easy to use similar AI to link our physical movements and activities and future social connections and communications to all such previous real world or networked activity. (Update: Intel intend their self-driving car technology to be part of a mass surveillance net, again, for all the right reasons: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4564480/Self-driving-cars-double-security-cameras.html)

Although necessarily secretive about their activities, government also wants personal profiles on its citizens, always justified by crime and terrorism control. If they can’t do this directly, they can do it via legislation and acquisition of social media or ISP data.

Meanwhile, other experiences with AI chat-bots learning to mimic human behaviors have shown how easily AI can be gamed by human activists, hijacking or biasing learning phases for their own agendas. Chat-bots themselves have become ubiquitous on social media and are often difficult to distinguish from humans. Meanwhile, social media is becoming more and more important throughout everyday life, with provably large impacts in political campaigning and throughout all sorts of activism.

Meanwhile, some companies have already started using social media monitoring to police their own staff, in recruitment, during employment, and sometimes in dismissal or other disciplinary action. Other companies have similarly started monitoring social media activity of people making comments about them or their staff. Some claim to do so only to protect their own staff from online abuse, but there are blurred boundaries between abuse, fair criticism, political difference or simple everyday opinion or banter.

Meanwhile, activists increasingly use social media to force companies to sack a member of staff they disapprove of, or drop a client or supplier.

Meanwhile, end to end encryption technology is ubiquitous. Malware creation tools are easily available.

Meanwhile, successful hacks into large company databases become more and more common.

Linking these various elements of progress together, how long will it be before activists are able to develop standalone AI entities and heavily encrypt them before letting them loose on the net? Not long at all I think. ¬†These AIs would search and police social media, spotting people who conflict with the activist agenda. Occasional hacks of corporate databases will provide names, personal details, contacts. Even without hacks, analysis of publicly available data going back years of everyone’s tweets and other social media entries will provide the lists of people who have ever done or said anything the activists disapprove of.

When identified, they would automatically activate armies of chat-bots, fake news engines and automated email campaigns against them, with coordinated malware attacks directly on the person and indirect attacks by communicating with employers, friends, contacts, government agencies customers and suppliers to do as much damage as possible to the interests of that person.

Just look at the everyday news already about alleged hacks and activities during elections and referendums by other regimes, hackers or pressure groups. Scale that up and realize that the cost of running advanced AI is negligible.

With the very many activist groups around, many driven with extremist zeal, very many people will find themselves in the sights of one or more activist groups. AI will be able to monitor everyone, all the time.  AI will be able to target each of them at the same time to destroy each of their lives, anonymously, highly encrypted, hidden, roaming from server to server to avoid detection and annihilation, once released, impossible to retrieve. The ultimate activist weapon, that carries on the fight even if the activist is locked away.

We know for certain the depths and extent of activism, the huge polarization of society, the increasingly fierce conflict between left and right, between sexes, races, ideologies.

We know about all the nice things AI will give us with cures for cancer, better search engines, automation and economic boom. But actually, will the real future of AI be harnessed to activism? Will deliberate destruction of people’s everyday lives via AI be a real problem that is almost as dangerous as Terminator, but far more feasible and achievable far earlier?

The future of publishing

There are more information channels now than ever. These include thousands of new TV and radio channels that are enabled by the internet, millions of YouTube videos, new electronic book and magazine platforms such as tablets and mobile devices, talking books, easy print-on-demand, 3D printing, holograms, games platforms, interactive books, augmented reality and even AI chatbots, all in parallel with blogs, websites and social media such as Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and so on. It has never been easier to publish something. It no longer has to cost money, and many avenues can even be anonymous so it needn’t even cost reputation if you publish something you shouldn’t. In terms of means and opportunity, there is plenty of both. Motive is built into human nature. People want to talk, to write, to create, to be looked at, to be listened to.

That doesn’t guarantee fame and fortune. Tens of millions of electronic books are written by software every year ‚Äď mostly just themed copy and paste collections using content found online – ¬†so that already makes it hard for a book to be seen, even before you consider the millions of other human authors. There are hundreds of times more new books every year now than when we all had to go via ‚Äėproper publishers‚Äô.

The limiting factor is attention. There are only so many eyeballs, they only have a certain amount of available time each day and they are very spoiled for choice. Sure, we’re making more people, but population has doubled in 30 years, whereas published material volume doubles every few months. That means ever more competition for the attention of those eyeballs.

When there is a glut of material available for consumption, potential viewers must somehow decide what to look at to make the most of their own time. Conventional publishing had that sorted very well. Publishers¬†only published things they knew they could sell, and¬†made sure the work was done¬†to a high quality ‚Äď something it is all too easy to skip when self-publishing – and devoted the largest marketing budgets at those products that had the greatest potential. That was mostly determined by how well known the author was and how well liked their work. So when you walked through a bookshop door, you are immediately faced with the books most people want. New authors took years of effort to get to those places, and most never did. Now, it is harder still. Self-publishing authors can hit the big time, but it is very hard to do so, and very few make it.

Selling isn’t the only motivation for writing. Writing helps me formulate ideas, flesh them out, debug them, and tidy them up into cohesive arguments or insights. It helps me maintain a supply of fresh and original content that I need to stay in business. I write even when I have no intention of publishing and a large fraction of my writing stays as drafts, never published, having served its purpose during the act of writing. (Even so, when I do bother to write a book, it is still very nice if someone wants to buy it). It is also fun to write, and rewarding to see a finished piece appear. My sci-fi novel Space Anchor was written entirely for the joy of writing. I had a fantastic month writing it. I started on 3 July and published on 29th. I woke every night with ideas for the next day and couldn’t wait to get up and start typing. When I ran out of ideas, I typed its final paragraphs, lightly edited it and published.

The future of writing looks even more fun. Artificial intelligence is nowhere near the level yet where you can explain an idea to a computer in ordinary conversation and tell it to get on with it, but it will be one day, fairly soon. Interactive writing using AI to do the work will be very reward-rich, creativity-rich, a highly worthwhile experience in itself regardless of any market. Today, it takes forever to write and tidy up a piece. If AI does most of that, you could concentrate on the ideas and story, the fun bits. AI could also make suggestions to make your work better. We could all write fantastic novels. With better AI, it could even make a film based on your ideas. We could all write sci-fi films to rival the best blockbusters of today. But when there are a billion fantastic films to watch, the same attention problem applies. If nobody is going to see your work because of simple statistics, then that is only a problem if your motivation is to be seen or to sell. If you are doing it for your own pleasure, then it could be just as rewarding, maybe even more so. A lot of works would be produced simply for pleasure, but that still dilutes the marketplace for those hoping to sell.

An AI could just write all by itself and cut you out of the loop completely. It could see what topics are currently fashionable and instantaneously make works to tap that market. Given the volume of computer-produced books we already have, adding high level AI could fill the idea space in a genre very quickly. A book or film would compete against huge numbers of others catering to similar taste, many of which are free.

AI also extends the market for cooperative works. Groups of people could collaborate with AI doing all the boring admin and organisation as well as production and value add. The same conversational interface would work just as well for software or app or website production, or setting up a company. Groups of friends could formulate ideas together, and produce works for their own consumption. Books or films that are made together are shared experiences and help bind the group together, giving them shared stories that each has contributed to. Such future publication could therefore be part of socialization, a tribal glue, tribal identity.

This future glut of content doesn’t mean we won’t still have best sellers. As the market supply expands towards infinity, the attention problem means that people will be even more drawn to proven content suppliers. Brands become more important. Production values and editorial approach become more important. People who really understand a market sector and have established a strong presence in it will do even better as the market expands, because customers will seek out trusted suppliers.

So the future publishing market may be a vast sea of high quality content, attached to even bigger oceans of low quality content. In that world of virtually infinite supply, the few islands where people can feel on familiar ground and have easy access to a known and trusted quality product will become strong attractors. Supply and demand equations normally show decreasing price as supply rises, but I suspect that starts to reverse once supply passes a critical point. Faced with an infinite supply of cheap products, people will actually pay more to narrow the choice. In that world, self-publishing will primarily be self-motivated, for fun or self-actualization with only a few star authors making serious money from it. Professional publishing will still have most of the best channels with the most reliable content and the most customers and it will still be big business.

I’ll still do both.

Thinking of starting a blog but not sure if it’s worth it? It is.

Yes. Blogging is easy and fun and definitely worth it.

I started my wordpress blog ¬†just over three years ago. I have put out 160 posts and had 60,000 readers, 375 per post. Pathetic if you compare to the top blogs, but¬†comparing¬†yourself to others is the fast way to misery, so don’t. I look at the world on my terms, with my limits and my ability, not that of others. Some do better, some worse, so what? I’m me, not them.

In influence terms, with my readership level, it is probably equivalent to doing a talk on that topic to a conference of 375 people, (which is a big part of my business). But blogging is a lot easier, much faster if you include prep and travel time, and less stressful.

Blogging is unpaid work, but it costs in in other ways. It helps me to think an idea through, and to refresh and update old ideas. Occasionally, comments by readers point out errors and omissions too. It therefore helps make my other consultancy and talks fresh and weed out errors in my thinking, keeping customers happy. Happy customers generate more happy customers. So although it is unpaid directly, it probably significantly generates and maintains revenue indirectly.

And of course it is a sort of advertising.

There are numerous other paybacks that are hard to¬†quantify¬†but¬†which¬†certainly add justification. It’s a way of recording an idea so you can point to it later and say “I told you so” or “I said that first”. A way of teasing friends or colleagues, generating responses and discussion or occasionally just having a good rant. It can be entertainment, education or thought stimulation for readers, or maybe just a piece that readers can empathise with and share an experience.

But mostly, blogging is about being part of the bigger community, being part of a huge discussion panel, social networking, making some input and feeling satisfaction if you occasionally write something you can be proud of.

If you write a blog, none of this is news to you. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to have a go. It is easy to get started, especially on wordpress, and free, unless you want to pay for deluxe facilities. Just go to the wordpress.com page, click a few obvious buttons to create a free account, fill in some simple data and you’re flying. Half an hour to your first post. There are loads of page designs to pick from that you can personalise, most are free. You can buy premium upgrades of course, but they are entirely optional.

Go on. You know you have something to say or share that other people will be interested in.